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Parshat Matot

The  Religious Experience

With the statement that one who makes a vow “shall not break his word” the Torah elevates one person’s individual attempt to determine a personal norm to the level of a Divine commandment. With this a vow is transformed from a personal commitment to one more mitzvah the individual must perform. The content is unimportant; from the moment it is put into the framework of a vow one has a Torah obligation to fulfill their word. With this prohibition the Torah puts man into the strange position of both the commander and the commanded. In a sense it allows a person to step into the role of the giver of the Torah, to decree a system of prohibitions and values that are personally binding. 

The gemara discusses the relationship between the mitzvot in the Torah and the things that a man commands himself to do. Can a person make a vow to fulfill a Torah commandment or not to transgress a Torah prohibition? Conversely, can someone vow to transgress a Torah prohibition? 

Though at first glance these two questions may seem similar, they raise to two different issues. The difference lies in the goal. While the former vows to keep a mitzvah in order to strengthen his commitment to the words of the Torah, the latter is an attempt to create two conflicting systems of rule- the independent Torah prohibition versus the prohibition against breaking his vow. Essentially, this person has made a vow is in conflict with God’s command.

Yet despite this essential difference the two cases in question also bear a certain similarity to one another. Each of these individuals attempts to shift the balance from a heteronymous obligation to an autonomous obligation born of their own will. When it comes to the realm of religion, this person wants to rule their own life and determine their values and obligations. In effect, these two questions relate to a deeper problem that lies at the foundation of the possibility provided by this Torah commandment; the ability to make such a vow supports the notion that a person can make themselves into a source of authority, a god. 

The Talmud assumes that this commandment presents us with a conflict. There is a principle that a person is “mushba v’omed mei’har sinai” “already obligated by an oath from Mount Sinai,” therefore it impossible to rely on a source foreign from the Sinaitic obligation to observe God’s laws. It is impossible to artificially create a second obligation stemming from the individual’s will.  As it says in Tractate Nedarim:

“How do we know that one can swear to fulfill a mitzvah? As it says: ‘I swore and I will fulfill it, to keep the statutes of Your righteousness.’ But he is already obligated by an oath from Mount Sinai?! Rather, this is what it teaches us- that one is allowed to motivate themselves.” (Nedarim 8:1)

The gemara uses the verse “I swore and I will fulfill it, to keep the statutes of Your righteousness” to learn that one can augment a Divine commandment through a vow in order to strengthen their commitment. It also makes it clear that there is no way to create an additional source for the obligation. The most the vow can accomplish is to motivate them to fulfill the Torah commandment. The gemara’s discussion clarifies the relationship between Divine commandments and human vows. 

It is also possible for a vow to partially overlap with a Torah commandment. The gemara discusses the case of someone who vowed they would not eat and then ate neveila (an animal that was not properly slaughtered, and therefore non-kosher), and asks if they are judged as one who ate neveila or one who broke a vow. The discussion here is also based on a certain contempt for the notion that the problem could be the breaking of the vow since the person is already obligated by their oath at Mount Sinai. In this case Rav, Shmuel, and Rabbi Yochanan all agree that as long the scope of the vow is broader than the Torah prohibition the vow can include that which is written in the Torah. Reish Lakish is of the opinion that the vow is also valid if one vows to abstain from something prohibited by the Torah, but broadens the prohibition. For example, Reish Lakish is of the opinion that the various Torah prohibitions against eating non-kosher only apply once a certain amount of food is consumed, and so if someone vows not to eat less than the amount prohibited by the Torah their vow is valid. If they transgress they are obligated from their first bite. (T.B. Yoma 73b) 

So there is a distinction. One may add a vow to a Torah obligation they are already committed to fulfill in order to strengthen their motivation. Yet in the case of a prohibition the vow does not apply if it only regards a preexisting commandment; it is only valid if there is some gap between the Torah prohibition and the vow. There is one clear cut case when a vow is utterly invalid. A vow that is contrary to Torah law is considered “nishba al ma shekatuv batorah,” “one who swears on something written in the Torah.”  This is considered a shvuat shav, a false or empty oath, since the person is not allowed to fulfill their oath. They are not prevented by their circumstances, but rather by halacha.


The question of the overlap between a vow or an oath and the mitzvot of the Torah is essentially the same question at the source of a number of conflicts in the life of a faithful Jew. This overlap brings to mind an essential question, one that Socrates asked Euthypro and we still ask today: Is the good loved by the gods because it is good or is it good because it is loved by the gods? In other words, should we try to find the good in the commandment and identify with it or is it good because God commanded it? There is no definitive answer to this question. A person is allowed to feel a personal connection to the mitzvot, but we must always remember that the authority and validity of the Torah is not based on any vow or oath of our own, but rather on the obligation we have to obey the word of God.


Thu, May 28 2020 5 Sivan 5780