Most human beings want to make some commitments—although what we are willing to commit to depends on both our cultures and our individual psychologies. Modern Western societies tend to focus on marriages, legal contracts, and oaths of office. The Israelite culture portrayed in the Hebrew Bible also focuses on religious commitments.
According to the Torah, every family was required to tithe to support the clergy, and to make the necessary sacrificial offerings. But some Israelites committed themselves to making extra donations to both the sanctuary staff and God.1 And some abstained from certain behaviors in order to achieve greater sanctity. The most common abstentions were fasting, and living as a nazirite.
Nazirites dedicated themselves to God by adopting a more ascetic way of life for a specific period of time. They could not serve in the sanctuary, since clergy were restricted to hereditary priests and Levites. So instead, nazirites let their hair go wild and abstained from alcohol, grapes, and contact with the dead. (For more details, see my posts Naso: Distanced by Hair and Haftarat Naso: Restraining the Abstainer.)
What a person vows to abstain from for the sake of God depends on the religion. During the past millennium, monks and nuns have taken vows of abstinence from sexual intercourse and lived in separate communities as a spiritual dedication.
All men, but not all women, were free to determine their own voluntary religious commitments.
This week’s Torah portion, Matot, opens:
A man who vows a vow to God, or swears a sworn-oath le-esor isar upon his soul, he must not break2 his word; he must act according to everything that goes out from his mouth. (Numbers/Bemidbar 30:3)
le-esor (לֶאְסֺר) = to bind. (From the same root as isar.)
isar (אִסָּר) = a vow or oath binding oneself to abstain from a certain actions.
An example of an oath that binds a man to abstain from a particular action occurs in the book of Judges. The men of Giveah, a village in the territory of Benjamin, rape a Levite’s woman to death.
Leaders and soldiers from all the other Israelite tribes meet at Mitzpah, then march against the Benjaminites. The Israelites kill them all—men, women, and children—except for 600 men of Benjamin who escape.
And the men of Israel, nishbei at Mitzpah, saying: “No man among us will give his daughter to a Benjaminite as a wife!” (Judges 21:1)
nishbei (נִשְׁבֵּע) = they had sworn an oath.
When the war is over, the victors realize that thanks to their oath, the tribe of Benjamin will disappear; the 600 survivors will die without issue. None of the men had thought that far ahead—nor asked for a wife’s opinion. Now they regret that they effectively eliminated one of the tribes of Israel. But breaking their oath is out of the question.
So they kill almost all the residents of the one village that did not send anyone to Mitzpah—everyone except the virgin maidens, who they give to the men of Benjamin. Then they tell the remaining Benjaminites to kidnap some of the unmarried women who dance in the vineyards at the festival in Shiloh. These young women are the daughters of the Israelites conquerors, but if they are kidnapped their fathers will not be forsworn.
Anything is better than breaking an oath.
Women Who Vow
Slaves could not make vows or oaths upon their souls, according to the Talmud,3 because their souls were not their own; they were not allowed to disobey their owners. The vows of minor children did not count either. But free women could bind themselves with vows—within limits.
An Israelite woman could not make a commitment about something she did not have authority over in the first place, such as her daughter’s marriage. But she could vow to donate any of her personal property to God, and she could bind herself to certain abstentions—including fasting4 and living as a nazirite.
A woman’s vow or oath to God is just as impossible to break as a man’s—unless her father or husband steps in promptly to cancel it.
And a woman, if she vows a vow to God and asrah isar in the household of her father, when she is young and single5, and her father hears her vow or her isar that asrah upon her soul, and her father is silent, then every vow and isar that asrah upon her soul will stand. (Numbers 30:4-5)
asrah (אָסְרָה) = she bound herself to. (From the same root as isar.)
An unmarried woman’s vow stands as long as her father does not contradict it.
But if her father restrains her on the day he hears of any of her vows or esareyha that asrah upon her soul, it will not stand, and God will pardon her, since he father restrained her. (Numbers 30:6)
esareyha (אֱסָרֶיהָ) = her vows or oaths binding herself to abstain from a certain behavior. (Also from the same root as isar.)
The father of an unmarried woman has only one day to annul his unmarried daughter’s vow—the day he finds out about it. If he does not do it that day, the vows stands.
After a woman marries, her husband has the right to annul any vow she made before the wedding, and any vow she makes during their marriage. But he can only do it on the day he finds out about the vow.6
The only female whose vows cannot be canceled is a free woman who was once married and now lives independently.
But a vow of a widow or a divorced woman, anything that asrah upon her soul, it will stand. (Numbers 30:10)
Protection from Foolish Vows
Given the seriousness of a vow or oath, it would be reasonable to let a close family member invalidate anyone’s impulsive commitment. Yet a mother cannot nullify a vow or oath that her unmarried son makes, however foolish it might be. And a wife cannot nullify anything that her husband vows.
The ancient Israelites assigned strict roles to men versus women, with men wielding far more independence and authority. In the 19th century C.E., European society was similarly sexist, and its assumptions underlie the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
… For a man creates his position in life independently, and if he binds himself with a vow that cannot be absolved, he introduces into his life a new element … and, since he is independent, he is able to take this individuality into account when he shapes the conditions of his life.
Not so for a woman. The moral greatness of the woman’s calling requires that she enter a position in life created by another. The woman does not build for herself her own home. She enters the home provided by the man, and she manages it, bringing happiness to the home and nurturing everything inside the home in a spirit of sanctity and orientation toward God. The woman—even more than the man—must avoid the constraint of extraordinary guidelines in her life, for they are likely to be an impediment to her in the fulfillment of her calling.7
If all women are fated to a life of repeated pregnancies and decades of child care, without the options of celibacy, birth control, or abortion, then it makes sense to nullify any vows they make that would interfere with these inescapable duties. For example, extended periods of fasting would be detrimental during pregnancy and nursing.
On the other hand, if all men are fated to a life of providing for large families, then they should be prevented from making vows that would interfere with their duties. For example, living as a nazirite would interfere with their ability to conduct business.
Fortunately, in much of the world today both men and women are free to decide whether to constrain themselves with the duties of raising a family, and how large the family will be (although in the United States a recent supreme court decision makes this more difficult).
Both genders now have the flexibility to determine their own commitments—to spouses (if any), to children (if any), and to religion (if any)—at least in the modern world. Nevertheless, each new vow limits our ability to take on another commitment.
May we all enjoy independence. And may we also give any new vows careful consideration, and talk them over with someone close to us before we commit!
- See Leviticus 27:1-8.
- The Hebrew word yacheil (יַחֵל) = he will desecrate, profane. I translate it as “break” to conform with standard English usage, at the risk of losing the Israelite idea that vows and oaths are literally, nut just metaphorically, sacred.
- Talmud Bavli, Nazir 61a.
- Numbers 30:14 specifically mentions mortifying the soul, which meant fasting.
- The Hebrew word I translate as “young and single” is ne-ureiyha (נְעֻרֶיהָ) = the time when a young woman or adolescent girl is not engaged or married.
- Numbers 30:7-9, 30:11-16.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 620-621.