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One who wishes to be religiously strict should not make a vow of piety.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion (in Israel) is “Matot” (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and it we read about vows and oaths. There were some major differences between men and women regarding vows.

While the vow of a man is always binding, the vow of a woman could often be annulled by her father or her husband. This is true only if they felt it was unreasonable or especially hard on the woman. As such, it was seen as a mechanism that actually protected women from having to complete what might have been an overly difficult commitment.

The vow of a widow or a divorcee was binding once uttered.

With this background, let’s take a look at vows and oaths in Judaism.

The more common type of vow in Judaism is known as a neder.

A neder is a declaration which makes something forbidden to the person making the vow. For example, if for some reason a person wanted to forbid himself to enjoy a favorite food, he could make a neder and the food will indeed become forbidden. We see from here that according to the Torah the power of speech is very strong.

Indeed, the sages teach us that the primary difference between people and animals is the power of speech.

It is for this reason that many observant Jews say “bli neder” (“not a vow”) before committing to absolutely anything, so that the commitment not be seen as a neder. A broken or unfulfilled neder is considered to be an especially severe transgression.

Not only is a verbal commitment often binding but even actions alone can lead to a binding neder. For example, if one does a good deed on three consecutive occasions, one might be required to continue thegood deed until the “vow” is annulled.

There is another type of vow in Judaism that is known as a shevua. This is a vow where a person declares himself obligated to perform a positive act or to refrain from doing something. Hence, a neder is the term used for vows relating to objects while shevua is the term is used for vows relating to one personally.

There are a number of reasons that one might want to make a vow of some kind. The most common was as an act of personal piety.

Nedarim are a self-imposed mechanism on getting closer to God and ensuring more meticulous observance of the Torah. Vows were also taken as a sign of gratitude. For example, one who experienced a personal miracle might make a vow accepting upon himself some type of stringency as a token of appreciation for the miracle.

Vows are also sometimes made as a “deal” with God. For example, a woman who wants to have children but seems to have difficulty in dong so, might make a vow to give money to charity if she will be blessed with children. Finally, there is the now virtually extinct “Nazirite” vow in which a person commits to be a Nazirite which includes a ban on consuming wine, cutting one’s hair, or going near dead bodies for a period of time.

Absolving Vows

As they say, nothing is forever, and vows are usually no exception. One is able to annul vows (that were not initially made with an expiry date) by approaching a “Beit Din” – a Jewish court.

At this somewhat informal event, the petitioner tells the panel of three judges why he wants to be released from the vow. The three rabbis than release him with a special declaration. These three “judges” need not be ordained rabbis, and any three people may often be hastily put together for this procedure.

As mentioned above, a vow by a young woman or a married woman can often be nullified by her father or husband at home.

Because the transgression of having unfulfilled vows is especially severe, it is universal custom to perform a community-wide annulment of vows before the High Holidays. This is in order that we do not enter the days of judgment with such a transgression on our slate. In most communities, this annulment is done on the day before Rosh Hashana, and then again at the start of Yom Kippur with the “Kol Nidrei” service.

Normative practice nowadays is not to make any type of vow for any reason whatsoever. One who wishes to be religiously strict, take on some act of piety, or begin performing extra good deeds is totally encouraged to do so…just not at the “vow” level of commitment.

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