When did you last make a vow or swear an oath? In our society, we often sign contracts and promise to do things; but a solemn, witnessed vow is usually reserved for a wedding, an oath of office, or (in some religions) an initiation into a religious order. Nevertheless, when we violate solemn promises we have made to ourselves, we find ourselves in the same position as ancient Israelites who failed to fulfill their vows.
One warning about vows appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“when you go out”):
When you vow a vow to God, your god, you shall not delay in fulfilling it, because God, your god, will certainly call you to account, and there will be guilt in you. But if you refrain from vowing, there will not be guilt in you. You must guard what comes out of your lips; and you must make any voluntary gift that you spoke with your mouth, as you have vowed to God, your god. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 23:22-24)
The majority of vows mentioned in the Hebrew bible are vows to give something to God. People vow to offer an animal at the altar, or to give money to the Temple treasury, just because they want to do something extra for their religion. Both this week’s Torah portion and a similar passage in Ecclesiastes/Kohelet state that when you vow to make a gift to God, you must fulfill it with minimum delay, or you will be guilty of wrongdoing. Someone today would be guilty of similar wrongdoing if they promised to donate extra money to their congregation, but then took years to get around to it.
Another type of vow is the vow of self-denial. The most common vow of self-denial in the Torah is the vow to be a nazir, someone who abstains from haircuts and from wine (or anything else made with grapes) for a fixed period of time. (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)
But like us, Israelites and Jews thousands of years ago made individual vows of self-denial, which are mentioned in the Hebrew bible and discussed in detail in the Talmud tractate Nedarim (“Vows”). In modern American one common individual vow of self-denial is to abstain from certain foods. Two thousand years ago this was also a possible vow, but vows to refrain from sex with your spouse get more coverage in the Talmud.
Carrying out your vow without delay is also a requirement for vows of of self-denial. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar says: If someone vows a vow to God or swears an oath to abstain an abstention for himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to anything that goes out of his mouth he must do. (Numbers 30:3)
Making a vow before God seems to be a common human impulse. Yet both Deuteronomy and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Talmud, emphasize that it is better to simply do what you intend without making a vow.
What is so bad about making vows? The Torah and the Talmud discourage vowing because the consequences are terrible if you do not fulfill your vow. All too often, people make vows and then fail to live up to them because of circumstances they did not anticipate. Some people are simply stymied by bad luck. But others are carried away by their emotions at the time of the vow, and rashly promise more than they can realistically deliver. Some people make vows they regret the next morning.
Traditional commentary points out that people tend to find excuses to justify their failure to deliver on a vow, and comfort themselves with the thought that at least they meant well. This is a form of self-delusion that leads some people to substitute making vows for actually doing the right thing. Thus people who makes rash vows end up behaving less ethically. They also suffer because other people stop believing what they say.
I have also noticed another reaction to the failure to fulfill a rash vow. I know people who made solemn promises to themselves to increase their Jewish religious observance–not just by adding one daily blessing or one small restriction, but by taking on a full day of orthodox Shabbat observance every week, or by switching from a diet of bacon cheeseburgers to keeping kosher so strictly that they can no longer eat out. And when they failed to fulfill their rash vows, they did not excuse themselves on the grounds of good intentions. Instead, they gave up on their religion–an easy thing to do, in our modern society. And that, too, can be bad for the soul.
I agree with the Torah and Talmud that it is better to guard your lips and stop yourself from making vows. But if you need to make a vow, consider it carefully, over a period of time, to make sure it is something reasonable that you can fulfill.
But what if you have made a vow you cannot, or no longer want to, fulfill? In Talmudic times, people called upon rabbis to annul their ill-considered vows of self-denial. Jews today have Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement. If we break our vows to other people, we can only make things right by going through a process of atonement with those individuals. But if we have failed to carry out our vows to ourselves, or to God, then we can atone in our communal prayers on Yom Kippur.
The holy day begins with the singing of “Kol Nidrei”, which means “All vows” in Aramaic. The Kol Nidrei prayer may have begun as a way to absolve Jews from vows of conversion to another religion, since so many Jews had to pretend to convert to Christianity in order to save their lives. Now it serves as a heartfelt introduction to the day when we can release ourselves from guilt over the personal vows before God that we now wish we had not made.
This week is the second week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish tradition is to spend this month examining ourselves, apologizing and atoning for the wrongs we have done to other people, and recognizing where we have failed the God inside each of us.
This month of Elul, may we all catch up on the good deeds we promised to do but never got around to; may we find ways to clear ourselves and start fresh with every person we have wronged; may we recognize and accept our failures to fulfill our personal vows; and may we figure out ways to improve ourselves gently, without making any rash vows.