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The Power, Danger and Placement of Vows

July 25, 2017

I have a confession to make.

I don’t cry.  No matter what is going on, how sad or hurtful, I don’t cry.  In fact, there is only one sure way that I ever cry.  And that is when is I am cutting onions.

While I have come to accept this reality, some of my friends are quite bothered.  When I got married, some of my friends felt so strongly that I should cry under my Chupah that they brought onions to wedding and made sure that I got a good whiff!

I was reminded of my friends’ attempts to get me to cry at my wedding this week when I was putting my ids to bed.  They have been asking “Abba, why do you have an itchy, scratchy beard?  Why don’t you shave it already?”  And I try to explain to them that Tisha B’Av is coming up and it is a very sad day.  I grow my beard because we are not supposed to shave or get haircuts because we are sad, or we are supposed to be sad and this helps us to be sad.

This is an appropriate question for this week’s parsha – can our external actions really bring about internal, authentic emotions?

The parsha opens with laws of Nedarim, vows.  We are told that we are able to accept vows upon ourselves.  The Torah then proceeds to describe ways by which vows can be nullified and gets into the very technical question of whether a father is empowered to nullify the vows of his daughter or a husband the vows of his wife.  This is the subject of an entire chapter in Masechet Nedarim.

The Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France) opens his commentary on the parsha by relating a question that was posed to him in a particular city in France:

רשב”ם על במדבר ל׳:ב׳
נשאלתי ביוניוב [=שם עיר] בכרך לושרון [=שם מחוז בצרפת].

I was asked by people in some town in France, Anione

The petitioner is bothered by the opening pasuk of the Parsha:

Numbers 30:2 במדבר ל׳:ב׳
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה ה’
(2) Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

Unlike any other section of law in the Torah which is introduced with the sentence:
“וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר”  “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying” Our parsha opens with Moshe communicating directly to the heads of the tribes.  As the Rashbam’s questioner put it:

לפי הפשט היכן מצינו שום פרשה שמתחלת כן? שלא נאמר למעלה וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר איש כי ידור וגו’. והיאך מתחלת הפרשה בדיבורו של משה שאין מפורש לו מפי הגבורה?

where else we find a portion commencing with the words וידבר משה, (Moses spoke…) without being told first that God had told Moses to deliver the message or legislation in question to the people.

One particularly provocative answer to this question is suggested by the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain).

Ramban says that it would be inappropriate to teach this section of law to the masses.  If the entire people will know that there is a possibility to be מתיר נדר (nullify vows), they will not take their vows so seriously.  The Ramban goes so far as to suggest

ואולי צריך להעלים אלה החוקים מהם שלא ינהגו קלות ראש בנדרים

Maybe we should hide these laws [from the masses] so they will not treat vows lightly.

But when it comes to the leaders of the nation, there is no way to avoid teaching them the laws of nullifying vows.  So it was not transmitted with the normal fanfare by which other halachot were transmitted, but it was muted and conveyed only to the leaders.

While this is a fascinating suggestion, I’d like to focus on a different path to explain our question.

Rav Amnon Bazak, a RaM (teacher) at th Gush, says that the key to understanding why the section of vows is conveyed only to the leaders of the tribes, and not the heads of the nations, is found at the end of last week’s Parsha, Parshat Pinchas.  Pinchas ends with the description of the מוספים the special sacrifices that were brought on the holidays throughout the year.  The Torah concludes:

Numbers 29:39במדבר כ״ט:ל״ט

(לט) אֵ֛לֶּה תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ לַה’ בְּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶ֑ם לְבַ֨ד מִנִּדְרֵיכֶ֜ם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם לְעֹלֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ וּלְמִנְחֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וּלְנִסְכֵּיכֶ֖ם וּלְשַׁלְמֵיכֶֽם׃

All these you shall offer to the LORD at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, meal offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.

We are commanded to offer the Mussaf offerings in addition to the voluntary sacrifices that one vows to bring.  Rav Bazak explains that after the lengthy description of the Mussaf offerings, and indeed of the prolonged description of the Mihkan, one might come to the conclusion that the only way to come close to God, to worship Hashem is via the sacrificial system that the Torah describes.  Proper religious observance comes only by obediently following the rules.  Rav Bazak says that our pasuk teaches that this is an incorrect understanding: It hints that there is still place for man to initiate his own holiness, via his vows and voluntary offerings.

Rav Bazak says that the opening of our parsha, in which Moshe gives instructions to the heads of the tribes directly without being prompted by Hashem, drives home this point: There is room for human initiative in worshipping God and finding spirituality and holiness.

This same idea is expressed by Maimonides in a halacha that I’m sure we can all relate to.

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ג

 מִי שֶׁנָּדַר נְדָרִים כְּדֵי לְכוֹנֵן דֵּעוֹתָיו וּלְתַקֵּן מַעֲשָׂיו הֲרֵי זֶה זָרִיז וּמְשֻׁבָּח. כֵּיצַד. כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁהָיָה זוֹלֵל וְאָסַר עָלָיו הַבָּשָׂר שָׁנָה אוֹ שְׁתַּיִם. אוֹ מִי שֶׁהָיָה שׁוֹגֶה בַּיַּיִן וְאָסַר הַיַּיִן עַל עַצְמוֹ זְמַן מְרֻבֶּה. אוֹ אָסַר הַשִּׁכְרוּת לְעוֹלָם.

Whoever makes a vow to fix his ways or his thoughts, it is praiseworthy.  Such as someone who is gluttonous and vows against eating meat for one or two year; or someone who someone who drinks too much wine or alcohol…

The Rambam says it is praiseworthy to make vows in order to help oneself overcome his/her personal vices.

But, as he so often does, the Rambam throws a wrench in this explanation just two halachot later:

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ה
(כה) אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים (גמרא נדרים נט א) כָּל הַנּוֹדֵר כְּאִלּוּ בָּנָה בָּמָה“. וְאִם עָבַר וְנָדַר מִצְוָה לְהִשָּׁאֵל עַל נִדְרוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא מִכְשׁוֹל לְפָנָיו.

In Laws of Vows, Chapter 13 law 25 he quotes a Gemara from Nedarim:
“Whoever makes a vow is as if he has built a bamah.”  What is a bamah?  It is a personal altar built in a person’s home or in their city where they would offer sacrifices outside of the Beit haMikdash.  The rise of the bamot was quite problematic and led to much of the idolatry that led to the downfall of the Jews in ancient Israel.

So which one is it – is making a vow something that is praiseworthy or is it something comparable to idolatry? And how do we understand this analogy?

Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and whose seventh yarzheit was observed earlier this week, explains:
What is the meaning of this comparison? A bama represents a person’s desire to depart from the standard route of worship in the Temple in order to establish his personal, alternate route. Likewise, self-imposed prohibitions taken on through vows also represent a retreat from the normal world of mitzvot; the person adopts an additional track through which to worship God. Rather than remaining content with the mitzvot that God gave, the person chooses the Torah-sanctioned track of vows, thereby isolating himself from the standard world of avodat Hashem (divine service).  (

He then tells an interesting to illustrate his point:
I once rode in a car with a student in the Yeshiva who is now an important rabbi. I turned to him and remarked: “I would wager that you wear an especially large garment on which to place the tzitzit.” “Rebbe,” he responded, “how did you know?” I answered, “Since the Mishna Berura writes that a God-fearing person should don a larger garment, I assume that you see fit to heed his words. I, on the other hand, do not fancy myself to be in that exclusive category, and therefore am satisfied wearing a smaller garment.”

Hashem has given us a tremendous gift with the laws of vows – a recognition that sometimes we need extra motivation or inspiration.  Sometimes the normal channels of Halacha don’t work for us.  And we all experience this need for external factors to motivate or inspire us.  But we can’t allow that to become the norm for us.  We can’t become overly dependent on them either.


From → Parsha

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