Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Matot
To dedicate this lesson

How can one annul a vow?


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

Parshat Matot opens with the laws of vows. As vows are considered serious issues, a man who makes a vow is obligated to uphold it. Why? Regarding vows, the Torah says (Matot) "he shall not desecrate his words", in other words, he shall not renege on his words. The Seforno (ibid.) comments that Parshat Kedoshim uses similar wording: "You shall not swear falsely by My Name, thereby desecrating the Name of your G-d", and from here the Seforno concludes that a person who transgresses his vow desecrates G-d.

Yet despite this, our Sages taught us that, in certain cases, it is possible to annul a vow. How could such a thing be possible? How is it possible to annul a vow to which a person obligated himself?

In order to understand this, let us try to examine the essence of vows. Seemingly, vows are something possessing great significance, as man takes upon himself additional prohibitions.

However, there is a problematic statement in this: does man not have enough Torah laws that he needs to add his own personal commandments?!

Another problem that exists in vows is the detachment from society. The commandments connect the entire Nation of Israel to G-d, and therefore the commandments belong in principle to all of Israel (however there are groups with specific affiliation to the commandments, like the priests). When a person takes an oath and prohibits himself from performing something new, he indeed removes himself from the framework of society. Now, there is something which is permitted for all of Israel, but for him prohibited.

How is it possible to annul vows?

There are two types of vow annulment:

A "Loophole": Had the person making the vow considered some facts at the time he took the vow – he would not have taken the oath. When we discover this fact, the vow is defined as a mistaken vow. For example, the Gemarra in Nedarim tells of a person who made a meal and suddenly saw people coming toward him. He feared that they wanted to join him for the meal, so he therefore took an oath preventing them from enjoying the meal. When they got closer, he saw that his father was among the group of people. He said "Had I known Father was with them I would not have sworn".
Remorse: There are facts that changed in reality since the time that the person made the vow. If these facts existed up front – he would not have taken the oath. In other words, a person made a vow about a specific thing, and at the time that he swore all the facts were clear, however later one of the facts changed. Now the person who swore has remorse, but he does not want to uproot the principle of the vow, but rather he wants to annul it henceforth.
Miamonides (Law of Shavuot 6:1) writes that one of the situations defined as remorse is also if "he changed his mind to something else". In other words, when a person thinks differently than how he thought in the past, then he can have remorse for the vow and annul it henceforth.

Seemingly, the whole subject of annulling vows is surprising. If a person vowed a certain thing – he should uphold his word! And even if we understand vow annulment with the ‘loophole’, a situation in which the facts were not known upfront, in the case of remorse, and certainly in the case of changing his mind, we need to understand how it is possible to allow someone to annul his vow and not keep his word!

This subject matter has led to much anti-Semitism throughout the generations. In the debate of Rabbi Yechiel from Paris (5001, and similarly the debate of Nachmanides in the year 5023) there was a complaint against the Jews that it is impossible to believe them, since "he will stand on Yom Kippur and say: "All my vows". Moreover, this complaint repeated itself in periods closer to us. About 160 years ago (5612) in Russia they came out against the wording of ‘All vows’, and it was amended and clarified as printed in Chayei Adam (Klal 144).

And indeed, there are Gaonim and Rishonim (Rabbi Hai Gaon, Shaarei Teshuva 38; Rabbi Natrunai Gaon, Laws from the Gaonim 122; Meiri, Chibur HaTeshuva p. 815; Responsa of the Riva"sh 394 in the name of the Rit) that were also opposed to the recital of ‘All vows’, but precisely from the opposite direction: there is no annulment here at all, only deception. And through it the public comes to scorn vows and to seek ways around them. The Mishna (Chagiga 10a) says that vow annulment lacks foundation, and is not stated explicitly in the Torah. Nachmanides (beginning of Matot) explains that maybe the parsha of vow annulment was only explicitly said to the Tribal heads, because we need to conceal vow annulment from the Nation of Israel so they don’t act frivolously in regards to vows

This is seemingly the reason of some of the Gaonim who were against saying ‘All vows’. In the period of the Gaonim they were very concerned that people would take an oath lightly, and therefore they abstained from dealing with the laws of vows. In the day of Mar Rabbi Yehuai Gaon vows were not reviewed in the Beit Medrash for over 100 years, and there was no one who knew to be satisfactorily precise about it (answer brought in the Rif, end of Nedarim), and the Rishonim wrote that this is also the reason why "the language of vows is unusual" (Rosh Nedarim 2b, Tosefot ibid 7a), and the Mesechet is not arranged and revised like the other Mesechtot.

Despite this, our Sages permitted vow annulment in certain cases. And what really is the significance of the issue of vow annulment? It seems that indeed there is tremendous importance in man keeping his word and doing what he promised. Therefore, in general the Sages were against vows. However, something more important than man keeping his word is admitting his mistakes! To admit that the previous decision or statement was mistaken, and that "he changed his mind"! (according to my master and father-in-law Rav Blumenzweig).

Men continue on their earlier path since they are unable to say to themselves: we made a mistake, we need to change (it is very difficult to hear someone say "I made a mistake"!).

On the one hand, we need to stick to the things we obligated ourselves to. We need to keep our promises, desires, aspirations, etc. However, if we make a mistake – we need to be honest enough to say we erred. We need to be a nation courageous enough to change things that are wrong, to ascend and elevate, to ascend and be sanctified.

Therefore, usually "he shall not desecrate his words" – we need to keep the vow literally (and we therefore need to be careful in general and not take an oath). However, there are cases when it is permissible and even a commandment to annul the vow. And so it is, as said, not only in the world of vows. We need to know to adhere to our missions, our thoughts, our dreams; but we also need to know to occasionally examine things, to stop and think whether we are on the right path, and to be courageous enough to go on another path if we feel we erred.

May it be His will that we merit to do G-d’s will in the world, to submit our will to His will, and to be ready to fully accept on ourselves the yoke of Heaven!
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