By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
July 26, 2003
The last chapters of the Book of Bamidbar delineate the first
conquests of the land, culminating with the division of the Land and the
commitment of the Reuvenites and Gadites to join in their brethren all the
nation’s wars. These episodes revolve around two elements: the
responsibilities of the tribal chiefs, and the importance of keeping one’s
promise. It is for this reason, says Ibn Ezra, that the Torah introduces this
section with the laws of vows, which are first addressed to the tribal chiefs:
And Moshe spoke to the tribal heads of the Children of Israel, saying: “This
is the word that Hashem has commanded: If a man makes a vow to Hashem, or
swears an oath to prohibit himself, he must not violate (LO YACHEL) his word.
According to all that comes forth from his mouth shall he do” (Bamidbar
The Torah then proceeds to teach that a father has the authority to annul his
daughter’s vows (between the ages of 11 to 12 ½), and that a husband has the
authority to annul his wife’s vows. This annulling is called hafarah. If
unannulled, of course, a woman’s vow is binding on her as a man’s is on him.
The Torah then concludes:
These are the statutes that Hashem commanded Moshe, between a man and his
wife, between a father and his daughter in her youth in her father’s house
It is noteworthy that these laws begin with Moshe’s teaching, rather than with
the usual formula:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying (Shemot 13:1, and elsewhere).
It is only via Moshe’s teaching that we know that the laws of vows came from
This is the word that Hashem has commanded… These are the statutes with Hashem
It is further noteworthy that Moshe makes a point of directing his words to
the tribal heads. Rashi and
Ibn Ezra assume that Moshe subsequently teaches
these laws to the rest of the people.
Ramban, on the other hand, thinks it
would be better to withhold from the people the fact that vows can be
annulled, so they will not come to take vows lightly. Here again, the people’s
awareness depends entirely on the Torah leaders.
But perhaps most amazing is the law of hatarat nedarim, release from vows.
Although at first glance it seems that the only individuals authorized to
nullify vows are a father or a husband, the Torah Sheb’al Peh (Oral Tradition)
teaches that a scholar has a similar authority. An expert in the laws of vows
– or, three laymen who are familiar with these laws – can, under certain
conditions, release anyone from his vows or oaths. It is customary to perform
hatarat nedarim on the eve of
In fact, the authority of the scholar seems to be even greater than that of a
father or husband. Whereas the hafarah of the father or husband annuls the vow
from that moment on, the hatarah of the scholar nullifies the vows from its
inception, as if it had never been made (Rabbeinu Nissim, c. 1310-1375,
commentary to Nedarim 77b). Still, the scholar may not use the method of
hafarah, but only hatarah.
When a person utters a vow, it is usually in a state of anger or agitation.
When that feeling passes, the person might regret his words, and upon
consultation, the scholar can invalidate the vow. This is hatarah.
The source of hatarat nedarim is in the Oral Tradition; its basis in the Torah
is hard to find. As the mishnah (Chagigah 1:8) states:
“The release from vows flies in the air, and does not have anything on which
to base it” –
nothing, that is, but the reliable tradition of our Sages. Once again, an
essential principle of the laws of vows is based solely and solidly upon our
Nevertheless, it is possible that there is a slight allusion to hatarat
nedarim in our verses. The Torah states, regarding all verbal commitments:
He must not violate (LO YACHEL) his word (30:3).
The word YACHEL derives from the root CH-L-L (kkj), meaning to profane, “ to
render mundane”. It is for this reason that Rashi (quoting Sifri on this
“he shall not make his words mundane (chullin)” –
once a person’s vow takes effect, his words create a new reality, and he may
no longer treat the world as before.
On the basis of this verse, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) declares:
“There is a hint for hatarat nedarim from the Torah. For it is written he must
not violate (LO YACHEL) his word – He may not render it mundane, but others
may render it mundane for him.” [This is the correct reading of this passage,
according to R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776)].
The “others” – who can nullify his vow – refers to the scholar, or the three
Malbim adds a grammatical analysis of the word YACHEL. If the Torah wanted to
say that under no circumstances (except for hafarah of a father or husband)
can a vow be rendered void, then it would have used the passive (Nif’al) form
of the verb, pronounced YEICHAL; and the verse would have meant “his word will
not be profaned.” Instead, the Torah uses the causative (Hif’il) form YACHEL,
highlighting that only he – the one who vowed – may not undo the vow,
suggesting that “others” – the scholar or three informed laymen – can reverse
When a scholar permits a vow, he uses one of two approaches:
1. Charatah – “regret” - The one who vowed no longer has the same feelings
that originally prompted the vow, and the scholar determines that he wishes he
had never vowed in the first place.
2. Petach – “an opening” - The scholars ask: “If you had realized all the
consequences of your vow, would you have vowed?” and he says he would not have
In “On Repentance,” R. Yosef D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) explains that
charatah involves an emotional change, whereas petach involves an intellectual
change. In charatah, the one who vowed now recoils at his original emotional
state. On the other hand, in the petach approach, there is no change in
emotion; the one who vowed simply did not take all the ramifications of his
vow into account, and now he is informed what those ramifications are. His vow
was based on a miscalculation.
Rabbi Soloveitchik further connects these two approaches to two different
avenues to repentance. At times, a person is moved to repentance through
“regret”: he is repulsed and aggrieved by the memory of his sins:
“We are astounded at ourselves, how could this abomination have been done?!”
(from the “Tefillah Zakah” of
Kol Nidrei, by Rabbi Avraham Danzig, 1748-1820).
At other times, repentance is motivated by a clearer understanding of the
results of continued sin:
“For after my return I regretted, and after I realized did I strike my thigh”
On the threshold of a new national existence, the Jewish People must learn to
fulfill their past commitments. But they must also learn that repenting –
transforming the past – is also possible, and that they must rely on their
Torah leaders to teach them how to do so.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Parashat Mas'ei (35:9-34) discusses the punishment of exile meted out to
one who is guilty of inadvertent manslaughter. The Torah requires that
such an individual flee to a city of refuge and remain there during the
lifetime of the High Priest. The murderer is safe from the victim's
avenger only if he remains in the city of refuge.
Chazal teach (Makkot 10a) that if a student is sent into this exile, his
teacher must go with him to the city of refuge and continue with his Torah
lessons. What happens if, after the High Priest's death, the killer
decides to remain in exile and not leave the city of refuge? Must the
teacher stay with his student and continue to teach him Torah? Clearly,
the teacher is obligated to remain in exile only as long as the student is
unable to leave. If the student is permitted to leave but chooses to
remain in a self-imposed exile, the teacher is under no obligation to
stay. The Gemara refers to this exiled student as "talmid shegalah - a
student who went into galut."
There is another type of galut, exile, that is all too familiar to us. We
have been living in exile for nearly 2000 years. We have been confined to
impure and unfamiliar foreign lands. Chazal teach that when we were sent
into exile, Hashem went into exile along with us, so that His Shechinah
has been among us in all the strange lands of our exile.
Through Hashem's great kindness, we have been allowed to leave the bitter
exile and return to Eretz Yisrael. For the first time in thousands of
years, we have been able to return to our own land. Just like the teacher
who may return home, leaving his student in his self-imposed exile, so too
Hashem has returned home, His Shechinah now resting in Eretz Yisrael.
Isn't it time to leave the self-imposed exile and return to the land of
the Shechinah? Certainly, the Shechinah is waiting for us all to return.
Har Bracha (on the outskirts of the holy city of refuge, Shechem)
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320