Oaths and Vows

A person who makes a vow, or neder, in effect creates a new Torah prohibition for himself. The food or other item which was previously permissible is now forbidden; breaking the vow by obtaining benefit from the forbidden item makes a person carries the penalty of lashes, just as breaking an existing Torah prohibition does.

In a previous column (Miketz 5761), we related to the question of how the individual making the vow has the power to create such a prohibition. We explained how HaShem gives us the ability to use the awesome power of His name to extend the authority of His word.

But the conundrum of vows also has a flip side: how is it that the food or other item itself becomes forbidden? What exactly is wrong with it? This aspect was explained by Rav Nachman of Breslav, and elaborated by his student Rav Natan.

Rav Natan points out that there is a profound parallel between the laws of vows and the laws of blessings. Even without a vow, our Sages tell us that all worldly enjoyments are forbidden to us until we make a special blessing (Berakhot 38a). The food has both a permissible and a forbidden aspect; the difference between them is determined by our power of speech.

The explanation for this duality, according to Chasidic thought, is rooted in the original fall of matter known as the “shattering of the vessels”, which is connected both to the sin of Adam and Chava and also to the curse of the earth. Originally all matter was blessed and its enjoyment was holy, but after the fall some earthly enjoyments acquired a dual nature: they have the ability either to elevate us, by creating a feeling of appreciation for G-d’s loving kindness, or contrarily to degrade us by drawing us to animal pleasures.
Just as man was responsible for this state of disrepair, man is responsible for, and capable of, restoring the original state of perfection. On the material level, after the fall mankind ceased eating food the way nature presented it, rather we began to make elaborate preparations. (The curse of Adam was accompanied by a blessing: “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread”, an elaborate food which did not exist beforehand. At that time human food was separated and elevated from animal food. Pesachim 118a.) And on a spiritual level it became necessary to explicitly acknowledge the holy aspect of food by making a verbal blessing, which in effect spiritually recreates the food in a state of spiritual perfection.

This power to resolve the duality of the food by our faculty of holy speech works in both directions. On the one hand, we are able to make the food permissible by determining to enjoy it in a holy way. On the other hand, when we fear that the food will tend to draw us in a negative, bestial direction we are able to make the food utterly impermissible by making a vow. (Likutei Halakhot Breslav, Nedarim 1)