WORD OF HONOR – Num. 30-36 – Matos-Mas’ey – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This is one of the double-header weeks when we will read two Torah portions. Subjects covered explore a wide variety. Responsibility for vows, the war against Midian, a review of the Israelite itinerary from Egypt to the border of the Promised Land, plans to assign territory there. We will read about the shepherds of Reuben and Gad obtaining permission to settle east of the Jordan on condition that they will first fight to help their fellow Israelites conquer the country. And finally a happy ending for the daughters of Zelophehad to establish women’s rights. Way too many topics for one commentary. So let’s concentrate on Number One.
Moses addresses the heads of the matos – the tribes. “This is what G-d commands,” he says. “When a man makes a vow or swears an oath to G-d, he must not break his word.” Basic honesty, right? Not a matter of public policy for the tribal princes to enforce, but a principle of personal practice. Teach your people to honor their words.
N’darim –Vows — can take many forms, of course. A positive vow can commit one to do something definite, whether that something involves physical work or a contribution – consecrating a sacrificial animal to the sanctuary, for example. A man might say “if I sell this field for the price I am asking, I will donate 10% to the Temple.” On the other hand, a negative vow can penalize the individual himself or someone else. “I hereby vow that you can get no benefit from me – or that I will take no benefit from you.” Conflicts between people are nothing new, we know.
Women also make vows. In biblical times their vows were contingent on approval by their father if they were young and single, or later by their husband. If the supervising male does not excuse them, the vow stands, and the pre-teen girl or the married lady must carry out her commitment.
The bottom line is that a neder is a sacred promise. Your word of honor. Violate it at your spiritual peril. Breaking the vow would also mean bringing a penalty sacrifice. No wonder the Talmud devotes an entire tractate to the subject of N’darim. As a matter of fact, this year the daily Talmud lesson – daf yomi – is covering this tractate now. Innumerable situations are discussed.
One who says he will not benefit from those who go to sea is permitted to deal with land dwellers. Or vice versa. And then the rabbis bring up the case of sailors who are really in the category of landlubbers because their voyages are so short, just from Akko to Jaffa – one day’s journey.
One who says he will not profit from Israelites, but we assume his suppliers and customers are Israelites, has to buy high and sell low. If he says Israelites will not profit from him, he must buy low and sell high. But nobody listens to him, says the Talmud. Because of his vow he would sell low and buy high? Let him do business with Gentiles.
One who vows he will not have pleasure with his wife, and then says that he really meant his first wife that he divorced? Quite a discussion on questions like that. If one makes a vow and then needs to cancel it, he must get help from an expert – mumkheh – who knows the laws very well.
A rather obvious case involves a man who vows not to have any benefit from his friend. He must not allow the friend to use his tools, nor may he use the friend’s tools. He must not lend him money or borrow from him. The sage Yosi son of Hanina comments that this is as if they foreswore any benefit from each other.
Vows don’t happen much any more, and these instances illustrate why that is true. When a Jew today declares his intention to do something, it is traditional to add the words b’lee neder – No vow intended. Over the centuries Judaism learned and honored the principle of keeping our word. We are still learning it. Hopefully, we honor it.