5762 - #39



             Kohelet 5:4 declares: "Better is one who does not make a vow than one who makes a vow and does not fulfill it." This verse actually only expresses part of the Torah attitude towards vows. While, in T.B. Nedarim 9a,1 Rabbi Yehuda states that it is still best for one to make a vow and fulfill it, Rabbi Meir disagrees. He contends that not making a vow is not only better than making a vow and not fulfilling it; it is better than making a vow and fulfilling it.2 It is, in fact, this view of Rabbi Meir that has become the dominant position within Halacha:3 it is simply best never to make a vow.

              Rashi, Chulin 2a, d.h. Tov asher and d.h. She'eino noder describes Rabbi Meir's concern to be the potential for failure. By making a vow, one opens the possibility for sin through not fulfilling the vow.4 The implication is that, while fulfilling the vow has merit, it is best not to create a potential for nonfulfillment and sin. The intensity of the negative attitude towards vows, expressed elsewhere in the Talmud, however, suggests a greater problem with vows. Shmuel, in T.B. Nedarim 22a, states that one who makes a vow, even though it is fulfilled, is a rasha, an evil doer. In T.B. Nedarim 77b, Rav Dimi describes such a person as a choteh, a sinner.5 Rav Natan, also in T.B. Nedarim 22a, further states that one who makes a vow is compared to one who builds a bamah, a personal altar6 -- and one who fulfills a vow is comparable to one who sacrifices on such an

personal altar. The concern seems to be much more than the possibility for non-fulfillment. It would seem that there is something intrinsically problematic with vows.

             Ran, Nedarim 22a offers two possibilities. One is that, in making a vow, one portrays oneself as a chassid, as extremely righteous, and we should refrain from promoting such declarations about ourselves. The concern is an extension of haughtiness. His other argument, based on T.B. Nedarim 10a,7 is that a vow places further restrictions on the person and this is not praiseworthy. The concern is asceticism which, according to this view, is looked upon unfavourably. Taz, Yoreh De'ah 203:1 presents a different argument. The problem is that the individual did not attempt to have the vow annulled.8 According to this view, it is better to have a vow annulled than even to fulfill it. An individual is therefore criticized in fulfilling the vow, thus not annulling it.

             One would think that the procedure for annulling vows represents a safeguard to protect one in the case he/she has a problem in fulfilling a vow. Taz's presentation would seem to imply that annulling vows is a much more significant duty and, in fact, has prima facie importance. Arranging for the annulment of one's vows would seem to be a positive act. Therein may actually be found the essential principle of this entire set of laws. In arranging an annulment, one must demonstrate before a beit din or before a scholarly expert that one has remorse for making the vow. The one who took the vow must declare that if he/she knew what he/she knows today, he/she would have never made the vow. Recognizing the weakness of a vow is a positive act.9
Someone once mentioned to me that Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg asserted that one should always postpone a decision to last possible minute -- for why should the tzaddik, righteous person, you are today be bound by the decisions of the am ha'aretz, the ignoramus, you were yesterday. A vow is a decision; furthermore, it is a restrictive decision. Although it may be motivated by positive intent, it still reflects the decision of the moment. Growth, by definition, always challenges the moment. Growth declares that tomorrow may demand a difference. A vow restricts the potential for this difference. It concretizes the moment and extends it into the future. Growth demands fluidity, that the moment not be concretized. It is therefore best not to make a vow. Alternatively, if one has made a vow, it is best to seek an annulment and reinstate the fluidity.

             There are cases where vows are permitted and even encouraged. There are cases where vows serve an important purpose.10 But nonetheless we must always be careful of vows. If one wishes to adopt a certain behaviour, let him/her do so; but without a vow. Whatever one's decision today, one should be open for the potential for change tomorrow. That is growth and that is why, through a vow, we should not concretize today into tomorrow.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

1 See also T.B. Chullin 2a. The issues are actually much more complex than can be presented in the Insight and the positions of Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir are analyzed in much greater detail -- and in regard to specific situations -- in the Talmudic discussions.

2 See, interestingly, Tosfot, Chulin 2a, d.h. Tov, which describes the Kohelet 5:4 as the source for Rabbi Meir's position as well.

3 See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 203:4.

4 See Bamidbar 30:3.

5 Both declarations are brought down in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De ah 203:1 at the very beginning of the discussion on vows.

6 Personal altars are forbidden. See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvot 439, 440.

7 This statement is made originally in connection to nazir but has connection to all vows. See also T.J. Nedarim 9:1.

8 See also the specific language of Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 203:3.

9 Inherent within this concept is the idea that this request reflects a positive growth either through greater understanding of oneself, the world and/or Torah. Of course, not every new realization may reflect growth. This may be the reason that the request for annulment has to be before another. This ensures that there is an evaluation of the new perception.

10 It is beyond the scope of this Insight to discuss these situations and the beneficial nature of such vows. For one interested in pursuing this study, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, c. 203 will provide a good starting point.

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