Shabbat Shalom. The Torah portions this week, Mattot and Masei, discuss the importance of vows. In chapter 30, verse 3, we read: “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
However, the evening before Yom Kippur, we recite Kol Nidre, meaning “all vows,” which seeks to repudiate any vows that we will make in the coming year. In my Dvar Torah, I will discuss some of the rules regarding vows and oaths in Jewish law, and try to understand how they relate to the repudiation of vows in Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.
When verse 3 says “voweth a vow” or “sweareth an oath,” it means two different things. A vow, or neder in Hebrew, is a promise to give something to G-d or to do something for G-d. In truth, there is no English equivalent for neder: vow is as close as we can get. An oath, or shevuah, is a pledge to abstain from something that would otherwise be allowed. However, you cannot make a vow or an oath to do something that G-d has commanded or avoid something G-d has forbidden, since those things are considered already mandatory; a vow is only going the extra mile. For example, you cannot vow to keep Shabbat, or to honor your mother and father (although parents would probably love that!) Neither can you vow to do something extra with something forbidden. For example, you cannot vow that you will only eat carrots, except for having a roast pig every Thursday. As Rashi said: “To bind with a bond…[is] to forbid that which is permitted, but not to permit what is forbidden.” All of these rules refer only to vows or oaths between a person and G-d, not between the maker of the vow or oath and another person. These rules do not relate to legal or contractual obligations or promises.
Historically, vows and oaths were discouraged by Jewish law. The Torah says in Dvarim, in chapter 23 verse 22: “When you make a vow to the lord your G-d, do not put off fulfilling it, for the lord your G-d will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt, whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” Samuel went as far as to say that: “He who makes a vow, even though he fulfill it, commits a sin.” Vows were only tolerated when done to rid someone of bad habits, or to encourage someone to do good; however, even in such cases it was better to strive for the goal without the aid of vows.
In early times, many Jews would make vows in a time of crisis and then wish that they didn’t have to keep them. Jewish law therefore established a procedure by which people could repudiate their vows. This could be done by an ordained teacher on the one hand, or three unordained teachers on the other. (Under no circumstances could one simply ignore the vow.) Yet despite this, the point of verse 3 remains: if a person makes a vow to G-d, it is a very serious matter and must be honored.
Even though the Torah says that you must keep your vows, Kol Nidre seems to contradict that. The Kol Nidre prayer states: “All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, konam-vows, konas-vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good-regarding them all, we regret them henceforth, They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions, and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.”
Does this mean that the vows to G-d discussed in verse 3 need not be kept after all? Before we can understand that, we need to know a little more about the Kol Nidre prayer.
The prayer itself was very controversial within Judaism. Many Rabbinic authorities went so far as to ban Kol Nidre from inclusion in the Yom Kippur services. One of the arguments for this opinion is that Kol Nidre gives some Jews the misconception that they can make vows lightly and frivolously and need not keep them. Not all Jews share this opinion, and Kol Nidre is still recited in most synagogues. It was originally phrased in past tense, reading “from the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.” But Rashi’s son-in-law, Meir ben Samuel, changed it to read: “from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur.”
The key to figuring out how we can reconcile Kol Nidre with verse 3 is its context. We say Kol Nidre at the beginning of the Day of Atonement, when we seek forgiveness for our sins, to ask forgiveness of G-d for our weaknesses as human beings.
When we make a vow, we must intend to keep it: however, recognizing that we are only human, we ask G-d in advance for forgiveness if we fail to do so. (This does not apply if, when one makes the vow, she does so thinking of the prior Kol Nidre; in effect, making a vow with one’s fingers crossed. If that happens, then the vow is not repudiated; it remains in effect.)
Therefore, Kol Nidre does not undermine the sacredness of the mandatory nature of a vow; it merely recognizes that G-d is forgiving, and asks G-d to forgive us in the event that we fail to comply with the rule of verse 3 in parashat Mattot. Shabbat Shalom.