Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 203:1 states that anyone who makes a vow, even if he/she keeps it, is labeled a rasha, an evil doer, and is labeled a choteh, a sinner. Taz asks why the person is labeled both an evil doer and a sinner, after all if the person is already labeled an evildoer is it not obvious that this person is also a sinner? This question actually has implications beyond the words of the Shulchan Aruch. The statement that this person who vows, even if he/she fulfills it, is labeled an evildoer was made by Shmuel, as presented in T.B. Nedarim 22a, while the statement that such a person is a sinner is by R. Dimi the brother of R. Safra, as presented in T.B. Nedarim 77b. Why the difference in language, with one using the term rasha and the other using the term choteh?1 It would seem that this difference in language must have some significance and that the Shulchan Aruch, in using both terms, rasha and choteh, is simply accepting both views. The question thus is: what are these two differing views embodied in the words rasha and choteh in this context of nedarim, vows?
Taz answers that the two views are actually referring to two different cases, each one reflecting its own distinct problem with maintaining a vow. These views are not expressing a concern with making vows lest one transgresses.2 Both of these statements are critiquing the one who fulfills his/her vow, declaring even such a person a rasha or a choteh. Taz, thus, explains that the problem is indeed in that the person fulfilled the vow for there was another option – arranging to have the vow annulled.3 Of course it would be better to never make a vow but, once made, it also would seem to be better to arrange to have it annulled rather than even fulfill it.
Taz concludes that this is the essential meaning of these statements from the gemara. Both are critiquing people who do not have their vows annulled yet they distinguish between two types of such individuals. One, who actually has an argument that would lead to an annulment but does not act on it, is deemed to be a rasha, albeit that he/she ends up fulfilling the vow. One who does not have such an argument and thereby causes much consternation for the rabbis trying to find a way to annul the vow4 is deemed to be a choteh, even though he/she too never breaks the vow. It would seem that there is another problem with making vows aside from creating a potential for sin through not keeping the vow. It would seem that there is an inherent problem in living subject to the commitment of a vow.
The concept of hateret nedarim may, in fact, be the best avenue by which to understand the problem inherent in vows. T.B. Chagiga 10a presents the idea that the concept of hateret nedarim is derived from Bamidbar 30:3: while one should not profane his own words, others can void his words.5 Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bamidbar 30:3 explains that the focus of this analysis is really the power of words. Our words are to mean something -- to have power -- therefore we are bound by them. As such, we cannot void our own words and a violation of such words is a challenge to their power and to the integrity of our self. Others, though, can indicate to us that the words, from their very inception, never had true power. As such, we would not be bound by them and the violation of such words would not challenge the inherent power of our words and the integrity of our self. This is the essence of hateret nedarim. It is a statement that the vow is not binding; that these words have no power, for they never should have been uttered in the first place. Hateret nedarim is simply a legal conclusion that this vow is not a proper expression of the self, therefore should not have been uttered and, as such, is not binding. Yet, from the words of the Taz, it would seem that he is maintaining that ideally all vows should really conclude with hateret nedarim. Are we to thus conclude that all vows are never the proper expression of a self?
T.B. Nedarim 10a concludes from the application of the word chatah, sin, to the nazir,6 that one who afflicts oneself through the placing of additional restrictions on the self is branded a sinner. T.J. Nedarim 9:1 challenges such a person: are the restrictions that the Torah places upon you not enough for you that you have to come up with more prohibitions, even on that which the Torah actually permits? Yet, does Ramban, Vayikra 19:2 not declare kadesh atzmicha b’mutar lach, that one should sanctify oneself in that which is permitted and practice self-restraint? Why would this Yerushalmi seem to be declaring that there is a problem with further restrictions when there is a value, as expressed in Ramban, in practicing restraint? It would seem that the problem lies not in the concept of restraint itself but rather in this methodology, the vow, by which to practice and/or develop restraint.7 What, thus, is the real problem with vows?
In the case of the halachic tzivui, command, the ethical demand does not emerge from the self but rather externally, from the Will of God. The result is a specific and unique tension that emerges solely from the voice of the Halacha. The human being is called upon to act, regardless of what the human being personally wills, in response to the directive from God. The choice to follow the Will of God demonstrates the self’s allegiance to the Divine but, in regard to the particulars of the specific halachic matter, there may be no further statement of the self. I act as God directed, not because of the development, within my self, of this ethical value. This is not similar to the tension that emerges in the movement of ethical self-growth. This tension is in the self. The human being wants the self to incorporate the result of this development but, in the battle of this development, also confronts other drives of the self. Reconciliation of this tension is only achieved when the human being asserts which call of the self is to be dominant, which call is to be asserted to take precedence in the expression of the self. This is not necessarily the case in regard to the tzivui. This is the problem with vows. A vow reproduces the halachic tension. It attempts to strengthen the call to develop the ethical aspect of the self by transforming the ethical desire within the self into a Divine demand. It is, though, the assertion of the ethical within the self that transforms the self. It is the tension within the self itself that furthers human growth. The vow challenges this form of tension and hateret nedarim identifies this.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 This question actually has a further complexity in that both derive their specific conclusion from the same verse, Devaim 23:23.
2 See T.B. Nedarim 20a.
3 See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, c. 228.
4 In this regard, Taz further directs readers to T.B. Nedarim 23b.
5 The key word in this verse in vayacheil which can be understood in diverse ways depending upon the perceived root. The commentators thus present many different understandings of this Rabbinic exegesis that yields the conclusion that one attempting to annul one’s own vow is a case of breaking one’s word while having others properly annulling a vow is not.
6 Bamidbar 6:11.
7 See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Nedarim 13:23-25. There is obviously much more to be said on this topic.© Nishma 2011
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