Binding and Releasing

Mattot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 18, 2014 / 5774

At the very beginning of Parashat Mattot, the topic of words and vows is addressed. The Torah makes the importance of what one utters abundantly clear, lest there be any misunderstanding about it. Rather than addressing the entire people, however, it targets the leaders. The heads of the Israelite tribes are commanded, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he will not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Num. 30:3). On the one hand, it is not surprising that the leader-politicians are addressed; often it is the leaders of the people who relate to words lightly, offering empty promises and slogans in campaigning. On the other hand, it seems that the Torah’s commandment concerning vows should be addressed to the entire nation. What are the nuances of this legislation, and how may we relate to it today?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

Isser is the word for actual tying up and chaining and is here transferred to the binding power of the vow or oath . . . And lo yahel divaro means he [the one who vowed] will not allow his word to be without result, nor allow it to be made secular. It binds him. This expression itself points to the possibility that his word, although he has spoken it, could be without result. And then the Talmud lays stress on the concept of the pronoun form and teaches, “he may not annul it but others can” (BT Berakhot 32a); so that in the words themselves they see the idea of what the halacha teaches of the mitigating power given to the sage concerning vows—for a sage may uproot a vow . . . The redress for vows, here entrusted to the heads of the tribes, consists in their finding that the one who made the vow, now regrets having done so, and if he had given the matter proper consideration he certainly would not have made it all. (Commentary on Numbers, 507–508)

Hirsch, like many commentators before him, is keenly interested in both preserving the integrity of the Torah and embracing rabbinic wisdom. While the Torah’s laws compel us to relate to our words with a sense of profound seriousness and stringency, our Sages recognize fully that we are human—often driven by passion, emotion, and at times, irrational thought—in that which we express. The Torah is correct in underscoring the seriousness with which we must treat our utterances; we have the potential to tie, chain, and bind ourselves up in our words. But as Hirsch points out, the Rabbis were eminently wise in enabling one’s release from a potentially destructive or unfulfillable vow. Far from undermining the word of the Torah, the Rabbis embolden it by making it more humane and more responsive.

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