All About Vows, Not All About Women
Getting Up to Speed: How we got here
Our parsha begins with instruction that is given to the tribal heads of Israel, to the leaders of the clans. Remember in last weeks parsha I pointed out that much of the drama in the story of Parshat Pinchas was related to the tribal heads not doing their jobs to discipline their own families, and letting the actions get out of hand until a plague began to engulf the people. We read how they are told to remedy the situation, but disaster is instead diverted by a striking act of zealotry by Pinchas the priest. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011)
A Whole Chapter That Turns Talmudic
This whole first chapter of our pasha is going to concern one single command, so it must be pretty important. Everyone important is there, and it has an important tone. This parsha opens up with giving a directive that it states in very direct and clear terms as “zeh hadavar asher tzuah Hashem / this is the thing that Hashem has commanded.” (Numbers 30:2)
Now this command has to be spoken about in such definitive terms because it’s going to talk about issues of gender and shake things up in a way that is pretty revolutionary for the time. Not that talking about these issues doesn’t raise a stir even at this point in history. I’m not ignorant, I personally know a few feminists rabbis that are going to give blood curdling speeches about how the Hebrew scriptures spew sexism and some will even go as far as suggest we should rip pages out of the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) in objection. I’m against sexism, as much as anyone else. There is no room for it in Torah-true living. But expunging our true historic development and not putting things into a broader perspective is just intellectually dishonest. Besides, if we are going to keep this Torah we need to learn to read it other ways and give up our rigidness; this isn’t new, this is how traditional Judaism deals with advancement.
What do I mean by look at it in a broader perspective? Well, why do we not apply the rules of logic that we utilize with the Torah – namely Talmud, the oral Torah – to the text here. I say this because here is the assembly of all the elders of Israel both small and great, and they are being given commands and it is being discussed in much the same manner we do in the sanheidrin before a body of leaders. Many people who are not traditional or not Jewish might lose interest at this point because they can easily dismiss the Talmud on the basis of the various opinions concerning details of Jewish law and say that something so varying cannot be something divinely sanctioned; because it has to be black and white. But what many people miss about applying Talmudic legal thinking is that there is so much that is said in the silence of the discussion on certain elements. The real treasure of the Talmud is that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of a person by arguing the agreed upon, only the variances of the application of what is agreed upon. This might be a bit confusing so let me give you and example using our parsha and this mitzvah.
As our text opens we are given a concrete and certain idea to consider, verse 3 reads:
“A man who makes a vow to Hashem
or swears an oath to restrict himself with
upon his self
he shall not break his word,
all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.”
| Ish ki-yidor neder l’Hashem
| o-hishava shvu’ah lesor isar
| lo yachel d’varo
| kechol-hayotze mipiv ya’aseh
We are shown here that a person is able to make a vow to G-d, or swear to anything of his own volition. Now what do we mean by a vow? The word used is neder, it means to make a promise. Neder is also the name of certain type of sacrifice, it is a sacrifice that is to be made in the Temple to honor that vow. Basically how it works is someone make a promise for anything and when it comes through they will offer a sacrifice to G-d.
The other option is to assar, or to make an oath; literally it means to forbid. It is along the same lines as the neder promise, but is characterized by including a promise to deprive oneself of a certain thing until a certain time or a certain occurrence takes place.
Now its true the word ish can mean person, not just man. It often means man in the general sense. For me this would be good enough, a person is able to make a vow and they should keep it. But here it really does mean man.
And this is where the gauntlet falls, now the text is going to go into specifying details regarding the application of the vows and oaths by means of examples. Now for those of you who say that Talmud is the only book to knit-pick, this is where the oral and written Torahs show they really are two halves to a whole. The text if very detailed, but for the sake of time I will quickly explain the examples it lays out for us:
- If a woman (ishah) makes a vow or an oath while she is still a minor in her father’s house, and he does not say anything in objection to it then her vow is valid and she is obligated. But a father may invalidate her vow on the day he hears of it (or as some say, if he hears of it on that day). If the father intervenes in such a way G-d will forgive her because her father has restricted her. (verses 4-6)
- What happens if the father has not invalidated the vow that she made while as a person of his household and she then gets married? We see that on the day the husband hears of the vow he may invalidate it. And because he has restricted her G-d will forgive her. (verses 7-9)
- Then it gives us the example of a widow or divorced woman, anything she prohibits herself of by an oath she is obligated to uphold. (verse 10)
- Now finally, the vows and oaths of a woman who is married; if a woman makes a vow or oath and the husband does not object then her promises are valid. However, if he objects then anything that comes out of her mouth is invalid, and G-d will forgive her because her husband restricted her. This is pretty much the same as a girl with a father. (verses 11-13)
And that’s the point that hurts many of the feminists, and I’m not going to try to limit the pain people feel in that they see that women historically were often treated like property transferred from father to husband. And I will politely listen as people in their pain say “this isn’t fair that men were able to interfere in the decisions of women from birth to death.” But this isn’t exactly true.
Notice there is one category of women that cannot have their vows and oaths overruled here, that is the widow and the divorcée. It is this third category that is going to show us the reason why involvement is and isn’t allowed. On the surface it may seem like an issue of respect as to why this is different for a formerly married woman, you don’t ask a person who has become a “lady” in her own right to have to be monitored by someone else so she is thus exempt.
But if we think about it logically we see a very sublime reason; all the other class of women their vows and oaths effect someone else. As a “minor” or as a wife making promises of offerings at the Temple is obligating her father or husband to pay up, of course he should be allowed to have a say in the matter. For a father, say for example he has a child that takes upon themselves extreme fasting as their vow (a quite common one by the way) the father can not only object, but his objection also pardons the child from being held accountable by G-d if they don’t follow through and it’s just a fad. Another one I have even seen among religious people who have gone off the deep end is that they fast too much and they forget to feed their children because they don’t eat themselves; a husband has a right to say, no this isn’t okay and it has to stop, and G-d will forgive her for breaking the vow. And this is the common theme that goes on is that G-d will forgive these women if someone steps in. And of course following G-d’s example, these men should forgive these women.
Bottom Line: Women Can Make Vows and Oaths
But before anyone gets hurt feelings I want us to step back for a minute and look at this in its entirety, the Talmudic way. What do we again see that is common factor about all of this as well? At this point in history it’s hard for us to see what some people saw so clearly then, and even then its very cleaver how we are distracted with the fine points that men and women both miss the main point.
We open up with men being given the right to make vows and oaths. These vows can be made at any time, and in any place. One does not need prior permission or an intermediary. There is no limitations as to why a person may vow, and as we see it can be a vow to G-d or an oath to restrict oneself.
What we learn of the women is that the same is true for her, except that a women who is in the house of her father or husband may have her vows annulled. Let me spell that out for you, the Torah is fast talking past the point that it is doing something that is almost unthinkable in this point in history by giving women the ability to make vows and oaths, saying they do not need prior permission or the sanction of state or priest. They can make them at any time and any place. For what ever reason they may make a vow or oath. Yes, there is one restriction, but they are given the ability nonetheless and it is wholly valid and ordered by G-d that they have that right.
But the nature of the situation when it comes to vows is that they usually entail someone promising something impressive and great. But most often these days it’s a serious self-restriction or deprivation that one vows to their own self.
Historically, making oaths like this were very common at that point in history. People made oaths for everything. Sometimes, in formal circles people made oaths just out of the blue to impress theirs guests; I know it sounds childish and it is. It was a colloquial way of exaggerating that made it impossible for people to really put trust in promises. People didn’t know when someone was telling the truth our just speaking to make themselves look good.
But most often, like in the lives of so many mothers, there were the oaths made under pressure; oaths for divine intervention. Vows that are made at an ill child’s bedside, or when one gets a tragic message from a family member (G-d forbid such things). And this is the reason some of our sages hold as to why this clause allows that a woman’s oaths can be annulled, because as an example women like mothers often dealt with the real disasters that befell the family. If the children went hungry, if someone was sick in the family, if the bill collectors were bugging all day, it was mom that was going to have to deal with real anguish and be most prone to make vows of desperation. Someone had to be able to step in and remind her she is making way too big of a promise.
So our chapter sums it up by giving us a display of the endgame, what it looks like when all applied:
“All vows and oaths
of a restrictive oath that embitters the soul
her husband can uphold them
and her husband may annul it”
| Kol-neder vechol-shvu’at
| isar le’anot nafesh
| ishah yekimenu
| ve’ishah yeferenu.
And here is where we again get our idea reaffirmed, these types of vows are ones that embitter the soul and deprive the person. This is a key and central line, we are talking about people making vows that restrict a person and makes their life miserable in a way to try to atone or show devotion.
Now bear with me for a minute as I hope to tie this together for you. I will be one of the first to admit to my feminist friends, the bible is not equal when it comes to gender inclusion. In fact it doesn’t mention women for the most part unless it really has to. This we can all agree on, right? And if the bible was using it’s normal tone, if it was talking about the responsibilities of a minor it would normally mention a son. If we were talking about the honor of the family it would normally talk about the husband, not the wife. But it is my opinion this chapter uses general terms for relating to people because its making a point, not talking about specific people or genders. Look at the words it uses: ish (man), ishah (woman); ishah (wife), ish (husband); ishah (her husband). The meaning only becomes apparent when we consider each term in connection to the relationships and roles of each person described.
I am of the opinion this is applying a principal by example and parable. The reason it uses the example of a daughter and a wife is because these people cannot be misconstrued as “autonomous” people, whose decisions and vows have no consequence on the rest of the family. This is just an example taken to its most extreme but logical end, using the best appropriate examples. All our rabbis agree this is an example of something, and I agree; just stating that the principal is greater than the puppet examples used in this presentation.
If we look at it from this perspective this chapter takes on a way different meaning, and it holds a real world application that we can utilize today in order to keep this mitzvah. Let me explain in conclusion.
Keeping Silent Means Affirming a Vow
One of the first things we are told in our parsha, when the example is a daughter, is that if the father stays silent upon hearing her vow then she is bound by it. Why, because he is tacitly agreeing to the vow; by his silence he is implying that he approves and agrees with the vow. The same is in the case of a married woman, our text summarizes this principle:
“And if the husband remains silent
from day to day
he will have let all her vows stand
or any oath upon her he will have upheld
because he kept silent on the day he heard.”
| Ve’im-hacharesh yacharish lah ishah
| miyom el-yom
| vehekim et-kol-nedareiha
| o et-kol-esareiha asher aleiha hekim otam
| ki-hecherish lah beyom shom’o.
I don’t know how I can stress this but the word above, hekim which bears the meaning “to let stand,” to sustain, or uphold, also means to establish as well. By keeping silent it is as though he is making this promise himself. He is considered in agreement. Day after day if he watches the suffering of the vow and doesn’t object, of course he agrees because any decent person would say “enough is enough, this really isn’t necessary.”
Let us consider the nature of promises here. As I had pointed out in the beginning, vows and oaths can be made towards G-d or towards ones self. What ever they are, they are a way of us causing bitterness to ourselves. In this day and age, because people don’t often give the appropriate consideration of G-d they think they don’t have to worry about vows. They can’t see all the vows and oaths they make to themselves and upon themselves, ones that embitter their lives. These vows are also vows made in desperation, and often times they are vows to not do that again, or not feel that way again, to not act that way anymore, etc. A broken heart promises not to love again. An obese person promises not to eat that anymore. These type of things are vows too, ones often made out of emotion and which one cannot possibly keep.
And there are some vows in which we should not ever have to keep. For a moment I want to bring our attention to another example in the Tanach when comes to vows. We are at the end of Mosheh’s leadership and they are about to move into the age of the judges. During this period there was the infamous story of Yiftach (Jephtha) in Judges chapters 10-11. Most of us will know the story, he vows that if G-d will give him victory in war he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. It turns out his most beloved daughter came out to great him. Of course she wasn’t sacrificed like an animal, our tradition tells us she became a monastic virgin because human sacrifice is forbidden by Torah; but that’s besides the point, vows of chastity are considered cruel and merit-less in our culture where G-d calls us to be fruitful and understands it’s not good for us to be alone. The father is rightfully harshly criticized for not breaking his vow, as he could have just repented for his wrong. But instead he holds to his vow because he made a promise and he can’t go back on it (Judges 10:31). Mostly because he wanted to save face, to keep his honor. Surprisingly, many of our sages even go as so far as to criticize the daughter as well because she agreed in the end to go along with it and honor his vow; she agreed and affirmed it, then saw it through even though it wasn’t right. This vow though caused so much pain that we are told the young ladies of Israel would go up to weep with her year after year because she remained a virgin.
Now this is where some Talmud knowledge on the part of my more progressive friends would be helpful to put this issue of vows into perspective. It wasn’t only the vows of women that could be nullified. In Midrash Rabbah Genesis 60 we learn specifically about this through the story of Yiftach, it tells us that not only was he and his daughter responsible, but so was someone else; Pinchas, the kohen gadol (High Priest) at the time. Whereas we never find a punishment for Yiftach for his vow, we are told that Pinchas is punished because he did not annul the vows. The midrash bluntly and matter-of-factly tells us that the local priests, or Pinchas as high priest was able to annul the vow. He was in a role of respect and authority and needed to speak out, but he didn’t. Whereas Yiftach was too proud of himself to go to Pinchas to annul the vow, Pinchas in the end held the responsibility because he should have gone to Yiftach instead when he didn’t go, the buck stopped with him. By remaining silent our Midrash tells us that he was punished by G-d, because in his silence he affirmed this horrible oath which caused pain literally to the entire generation.
Sometimes the vows and oaths we take on in our lives are painful and ridiculous, not just for us but also painful for others as well as they watch us struggle and suffer through it. What we learn from this parsha is that there is always room to be corrected by someone we are in relationship with and accountable to because we also include them in our anguish.
And likewise when we see people in suffering we should stop their suffering, we need to use our clout and report with them to tell them to give themselves a break. Help them shoulder their burden to put it in perspective for them. Express to them because you are part of their lives their pain effects you, and you want them to know they don’t have to expect so much out of themselves.
Lastly, our parsha leaves us with two deep points. In its final verse of instruction (as verse 17 just repeats the players again) and gives us a good way getting those who harshly hold on to their strict vows to let go:
“And if he makes them null and void
after hearing them
he shall bear her guilt.”
| Ve’im-hafer yafer otam
| acharei shom’o
| venasa et-avonah.
We can read this two ways, consistent with the rest of the chapter; if someone else nullifies their vows they are not held responsible for it, they meant the best in making the vow, but someone has restricted them from following through so they are atoned for and even credited that their heart was in the right place.
And then there is the second suggested meaning, namely that we can nullify a vow at anytime. Some of our sages teach that even if in that day a loved one affirm the vow and then changes their mind and nullifies it after the fact, the person who vowed it is again not responsible as they were restricted. It’s never too late to speak up! Use the clout and respect that a loved one has in you to convince them to let you lighten their load. If someone you love is stuck in a vow or oath they wont let go of, the best thing we can do and the Torah way is to tell them its okay, G-d understands and will forgive them. Express to them that your so confident of this that your willing to take the blame yourself and bear the guilt if necessary. You would be surprised how quickly that level of concern melts the heart of someone!