Last week, in Parasha Pinchas, we read that God gave Pinchas (Phinehas) a pact of peace and everlasting priesthood in response to his zeal for the Lord.
In this week’s Parasha, Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes (matot) about the laws governing vows (neder) and oaths (shevua):
“Moses said to the heads of the tribes [matot] of Israel: ‘This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes [nadar] a vow [neder] to the Lord or takes an oath [shevua] to obligate [asar] himself by a pledge [issar], he must not break his word but must do everything he said.’” (Numbers 30:1–2)
The Hebrew word neder, which is often translated vow in English Bibles, though English really does not have an equivalent word, denotes a solemn declaration using the name of God to consecrate something to God and also, to do something in His service or honor.
A neder, then, dedicates something or someone to God, such as a donation pledge, sacrificial offering or the dedication of a child as in the case of Hannah and Samuel. (1 Samuel 1:11) That dedicated object or person then becomes holy. (Numbers 6:8)
Nedarim are often conditional—if You do this, I will do that.
Jacob (Yaacov) made this kind of vow in exchange for God’s provision and protection on his journey when he promised to give back to God a tenth (tithe) of everything God gave to him. (Genesis 28:20–22)
While a neder dedicates something or someone to God, a shevua is a sacred commitment made between people or groups, or between a person and God.
We see an example of such an obligation in Genesis 47:31, when Jacob asked Joseph to make a shevua that he would bury him in Canaan.
Vows, however, do not always arise from consecration. Quite often they are uttered rashly in times of distress or desperation in an attempt to secure divine help or aid.
The challenge, then, is to remember to keep the vow when the trial has passed.
The reality is, of course, that sometimes we simply don’t keep the vow we have made, despite our best intentions. We might even forget that we made a vow.
For that reason, Ecclesiastes advises that we not be hasty in making promises to God. It also advises us to be quick in our follow-through when we do go ahead and make a vow.
“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God…. When you make [nadar] a vow [neder]to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4–5)
For an example of a rash and foolish vow, we can look back to Jephthah’s vow in Parasha Chukat. In exchange for a future military victory, he vowed to sacrifice in thanksgiving the first thing to come out of his house when he returned home.
Much to his horror, it was his one and only daughter who first came out. (Judges 11:30–39)
Rabbinic consensus provides for the very human tendency to utter vows recklessly.
The Rabbis contend that it’s better to break a foolish or dangerous vow than to persist in carrying it out.
Interestingly enough, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Biblical calendar, begins with a prayer called Kol Nidre (All Vows). Its purpose is to break any such vows made over the past year.
Kol Nidre likely arose during the Spanish Inquisition when many Jews were forced to make Christian vows in order to save their lives. God takes vows seriously and so should we; however, we must also be aware and accept that there are exceptions when a vow must unfortunately be broken.
With this in mind, many pious Jews will mutter “b’li neder (without a formal promise)” to avoid becoming trapped in the sin of violating ones commitments.
Still, the person uttering such a qualifier must truly intend to keep their commitment, and it is not to be used for business contracts and legal obligations. (MiYodeya)
Related to the neder, but slightly different, is a bond or binding obligation called an issar.
This is usually a negative vow—a self-imposed pledge to abstain from something that is normally permissible.
An example of this is the Nazarite neder—a pledge to abstain from consuming grape products such as wine and from cutting one’s hair.
The Hebrew noun issar (bond) is closely related to the verb asar, which means to obligate or forbid.
These words carry the connotation of being bound, chained, or imprisoned; for instance, a prisoner is an asir. From this we understand that we are bound by even voluntary choices to designate something permissible as forbidden (asur).
We see an example of an issar in the life of the Apostle Shaul (Paul), when he joined four men in taking a Nazarite vow to prove to the Jewish People that he maintained an observant Jewish lifestyle and faithfully kept the Torah (Acts 21:23–24).