Mattot – A perspective on vows

“This is the thing” is the phrase which begins the framework on vows. R’ Eli Munk explained that the annulment of vows is valid only when following the specific form laid down for it. When a vow is annulled by a judge the term “chatara” or dissolution is used, and it is annulled by a father or husband, the term “hafara” or cancellation is used. He commented that stability would be more likely if the vows fitted in with family harmony, and one person was named to monitor this.


Ramban described the laws of vows as restricted statutes communicated to the heads of the tribes. “The knowledge of how to annul vows by the people at large might lead them to take vows too lightly, thereby resulting in serious infractions.” Rabbis these days are less likely to explain this than to tell the joke about the man who is running late for a meeting and vows to keep kosher if G-d will help him beat through the traffic, and vows to keep Shabbat if G-d will help him find a space in the car-park. Just as he makes this second vow, a car pulls out leaving a spot for him so he says “don’t worry G-d, I’ve just found one”.


Ramban also explained the difference between a vow and an oath. In a vow, one dedicates a specific object to G-d, and in an oath, an obligation is taken upon himself, rather than imposed on the object. The Sifrei taught that a vow is only valid if it forbids that which is otherwise permitted. Also, an oath which either affirms or opposes an action required by the Torah is null and void.


R’ Eli Munch quoted from the Shulchan Aruch which advised that we not become accustomed to utter vows, and continued that if someone has something to donate for a holy purpose, he should do so immediately rather than vow to do it later.


R’ Jonathan Sacks wrote that when we bind ourselves by words, we are trying to create an orderly future in the face of instincts and  desires. We wish to form bonds of mutuality and trust with other people with a promise or commitment. A marriage contract is another type of bond, and then there is the set of mutually binding promises between the Jewish people and G-d. When words are binding, they generate trust, which becomes the basis for order. Words create moral obligations which when undertaken responsibly and honoured faithfully create the possibility of a free society.

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