When must our words be accurate, true, and sincere? Preferably always, but hey, we’re human and some occasions are more important that others. Parshat Mattot speaks about one of those occasions: vows.
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has come out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:3)In a society in which business and contracts are made verbally, and very little is written down, words take on greater value. It is crucially important to be able to rely on what a person says because often that is all you have to go on.
The Torah also discusses women’s vows. (Warning: you’re not going to like this.) If a woman is a minor living in her father’s house, her vow is valid only if her father permits it. If she marries during the period covered by the vow, her husband can annul it if he disapproves. Similarly, any vow she makes while married. Widows and divorcees are the only women whose vows cannot be annulled by a man. (Numbers 30:4-17)
There is a discussion in the Talmud concerning when and how a person may be released from a vow made to God (not a promise made to another person). It helps us consider the value and meaning of our words. Mishnah Nedarim 9:1 reads as follows (NB: the numbers below are not in the text; I added them to facilitate following the commentary below):
1. What are appropriate grounds for releasing a person from his vow? R. Eliezer recognizes that there are occasions when a person makes a vow without thinking through the consequence, or in a fit of pique, or the situation changes such that the vow comes into conflict with kibud av v’em – honoring one’s father and mother. If one can honestly say, “My vow dishonors my parents and I didn’t realize this at the time I made the vow,” he can go before a bet din (court of three rabbis) and be released from his vow.
- R. Eliezer says: They release [a vow] a person [from his vow] for the sake of the honor of his father and mother.
- But the Sages prohibit [releasing him from his vow for that reason].
- R. Tzaddok: Before they release him [from his vow] for the sake of his father and mother, let them release for him from it for the sake of the honor of the Omnipresent! If so, there are no vows.
- The Sages agree with R. Eliezer concerning a matter [about which the vow was made] between his father and his mother that they untie it for him for the sake of the honor of his father and mother.
2. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, the Sages disagree. A vow is a vow, just as a promise is a promise.
3. R. Tzaddok then points out a flaw in R. Eliezer’s reasoning. Certainly if we are concerned about the honor of one’s parents, we must all the more so be concerned about the honor of God. It’s not difficult to argue that most any vow could be construed to dishonor God. A vow made in haste, or out of anger, or without due thought all dishonor God. If we open the door to the honor of parents, we certainly must open it to the honor of God, in which case it’s wide open and never shuts. What meaning or force will any vow have?
4. The Sages must now decide. They are in a quandary. On the one hand they want to uphold the integrity of vows and the power of words that stands behind them. Yet they recognize the legitimacy of R. Eliezer’s concern in the real world of our lives. In addition, R. Tzaddok makes an excellent point that must be considered. Therefore they amend their previous opinion: Vows will stand except in one narrow situation. If one makes a vow that concerns his parents directly and in so doing dishonors them, he may be released from that vow because the vow is specific and kibud av v’em (honoring one’s parents) takes clear precedence. However, all other vows stand.
The Sages recognize human foibles and errors, but they strongly believe that our words should have integrity because words are powerful. Our words must have integrity for us to have integrity.
Sen. Kyl used words foolishly and irresponsibly. His integrity rightly suffered as a result. This might give us all pause to consider how we use words, and whether we keep the promises we make and obligations we undertake, toward the end that we pause… before speaking.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman