Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Role of the Chacham as Reflected in Nedarim

Parshat Matot begins in an unusual fashion - "Vayedaber Moshe el roshei ha-matot le-Benei Yisrael leimor" - as Moshe addresses the leadership of Benei Yisrael regarding the laws of nedarim without having been explicitly directed to do so. In a famous passage, Rashbam (Bamidbar 30:2) relates that he was asked if the Torah ever records a similar initiative by Moshe Rabbeinu. He and other mefarshim (Ibn Ezra, Seforno etc.) struggle to find hints to these halachot in previous parshiyot in an effort to demonstrate that Moshe was merely implementing Hashem's direct, if subtle, mandate. Other mefarshim (Rashi, Ramban, Tur, Or Hachayim etc.) are troubled by the apparently central role of the roshei matot in this context. These halachot, after all, apply also to all of Klal Yisrael. The Ramban even suggests that the Torah was reticent to publicize these halachot lest they be abused, and, thus, addressed the leadership exclusively! He and others also note the special role of the chacham yachid mumcheh in the process of hatarat nedarim to justify this emphasis. Or Hachayim posits that the more prominent role of the roshei matot in this parsha is designed to balance the impression gleaned from the fact that larger population was given priority in the assembling call of the chatsotserot.

Rashi's position is particularly enigmatic. On the one hand, he suggests that the emphasis in this parsha on the roshei matot indicates that they received these halachot first as an expression of special regard and respect for their role. At the same time, he indicates that this procedure was routine in Moshe's transmission of the Torah to Klal Yisrael! He then proceeds to raise the obvious problem: why does the Torah underscore this hierarchy of conveying the halacha specifically in this context? He concludes that the Torah's unusual formulation establishes that in the absence of a chacham, 3 commoners can function to exempt from the commitment of nedarim. The commentators note that Rashi's response is problematic since the chacham's emphasized role is actually being demonstrated not to be exclusive and indispensable!

Perhaps these anomalies can be better understood when we consider the nature of nedarim and the role of the chacham in that context. Elsewhere (TorahWeb, Matot, 1999), we have developed the idea that the very concept of nedarim reflects the transcendence of halachic values and categories, and is a testament to the notion of a binding halachic reality. The Torah allows man to play a role in expanding his halachic world through the mental and verbal commitment embodied by nedarim, and even recognizes the objective stature of that which has been fashioned in this manner as issurei chefzah, in the case of nedarim. The role of the chacham, as the responsible interpreter but also occasionally the architect of the ideal halachic world is captured dramatically by his leading role in determining the binding nature of these special halachic commitments. The Tur (Bamidbar 30:2, based on R. H. 6a) explains the Torah's emphasis by projecting the idea that the chachamim have a special responsibility to enforce the implementation of nedarim. The Keli Yakar (Bamidbar 30:3) argues that the role of the chacham in giving dispensation for nedarim flows from an implicit condition attached to every neder- that it achieve rabbinic approbation! This idea dramatizes the pervasive role of rabbinic leadership in all of Jewish life, as nedarim constitute an important expression and notable expansion of the halachic -spiritual realm. Undoubtedly, it is no coincidence that rabbinic tradition is particularly central in the very development of these halachot, as "nedarim porchin ba-avir ve-ein lahem al mah she-yismochu" (Chagigah 10a -there is little Biblical textual basis for the details of nedarim and shavuot). Indeed, some of the mefarshim (Or Hahayim) cite this phenomenon as one of the reasons that the roshei matot play such a crucial role in this parsha. Moreover, Chazal (Nedarim 9a, 22a) generally discouraged the masses from undertaking halachic commitments, but viewed this expansion of halachic life by chachamim in positive light (Midrash Rabbah, beg. of Matot).

At the same time, it should be emphasized that the role of the chacham in nedarim is neither judicial nor is it legislative. Rather it is the integrity and judgement drawing upon general spiritual stature that qualifies the chacham to assess and rule on the validity of vows and commitments. The chacham's authority in this realm derives not from specific knowledge or powers, but from the fact that he is singularly attuned to the totality of the halachic system. Indeed, the fact that in his absence, a chacham can be replaced by a court of three attests to the more general basis for his authority. The yachid mumcheh in this context does not embody the authority of a court of three; it is the court of three that substitutes for the more ideal presence of the yachid mumcheh. For this reason, relatives can serve together on the court of three, as the primary legal category is not that of a beit din, but of a collective wisdom-stature in lieu of the presence of a genuine chacham.

It is conceivable, then, that Rashi intended to convey that the basis for Moshe's hierarchical procedure in communicating Torah to Klal Yisrael generally is reflected dramatically by the special function of the chacham in nedarim. For this reason, the Torah specifically records that the roshei matot were the initial recipients of this parsha. Moreover, the wider role and intuition of the chacham is further reflected specifically in the context of nedarim by the impression that Moshe took personal initiative in relating this parsha without a specific directive from Hashem. It matters little whether Moshe's action was rooted in hints he gleaned from previous communications with Hashem, or based on a broader understanding of his charge. In any case, the broader function of the chacham, the significance of his being attuned to the total system of halachah, made his initial and ongoing role in the halachic process indispensable to a system that was to be self-sufficient and dynamic, a true torat chayyim based on the notion that "torat Hashem temimah". The initial communication to roshei matot was not indicative of an elitist perspective on talmud torah and halacha, but was actually designed to enhance the accessibility of Torah and the quality of its reception by Klal Yisrael by emphasizing its breadth and by projecting the crucial contribution of the chachamim in this dynamic. The fact that the context of nedarim also reflects the alternative of a beit din of three commoners does not diminish the role of the chacham, but actually enhances this theme, as it accents the chacham's centrality even in a non-judicial and legislative context.

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