Parshat Matot-Masei: A vow and its retraction

Is making a vow a positive deed?

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the laws of vows – when a person who decides to refrain from some sort of enjoyment or from anything else specific takes on his decision in the terms of a vow. This is what is discussed in the following verse: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.” (Numbers 30:3) It is important to note that despite the vow having obligatory validity, in certain cases it is possible to “exit” the vow and rescind it by doing a hatarat nedarim, a release from the vow, done in a certain manner by a rabbi knowledgeable about Halacha.
Is making a vow a positive deed? Or, put another way: Should we aspire to avoid certain pleasures? The sages of the Talmud answered this question unequivocally: “The person who makes a vow – even if he kept it – is considered evil.” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Nedarim, daf 22) This harsh statement is explained elsewhere where it is said of the person who makes a vow: “What the Torah forbade is not enough for you, but you have to forbid yourself from doing other things?” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Nedarim, perek 9) The sages of the Talmud convey with these words a religious view that does not seek to avoid pleasure and experiences, but sees the mitzvot of the Torah as providing exact guidance on how to treat them. The basic premise of these harsh words is that G-d gave us the Torah in which there is the perfect balance between pleasure and hedonism. If the Torah allows us to enjoy something specific, we must not search for unnecessary restrictions and avoid it.
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But now we must try to understand: If making a vow is a negative act, why does the Torah agree to it? Why does it give it validity? Why do we not find in the Torah a statement which cancels all vows and thus solves the problem? The explanation for this is that the Torah does not come to fight reality, but to shape it correctly. If reality is such that people make vows – and this was most common in previous generations – then the correct thing to do is not to tell people that their deeds are insignificant. This is not the way of the Torah. Instead, the Torah allows for making a vow but creates the possibility of retracting it through hatarat nedarim.
We find this approach in the Torah in other spheres as well. For example, the Torah sees slavery as very negative, but does not abolish it. Instead, through a series of mitzvot, it shapes the relationship between a slave and his master, forming one that is not degrading and that does not crush human dignity. Years will pass before people of the Western world will internalize the goal the Torah is trying to reach and will abolish slavery completely.
Such is the vow as well. A clear statement against vows would be inefficient. It is the option of making a vow alongside the option of rescinding it that brought people to internalize the message that exercising this option of making a vow is undesirable.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.