The roots of all vows

The roots of all vows

Matot — Numbers 30:2-32:42

It seems a long way off, but before we know it, summer swelter will give way to autumn cool, and we will be back in synagogue listening to Kol Nidrei. The roots of Kol Nidrei lie in this week’s parsha, in which Moses cautions the people, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he may not break his pledge.” We find two categories here: “vow” (neder) and “oath” (sh’vu’a). Both are ways of forbidding something to oneself: saying, for example (by neder), “I vow never to give you a gift again,” or (by sh’vu’a), “I swear, by God, never to give you a gift again.”

But the Hebrew for obligation (isar) was taken as yet a third category, and others too were eventually added to the lexicon of sacred promises that must be honored. Kol Nidrei is a prayer from the ninth century (or so) that effects the annulment of them all. Its various terms (nidrei, konamei, kinusei, etc.) denote the legal niceties of these various classes of oaths and vows.

Buried in this legal nitpicking are a number of lessons that touch the halachic understanding of human nature and our relationship to God.

Take, for example, the interesting possibility of a person pledging (by vow or by oath) not to fulfill a mitzva. A husband dies, let us say, and the grieving widow is so devastated that she vows (or swears) never to light Shabbat candles again. We saw above how a person might vow (or swear) never to give someone a gift. Gift-giving is optional, but candle-lighting is commanded; may a woman promise never to light Shabbat candles?

The answer is that she may, but only through a neder (a vow), not a sh’vu’a (an oath). That is because the prohibition of a neder is considered as falling upon the thing being forbidden, while the prohibition of a sh’vu’a is seen as devolving on the person doing the forbidding. In our case, then, the woman is allowed to define a particularly difficult mitzva as beyond her psychological ken (through a neder), even though she may not define herself as beyond the doing of it (through a sh’vu’a).

But why is that? Don’t these amount to the same thing in the long run?

Rabbi Daniel Landes explains the difference with theological sensitivity. In an essay on the halacha of vows composed for a book I am editing on Kol Nidrei (All These Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing, August 2011), he explains that in general, the obligation to do mitzvot goes back to an oath (a sh’vu’a) that our ancestors made at Sinai. Halacha does not permit us to break that oath, which we, as Jews, inherit as our mandate. “It is the person who is obliged at Sinai,” however, “not the objects of Halacha to which the person relates,” and a vow (a neder), as we have seen, falls on the object, not the person.

Even more interesting is the idea that seems to lie behind this view. Under the force of trauma, we may find this or that mitzva too much to bear, to the point where we may vow not to do it. Even without being traumatized, we may find ourselves questioning a particular halachic act, to the point where we pledge to abandon it. And God, as it were, understands all this; God appreciates the dilemmas that life deals us. But the focus must remain the traumatizing or alienating activity that we would otherwise gladly do, not us, the doers of it, for no matter how estranged halachic acts may appear, we are not permitted to assume that we are personally estranged from the comforting presence of God.

It is hoped that we will return to doing the mitzva, of course — our hypothetical woman may annul her rash vow not to light Shabbat candles. And until she does, she may indeed abandon it. She should know, however, that God never abandons her.

Judaism is about obligations; but obligations are about relationships. Halachic theory accepts the fact that for a time, at least, this or that obligation may seem painfully beyond us. It does not, however, countenance our imagining that we are painfully removed from God. The divine-human relationship is sacrosanct.

What we see here is Judaism’s insistence on the love of God. Churches regularly proclaim God’s love; synagogues don’t, but should. A loving God is central to everything Judaism holds dear.

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