There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.” Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7. Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday. Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.
One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows. A vow works likes this. I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help. Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.
So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God. It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple. I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.
The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers. A number of Psalms express vows as well.
This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic. The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible. No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled. The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.
In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow. If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?
Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible. The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.
The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back. He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.
The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges. The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:
“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”
Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.
God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies. When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child. Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.
The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them. Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows. They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.
At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei. The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’
Oy. So many double negatives.
What’s the big problem with a vow? The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words. God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows. The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments. When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough. There are no excuses.
Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present. A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way. “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived. Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”
In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur. At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei. In fact, we name the entire service Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement. We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled. Nidrana la nidrei. “Our vows are not vows.”
When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it. But it was too popular with people.
The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter. Life is unpredictable. I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today. But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate. Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.
Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived. With integrity and honesty.