Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
The Significance of Nedarim
Parshat Matot begins with a discussion of certain aspects of nedarim-shavuah, including the prohibition of "lo yahel devaro" which is engendered when an individual fails to adhere to his verbal commitment. The Torah's presentation of these laws is unusual and noteworthy. Only in this context does Moshe Rabbenu dramatically depart from his usual protocol. Instead of teaching these laws to the entire Jewish people, he addresses these halakhot specifically to its leadership! Moreover, one senses a measure of urgency in Moshe's introductory remarks--" this is the matter which God has commanded (zeh ha-davar asher zivah Hashem)". This rare formulation (which appears again only regarding the prohibition of shehutei huz), directed to an extremely elite audience, seems to convey the special import and broader significance of the message. The term "lo yahel" itself demands clarification and is subject to much speculation among the commentators. [See also Rashbam ad loc.;Hagigah10a; Nedarim 81b etc.] Rashi renders it as the secularization or profanation of one's word, implying that the norm entails a standard of kedushah-sanctity, though nedarim might relate to matters with little or no obvious connection to the sacred realm. The term "neder la-Hashem" in this context is similarly problematic. While each of these anomalies has invited discussion and has inspired explanations and insights in their own right, perhaps one can pursue a more holistic approach to these various phenomena. A brief analysis of some elements of nedarim may illuminate the Torah's presentation.
The core concept underlying the very institution of nedarim is that the religious world of the halakhah constitutes its own independent and compelling spiritual reality. By establishing neder as an "issur hefza" (a status that inheres in and transforms the said object itself, though often only vis a vis the individual who commits himself to this status), the Talmud (Nedarim 2b) makes a powerful statement about the broader scope and nature of the halakhic world view. The fact that this "halakhic reality" extends beyond nidrei heqdesh or even nidrei mizvah into neutral realms, that an artificially-generated issur hefza can be used to generate further such status through media like "hatfasah", and that neder comes about simply as a function of serious personal commitment increases the significance of this institution within the broader framework of the halakhic world-view. Man's capacity to impact upon his own (and in some cases even affect others-mudar hana'ah)spiritual reality and the blurring of lines between secular, neutral, and religious spheres are just a few of the implications that follow from a proper appreciation of hilkhot nedarim. The fact that one can occasionally apply the singular concept of neder to spiritual initiatives (kum ve-aseh) [nidrei heqdesh (see Ramban,beg. of Matot), perhaps nidrei zedakah, possibly even nidrei mizvah (see commentators Nedarim 8a, including R. Avraham of Montpellier, and commentaries on the verse "va-yidar Yaakov neder")] strongly suggests that, beyond obligation, such halakhic initiatives are perceived as a Jew's natural spiritual destiny to which he has a particular proclivity (see Rambam hil' Gittin 2:20; Niddah 30b). The individual obligates himself by associating with that destiny merely by invoking neder in these contexts!
Perhaps the Torah's urgent tone and unusual formulation of "zeh ha-davar etc." can be understood against this background. Moreover, nedarim are depicted in this context as "neder la-Hashem" because, even more than the parallel institution of shavuah (issur gavra), the singular transformative nature of nedarim reflects much not only about the great importance of personal commitment and integrity, but about the role of individual initiative and the wide scope and inherently transcendent quality of halakhic life. [Some of these concepts are also reflected in hil. shavuot as well, but with a different emphasis. See also Rambam hil. Shavuot5:4] Violation of such commitments ("Lo Yahel") is viewed not merely as a breach of integrity, but as a desecration precisely because it reflects a neutral approach toward halakhic reality, always a matter of spirituality [hillul, which results from an approach of hullin].
Properly conceived, the concept reflected by the institution of nedarim-- of a halakhic reality that is, in part, shaped by individual commitment--, enhances the prestige and authority of the entire halakhic system byaccenting its self-sufficiency and centrality. At the same time, this ambitious principle may also be easily misconstrued as undermining the objective status of existing norms and obligations. In addition, if not properly understood and seriously implemented, the abuse of nedarim may generate significant hillul Hashem given its broader significance. Hence, Moshe Rabbenu initially entrusted this crucial, yet subtle theme exclusively to the elite spiritual leadership.
Moreover, Rashi notes that the spiritual elite played a special role in exempting or neutralizing nedarim (hattarat nedarim by yahid mumhah). It should be noted that the license of a hakham to neutralize vows is itself quite innovative. The Mishneh in Haggigah 10a characterizes it as "porhin ba-avir ve-ein lahem al mahshe-yismokhu" (hanging in the air without a clear source in the Torah). It is the system of halakah, by means of its oral tradition, that justifies this innovation. Furthermore, exemptions, based on petah, haratah etc., reflect the kind of qualitative commitment necessary to generate the status (or commitment, in case of shavuah) at the outset. The mechanism employed to neutralize commitment may also project the theme of halakhic reality", as true intent and past commitment are reassessed in quintessentially halakhic terms. The scholar's discerning role entails both halakhic expertise and human empathy and sensitivity. It should also be noted that while the sacrificial commitments of non-Jews are binding (Menahot 73b), hattarat nedarim is apparently reserved exclusively for Jews (Yerushalmi Nazir 9:1), as it is represents a uniquely halakhic concept. It is, thus, entirely appropriate that the roshei ha-matot were assigned such a prominent place in the initial transmission of these laws.
Several pesukim indicate that one should ideally avoid nedarim (Devarim 23:23, Nedarim 77b ;Kohelet 5:4). Hazal register great ambivalence with respect to nedarim. Some statements unequivocally discourage nedarim (Nedarim 9a). Others strongly castigate those who involve themselves in this sphere (Nedarim 22a). In one context (Nedarim 9a), committing to action or inaction by means of a neder is equated with the building of a bamah, while implementing one's promise is tantamount to bringing a proper sacrifice. At the same time, we also encounter praise for one who intensifies, or even reinforces his commitment to perform mizvot by invoking nedarim (and often these are formulated as nedarim!- Nedarim 8a). Given the various implications inherent in the institution of Nedarim, one can more fully appreciate this ambivalence. Unrestricted or unqualified use of nedarim may lead to an abuse of the very principle that, applied judiciously, enhances the prestige of personal commitment and halakhic reality. Frequent use is certainly unlikely to enhance these themes. The comparison to building a bamah or bringing a sacrifice is particularly apt if broader religious sensibilities are reflected by one's approach to nedarim.
As noted, positive appraisal is generally reserved for one who butresses his commitment to existing obligations by means of a neder. Indeed, it is particularly appropriate to engage in nedarim in a time of religious crisis, based on the paradigm of Yaakov Avinu (Midrash Rabbah on Bereshit 28:20) While some halakhists (Ran, Nedarim 8a) believe that one incurs the additional violation of "Lo Yahel" if one fails to implement a mizvah-neder thereby increasing the stakes and motivation to comply, Ramban's view (commentary on Matot) is that no further prohibition applies. In what sense, then, has one enhanced his commitment to the mizvah, such that he is praised? It is possible, however, that by identifying the neder theme with his obligation or prohibition, the individual underscores the extent to which he perceives these obligations as real and concrete, and therefore even more compelling. Such a judicious use of nedarim is indeed praiseworthy.