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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Perfection of Torah and the Role of Nedarim

"Vayedaber Moshe el roshei ha-matot le-Benei Yisrael leimor ze hadavar asher zivah Hashem". The commentators were intrigued by two apparent anomalies in the Torah's presentation of the topic of nedarim (vows).

Rashbam notes that the treatment of nedarim is unique, as the Torah does not previously record the Divine transmission of these halachot to Moshe. While the Rashbam ultimately concludes that the theme of nedarim are implicit in the requirement to discharge all outstanding obligations during the regalim period (Bamibar 29:39), the question remains why the Torah obscures the detailed initiation of these laws. The Ramban points out that there are other precedents and parallels to the treatment of nedarim, and that the Divine origin is, in any case, explicated at the end of the presentation (30:17). Like the Rashbam, he does not speculate why the Torah deemphasizes the Divine source at the outset of the parsha.

Rashi, R. Saadia, the Ramban, the Or haChayim and others were struck by the central role accorded to the roshei matot in nedarim. While Rashi argues, based on this precedent, that the filtering of halachic data through the nesiim is typical, R. Saadia concluded that the nesiim were the exclusive audience for this parsha! The Or haChayim characterizes this filtering arrangement as unprecedented. 

Several factors may account for the nesiim's special role. The Ramban (and Or haChayim) posit that the Torah's presentation highlights the special function of Torah leaders in implementing vows and promises. They note that only a scholar (yachid mumcheh) can annul vows (hatarat nedarim) on his own (without a bet din). Furthermore, the Torah may have intended to obscure some of the details of vow annulment from the masses to preclude a frivolous attitude toward making and fulfilling oaths and vows. Thus, the information was initially conveyed on a need-to know basis only. In addition, the role of Torah scholars in nedarim is particularly indispensable since primarily the laws of vow and oath annulment were not anchored in the text of the Torah but were transmitted by tradition (mesorah - "heter nedarim porchin ba-avir", Chagigah 10a). These and other explanations account for the prominence of the roshei matot in the parsha of nedarim, but they do not also explain the other anomaly, the initial deemphasis of the Divine origin of nedarim.

Perhaps one can explain the Torah's doubly unusual formulation in light of the halachah's complex, and somewhat ambivalent posture regarding nedarim and shavuot (vows and oaths). The verse in Kohelet (5:4) already warns of the hazards of proliferating nedarim: "tov asher lo tidor mi-she-tidor ve-lo teshalem". The mishneh (Nedarim 9a) characterizes a routine neder as "nidrei reshaim" (vow of the wicked) The negative posture toward gratuitous vows extends, at least according to some authorities, beyond the fear that one will be inadequately scrupulous in fulfilling one's commitment. R. Meir (Nedarim 9a) declares that the preference to abstain from vows applies even to one who follows through on his commitment. Moreover, the Ran (Nedarim 22a) cites the critical comment of the Yerushalmi- "lo dayecha ba-meh she-amrah Torah, ela she-atah oser alecha devarim acheirim - aren't the laws of the Torah sufficient; must you also impose upon yourself additional obligations". The Rambam (Shemonah Perakim) also prominently cites this Yerushalmi passage.

The Yerushalmi's intent was certainly not to decry admirable intensification of religious devotion, but to highlight the foundational character of Torah law and its perfection ("torat Hashem temimah", and see Bava Metsia 59b) and self-sufficiency as a system. The Ran invokes the Yerushalmi to explain the rabbinic dictum that making vows is tantamount to the building of a bamah (illegal sacrificial alter that competes with the official Temple alter). Hazal were wary of nedarim because of the potential distraction from more fundamental principles and foci. The Rambam refers to this Yerushalmi in a context that examines the ideal balance of competing religious-halachic values. The Torah's wide range of laws and values are calibrated to convey an ideal spiritual equilibrium between chol (secular) and kodesh (holy), between individual expression and communal obligation, and between rights and obligations. The assumption of additional commitments by means of gratuitous vows may challenge, upset, or even undermine the Torah's perfect harmony. Hence, Chazal registered ambivalence, in some cases opposition, to initiating nedarim.

At the same time, situations and challenges arise on the personal and communal plane that pressure the ideal balance and require an adjustment or special emphasis. Just as the golden mean, ideal for personal comportment, requires occasional adjustment (Rambam, Hilchot Deot 1:4,5; 2:2) to secure the ultimate goal, particular circumstances-personal or communal- may demand accentuating particular themes and values as a means of enhancing ideal Torah commitment. Given the proper justification, nedarim can be a powerful constructive force to augment and adjust the Torah's perfect balance. The Rambam (end of Hilchot Shavuot, Nedarim, Nazir, and peirush on Avot) projects nedarim as a halachic vehicle that reflects and is a catalyses profound piety and halachic ambition. It is evident that nedarim that are not haphazard, gratuitous, or competitive with the established halachic ideal, may significantly enhance the perfectly balanced halachic system.

By initially deemphasizing the Divine role in parshat nedarim, the Torah effectively registers that nedarim play only a corrective and augmenting role to the otherwise perfectly balanced Torah law. By accenting the role of the roshei matot as a filter (and for R. Saadia as the exclusive audience), the Torah communicates that the judicious guidance of Torah scholars in applying this supplement is indispensable to establishing nedarim as a constructive and compelling vehicle to facilitate the theme of Torat Hashem temimah.

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