What’s In A Vow?—by Michael Aronson

What’s In A Vow?
Michael Aronoson
The article was adapted from introductory comments made prior to reading the Torah at Shabbat Morning Services at B’rith Kodesh in Brighton, NY on 21 Tammuz, 5774

Today I will be reading Numbers 30:2-13, which lists laws relating to vows and promises. Before I get started, I would like to address some of Rashi (1040-1105) and Nachmanides’ (1195-1250) disagreements on what makes a vow. Rashi’s demeanor seems to indicate that this section only addresses vows made between human beings and God. In fact, his word choice may equate a vow with a sacrificial offering to God. Nachmanides, on the other hand, admits both vows made to God and promises made between human beings. Rashi holds that one cannot promise something forbidden. For example, I cannot promise to eat a pound of bacon at the Mt. Hope Diner. But Nachmanides disagrees again, stating that someone can promise to violate a prohibition, and without legal annulment, the commitment remains binding on that individual.

This is very interesting, not only because both readings are supported by the text, but because both Rashi and Nachmanides seem bothered by what vows and promises represent. And with good reason. I doubt that either commentator forgot that the world was made with spoken words, or that the Sinai covenant was made with spoken words erupting from a live volcano, nor could they overlook the relationship recognized by the prophets, like Jeremiah in our Haftarah, between God’s words and history, or the incident of Jephthah in the book of Judges, who foolishly promises to sacrifice the first thing that greets him after a successful military campaign,

which turns out to be his favored daughter. I think that both Rashi and Nachmanides appreciated that words, whether well considered or just stupid, have the power to change the world, and that promises represent actions to create the future world in a certain way. This is the creative power of God, in whose image Torah tells us we were created.

Therefore, we must examine the commitments we make to ourselves, to our friends, and to our ideals, religious and otherwise, with the utmost scrutiny and responsibility, because these are the world that we create.