Halacha for Thursday 4 Iyar 5778 April 19 2018

Vows and Oaths

Question: Is it forbidden to make vows even when one intends to fulfill them?

Answer: We must first explain what the Torah meant by “vows.” The Gemara (Nedarim 13a) explains that the primary vow referred to by the Torah is when one attributes a prohibition to the specific object one is “vowing” upon. For instance, if one exclaims, “This loaf of bread should be forbidden to me like an offering,” one has thus attributed the prohibition of eating offerings to the loaf of bread and the bread is thereby forbidden for consumption by virtue of the prohibition of the vow.

However, the language quite common today when people make vows, i.e. “I vow (or promise) to do such-and-such” is more in tune with the halachic definition of an oath, which is when one swears to do something.

Nevertheless, the Poskim and Maran Ha’Bet Yosef (Yoreh De’ah Chapters 206 & 239) write that even if one makes a vow using vernacular more common nowadays, such as, “I promise that I shall eat with you today” or “I promise that I shall never eat with you,” one likewise becomes bound by his words and if one later regrets that one ever made such a vow, one must consult with a Torah scholar who will then find a loophole in the vow and will proceed to annul his vow in the presence of three people who are fit to judge.

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (32b) states: “Rabbi Natan says: As a result of the sin of vowing, one’s wife may pass away.” The Gemara proceeds to support this idea from a verse. The Gemara continues, “Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nassi says: As a result of the sin of vowing, one’s children may pass away young, as the verse states, ‘Do not let your mouth bear sin on your flesh. Why should Hashem be angered by your voice and destroy the work of your hands’- what is the work of a person’s hands? This refers to one’s sons and daughters.”

The Gemara in Masechet Gittin (35a) states: “Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Once during a year of drought, a man left a gold coin with a certain widow and she placed this coin in a jar of flour. She later mistakenly baked a loaf of bread using this same flour and, with the coin inside, she gave this bread to a pauper. Sometime later, the owner of the gold coin arrived at this widow’s home and claimed his coin. She exclaimed, ‘May one of my sons be poisoned if I derived any benefit from your coin at all!’ Our Sages said, only a short time passed until one of her sons passed away, for she did ultimately benefit from the gold coin since the loaf of bread she gave to the pauper was slightly bigger due to the coin forgotten inside it. When our Sages became aware of this incident they said, ‘If this kind of punishment befalls one who did not intend to swear falsely, how much more so will one who swears falsely be punished.’”

The Baraita towards the end of the second chapter of Masechet Nedarim states, “Do not be accustomed to make vows.” The Gemara continues: “Shmuel as well as Rav Dimi, brother of Rav Safra, said: Anyone who makes vows is considered a sinner even if he intends to fulfill them.” This is indeed derived from a verse. The Talmud Yerushalmi states: “If one pays his dues late, his file is opened,” meaning that his actions will be scrutinized in Heaven very carefully as a result of his making vows. It is therefore incumbent on every person to stay far away from matters related to vows and oaths. The Rosh and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch tell us that it is not good to make vows related to a Mitzvah, such as, “I shall give this coin to Tzedakah”; rather, one should always be accustomed to saying “Beli Neder,” i.e. no vow intended. This is all due the serious nature of vows and oaths, as we have explained.

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