Parshat Matot-Masei: The Nature of a Vow

“And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes saying, “This is the matter that Hashem commanded” (BeMidbar 30:2)

This pasuk introduces the most comprehensive discussion in the Torah of the laws governing vows. What is a vow? A vow is a means by which a person creates a personal obligation or restriction. One reason a person makes a vow is to obligate oneself to offer a sacrifice. This person would verbalize a commitment to bring an Olah sacrifice. Once this commitment is verbalized as a vow, the person is obligated to bring the offering. Failure to bring the offering is a violation of a binding Torah obligation.

A person might also make a vow to donate a certain sum to charity. However, vows can also relate to issues that are more mundane. A person eager to control one’s diet might make a vow to eat at least one vegetable each day.

A vow can also take the form of a restriction. A person can vow to refrain from eating ice cream for a specific period of time. This person is not permitted to eat ice cream. In fact, for this person, ice cream is no different than the other foods prohibited by the Torah. Just as we are prohibited from eating forbidden fats, this person is subject to an additional restriction. This individual, because of the vow, cannot consume ice cream.

A vow is a serious commitment. The Torah requires strict adherence to vows. Therefore, the Sages discouraged making frivolous vows. This is because the Sages were concerned that a person may violate a vow. The best way to assure that a vow is not violated is not to make the vow in the first instance.

Our parasha focuses on a specific aspect of the laws governing vows. The Torah explains that the vows of certain individuals are subject to reversal. In other words, if one of these individuals makes a vow, this vow can be reversed by another party. Who are these individuals? Who is empowered with the authority to overturn their vows? Under what circumstances can this authority be exercised?

The Torah explains that a father can reverse his unwed daughter’s vow. A husband can overturn the vow of his wife. This authority does not extend to all vows. The husband can only overturn vows that affect him. However, if the wife makes a vow that affects no person other than herself, the husband cannot reverse the vow. He does not have authority over such vows.[1]

Our parasha delineates various perimeters of this authority. For example, the father or husband can only overturn a vow by acting on the same day that he becomes aware of the vow. Another restriction on this authority is that a father can only nullify the vow of a daughter that has not completely reached her majority. However, once the daughter is a complete adult, the father’s authority lapses.

Our pasuk indicates that Moshe explained these laws to the heads of the tribes – the shevatim. Why did Moshe address the heads of the shevatim and not all the nation? There are various responses to this question. Rashi rejects the very premise of the question. He explains that Moshe actually announced the material concerning vows to the entire nation. The intent of the pasuk is to indicate that Moshe first taught the material to the princes of the shevatim. After instructing the leaders, he taught the material to the nation. Rashi also contends that this process was not specific to this material. Moshe followed this process in teaching all portions of the Torah. First, he addressed the princes and, afterwards, he again taught the material to the nation.[2] This does leave one question. Why does the Torah, in this instance, mention the preferential treatment afforded the princes? According to Rashi, these leaders were consistently provided with the initial communication of the laws. However, specifically in this instance the Torah reveals this process!

Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi. He maintains that the Torah is describing an unique event. In general, Moshe taught the mitzvot to the entire nation. However, this mitzvah was revealed to the princes. It was not initially revealed to the entire nation. Why is this mitzvah special? Nachmanides offers a number of possibilities. One is that the princes have a unique role in regard to vows. The laws of vows were revealed to the princes as an indication of their special role and responsibility in this regard. What is this singular role and responsibility?

As has been explained, the Torah requires that we adhere to our vows. A person cannot make a vow, then decide that it was ill considered, and disregard it. Perhaps, this person should not have made the vow. Nonetheless, the vow must be respected. However, there is a means of release from a vow. An expert scholar or a court can release a person from a vow. The person must show cause. Halacha delineates the criteria for such a release.

Nachmanides explains that this unique role and responsibility afforded the scholars and courts is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Torah. However, it is alluded to in our pasuk. The princes represented the scholars and judges. In speaking to the princes, Moshe communicated that these princes and the scholars and courts that would exist in the future have responsibility for vows. What is this responsibility? They are empowered to release a person from a vow.[3]

Rashi utilizes this same concept to resolve the difficulty engendered by his explanation of our passage. Rashi explains that Moshe regularly revealed the commandments to the princes prior to the nation. This detail is mentioned in our parasha as an allusion to the unique role of the judges and scholars in regard to vows. They are endowed with the right to release a person from a vow.

In summary, there are two means by which the binding power of a vow can be nullified. A husband or father can reverse the vow. The court can release the person from the vow.

There are many differences between these two processes. However, there is one distinction that the commentaries note is particularly significant. The father or husband does not require the consent of the wife of daughter. He can act unilaterally. In other words, even if the daughter wishes the vow to be binding, the father may reverse it. The same is true of the husband’s authority in regard to his wife’s vow. The courts do not have this ability. The court cannot act unilaterally. The court does not even initiate the process. Instead, a person wishing release from a vow must petition the court. The court can only act in response to the request of the person seeking release.

This seems to be an odd arrangement. We would expect the opposite. We would expect a court of law to have greater authority than a lay person would. Yet, the opposite is true. A father or husband has greater authority over vows that the most elevated court of the nation! What is the reason for this paradoxical arrangement? More importantly, what does this arrangement reveal about the natures of these processes?

The commentaries suggest an important concept that explains this distinction. What is the legal basis for the authority of the father and husband? Sforno contends that the Torah actually endows the father and husband with authority over the vows of a daughter or wife. As head of the household, the father or husband has the authority to reverse these vows.[4]

What is the legal basis for the license of the courts? Nachmanides addresses this issue. His comments are not completely clear. He seems to maintain that the Torah does not require our unqualified adherence to our vows. However, we are required to treat a vow as a serious commitment. It cannot be regarded lightly. This means that, given sufficient grounds, a vow can be rescinded. If these grounds exist and the vow is rescinded after careful analysis of these grounds, then the vow has not been disregarded. It has not been treated lightly. The role of the court is to conduct this analysis. The court validates the cause presented by the petitioner for nullification of the vow.[5]

This distinction explains the paradox outlined above. Why does the father or husband have greater authority over vows than the courts? The father or husband actually has authority over a daughter or wife’s vow. As a result, he can unilaterally overturn these vows. The courts do not have actual authority. They cannot unilaterally release a person from a vow. Instead, the court merely evaluates the credibility of the reasons provided by the petitioner for release from a vow. The person who made the vow presents an argument for release from the vow. The court analyzes this argument and validates its credibility. This process can only take place through the person who made the vow petitioning the court. It is impossible for the court to act without the initiation of the person who made the vow.

“Command Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “When you come to the land of Canaan, this is the land within the borders of the land of Canaan that shall be your hereditary territory.” (BeMidbar 34:2)

Hashem describes to Moshe the borders of the land of Israel. This land will be divided into portions and distributed among the tribes. Rashi explains that these boundaries are very important in halacha. Various mitzvot only apply in the land of Israel. Therefore, any territory outside of the borders is exempt from these commandments.[6]

It must be noted this description of the boundaries indicates that the eastern border is the Jordan River. This is difficult to explain. The tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe settled in the territory conquered from Sichon and Og. In general, any land conquered by the nation is considered, in halacha, to be part of the land of Israel.[7] This land was situated on the eastern side of the Jordan. The proper eastern border should be the eastern boundary of this territory!

Rav Moshe Feinstein Ztl explains that there is a basic difference between the land of Israel west of the Jordan and the territory to the east. The land to the west was promised to Avraham and the forefathers. It was destined to be conquered and become the land of Israel. The land of Sichon and Og was not included in this covenant. It was not predetermined that this land should become part of the land of Israel.[8]

This distinction can provide a possible answer to our question. Moshe had awarded the land of Sichon and Og to Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. However, he had stipulated a condition. This land would become their portion after they had conquered the territory west of the Jordan. Moshe had required that first the land of the covenant must be captured. Then, this additional land could become part of the land of Israel. The sanctity of the land of Sichon and Og was suspended until the land of the covenant was possessed.

Now, the description of the boundaries can be explained. Hashem specifically described the borders of the land of the covenant. This is the land that must first be sanctified. Once this is accomplished, the land of Sichon and Og can be possessed and sanctified.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Nedarim 12:1. (See Radvaz for other opinions).

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 30:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 30:2.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 30:2

[5] See Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 30:2.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 34:2

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:2.

[8] Rav Moshe Feinstein, Derash Moshe, Sefer BeMidbar 32:29.