Our parsha begins with the rules of annulment of vows by a husband or father. The Torah details for us a few different scenarios and sets down the rules for annulment. What I find interesting is that there is a huge assumption that precedes the annulment process that is almost glossed over in the Torah- the very institution of vows itself. In seven words in passuk 2 we are told that if someone makes a vow he should not “violate his words, anything that has come out of his mouth he should do”.
An individual, on his own initiative, has decided to make a vow to do something or not to do something and the Torah steps in at this point and envelops his statement into a halachic category. I would have assumed, possibly, that this should be left to the realm of Bein Adam Lechavero, interpersonal mitzvoth in the case where another person was involved and left to ones own conscious where the neder was focused on the man himself. For instance, if a person reneges on a commitment to a business deal if it has not yet been formalized (kinyan) Chazal frown upon him and in some cases even curse him for such actions but we don’t find any need or method for annulling such an obligation. Similarly if a person commits himself to a certain diet and shortly thereafter has an urge for the luscious mint chocolate pie in the freezer we can all feel the dilemma that he is struggling with but would we imagine that this would be a relevant topic for a section of Shulcahn Aruch to rule on?
Despite the fact that the Torah clearly recognizes ones ability to create new categories of “issur” and “heter”, forbidden and allowed, Chazal were very weary of such practices. The Gemara in numerous places quotes Rabbi Natan who compares one who takes a vow to someone who has built an illegal altar!! Most of the commentaries explain this to refer to the issue of “bamot” where we are told that when we have an established Bet Hamikdash we are not allowed to have “pirate” altars in other locations (see Vayikra 17/1-9). The individual who offers a korban in his back yard or in a spiritually inspiring location is acting on his religious sentiment. He feels a need to offer something to God, which of course should be something that we should support. However he is unable to conform to the standard, his drive is not guided by the framework, which Hashem has set up and is therefore unacceptable. The comparison to the vow is quite clear, we have yet another individual who feels that for them the 613 commandments don’t cover all the bases, and he feels a need to add restrictions and limitations. In this case the Torah allows such behavior, possibly because it does not threaten the overall system as much as an actual “bamah” or possibly because it is needed in some cases as we will see later, but Chazal remain firm in their disdain for such a practice.
The condemnation does not end there, with the taking of the vow. The Gemara continues to say that if one fulfills his vow it is as if he actually sacrificed an animal on the altar that he has built. The very taking of the vow is compared to building the altar, setting up the framework for partisan, unbridled, unrestrained and subjective service of God, and the keeping of the vow to the service itself. These are very harsh words and leave us with the question of what should this man do now that he has made the vow? Surely it is better to keep the vow than not keep it, what is the other option?
Chazal instead recommend invalidation of the vow. (Earlier I used the term annulment in reference to a husband or father canceling a vow, which is known as “hafara”. Here I refer to a different process known as “hatara” which can be done by a Bet Din or a qualified Rabbi who can invalidate the vow by investigating the exact circumstances in which it was made and demonstrating that it was made under false pretenses or the facts on the ground have changed making the vow null and void). Chazal tell us that it is a mitzvah to have the vow invalidated rather than fulfill the vow! This is even more striking given the simple reading of the pesukim in our parsha that state clearly that if one make a vow one should fulfill it. Chazal recommend “hatara” which by their own admission appears no where in Torah Shbectav and the very possibility that it exists is a tradition (see mishna in Chagiga 1/8).
If we needed any more convincing concerning this gemara and what Chazal are trying to say we could add Rashi’s comments where he explains that the “altar” referred to is not a “bamah” but rather an altar for idolatry. Rashi interprets the comparison to be between making of vows and idolatry making our point all the stronger.
The Rambam codified this attitude of Chazal in his Mishne Torah at the end of Hilchot Nedarim. After detailing all of the laws of vows in twelve and a half chapters the Rambam writes (13:23-25):
Despite the fact the fact that they are service of God an individual should not be accustomed to make vows, rather one should avoid things that are negative without a vow.
Chazal have said anyone who makes a vow is as if they have built an altar and if a person transgressed and vowed he is obligated to have it invalidated”.
The bottom line in the Rambam is as we have seen, vows are not recommended. Having said that, the Rambam recognizes the need for vows in certain cases, for therapeutic purposes. The institution of vows is not a good idea and carries with it sever side effects but we use such medicine if the disease in more dangerous than the side effects.
The overall message I believe is that the Torah has mapped out a life style that should, if followed, produce the perfect individual. If all mitzvoth are kept properly and the values of the Torah are absorbed there should be no needing for any additional help in the form of vows. In the non-perfect world that we live in it is clear that this does not work for everyone and therefore the Torah provides the vehicle for enhancing ones avodat Hashem through the use of vows. We are cautioned, however from turning the focal point from the mitzvoth in the Torah t those that we have created on our own.
In closing I would like to leave you with some food for thought, and discussion at the Shabbat table. Throughout the shiur I have been referring to vows or “nedarim”. There is another form of obligation that of “shevua” (translating this as swearing misses the point as the contemporary use of the word is not related to tour subject).
Why is it that when the Torah tells us to keep our vows it uses both the word neder and shvua and when it discusses annulment it talks only about neder?
Why does the Rambam at the end of Hilchot Shavuot take a much lighter approach to shavua than he does to neder? Finally is it possible after what we have discussed in this shiur that the Rambam actually lists as a positive mitzvah to make shavuot (see Sefer Hamitzvot #7)?
Looking forward to hearing some answers,
“An individual who takes vows to improve himself is praiseworthy. For instance an overeater who banned for himself meat for a year or two or the alcoholic who banned wine or the corrupt individual who banned taking anything from anyone or the vain individual who became a Nazir or any such case is to be considered serving God and all such vows Chazal praised by saying “Vows are a fence for abstinence” Avot 3:17).