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Judaism takes the matter of vows and oaths very very seriously.

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. Let’s take a look:

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Jewish people saying, “This is the matter that God has commanded: If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that which he has declared” (Numbers 30:2-3).

I would like to share the story of Rav Safra with you. Rav Safra was not merely a great rabbi, but he was a shopkeeper, as well.

One morning he was reciting the morning prayers in his shop when a customer walked in. The man offered a reasonable amount of money for the item he wanted, but Rav Safra did not respond…because he was in the middle of his prayers!

The man, not understanding why Rav Safra did not respond, and thinking that it was because his offer was not high enough, offered a higher price. Still silence. So he offered a higher price. And again a higher price. And higher!

When Rav Safra finished his prayers, his greeted the buyer and told him that he would sell the item for the first price he offered. The buyer was shocked, and said that he was happy to pay more, as he had offered, if it was the true price. Rav Safra insisted that no higher price than the original amount offered was required.

“When you offered the first price, I couldn’t respond since I was in the middle of prayers, but I had accepted it in my heart,” Rav Safra told his customer.

Can you imagine? Rav Safra did not only keep his word….he also “kept” his thoughts! That’s an incredibly high level of honesty! If Rav Safra is so honest with his thoughts, how much more so should we be sure to be honest and keep our words!

Judaism takes the matter of vows and oaths very very seriously.

Indeed, 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 never to make any type of vow, for any reason whatsoever, in order not to get oneself accidentally entrapped in the transgression of unfulfilled vows. 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.

On a related note, another verse in our reading says, “If her husband will remain silent for a complete day, then she must fulfill all of her vows or all of the bans which are upon her. He has established them because he remained silent on the day that he heard them” (Numbers 30:15).

In other words, a husband has the power to nullify his wife’s vow should he feel it is too restrictive or too difficult for her to keep. But if he does not protest, the vow is binding.

But the question is asked: Why is her husband’s silence considered to be agreement to her vow?

It is explained that when a person has the ability to protest but remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. In other words, keeping quiet in the presence of something that is uttered implies that you agree with the statement.

Here again, we see that speech is very important in Judaism. Not only does speech bind us, but lack of speech – remaining silent – can also bind us, as well!

As we have seen, speech is what differentiates us from animals. And when we use our speech properly, both in how we speak and when we speak, we can raise ourselves to saintly heights!