MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org.
OATHS & VOWS
Twice in our parsha we find Yosef swearing by Pharaoh (42:15,16). Rashi comments that he did this when he wanted to swear falsely. Yet the Midrash uses this incident as a proof that Yosef kept the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition on false oaths! (Eliahu Rabba).
The Midrash is understood when we recognize that an oath is a kind of comparison. Yosef was accurately equating the authority of his statement with the gravity of Pharaoh’s name – thus avoiding the prohibition of the vain use of HaShem’s name. We see this same principle in another Midrash. Bereshit Rabba likens Yosef’s oath to that of a widow who wraps a lost goat kid up like a child and swears, “Just as I wouldn’t harm this child of mine, so I did not see the lost kid.” This too is in essence a true oath, because there is a genuine equivalence between the two false statements.
Once we recognize that an oath involves likening our words to HaShem’s name, we realize that it involves an awesome responsibility. Because we can only give a name to something that we can distinguish and to some extent know, HaShem’s “name” is in effect an expression of His revelation and relevance to us. So taking an oath is like saying that the listener can believe our words just as he can believe in HaShem.
(We see this importance of HaShem’s name many contexts. Upon hearing a blessing we bless HaShem as well as His name - “barukh hu uvarukh shemo”; acting in an ungodly way is called “desecrating His name”, swearing falsely or vainly is considered disrespect to His name. Indeed, the very appellation “HaShem” means “the Name”!)
This equivalence principle is what makes an oath into a two-edged sword.
Since our obligation to keep the Torah is also a result of the fact that we recognize HaShem’s name and His revelation, and connect it to the words of the Torah, it is not surprising that this obligation is considered a kind of an oath. We are all “sworn from Mount Sinai” to uphold the commandments. (Yoma 73b, Nedarim 8a and elsewhere.) Conversely, swearing is like creating a new, private mitzvah over and above the 613.
This dual aspect of oaths can help us understand a seeming paradox in halakha. While the Rambam writes that taking oaths is a mitzvah (Shevuot 11:1), the Shulchan Arukh warns us sternly against this practice (Yoreh Deah 203). If we are successful in elevating ordinary speech into something G-dly, we have sanctified HaShem’s name, but we have to be aware that even true oaths, when made too frequently, are likely to diminish the awe we feel when His name is invoked. This is why Rashi (Devarim 6:13) explains that only people of exceptional piety should take oaths.
BUILDING AN ALTAR
A person who has made a neder but has not yet fulfilled it is like someone who has built an altar but has not yet offered on it. He has designated his own private way of serving HaShem, outside the boundaries common to all Jews, but he has yet to actually perform this service. There is still time to annul the neder.
It follows that if an oath is made to strengthen us in an action which is already praiseworthy or obligatory, there is no need to annul it and in some cases such oaths are appropriate (SA YD 203:6-7). In this case the person is not creating a kind of private devotion in addition to what is incumbent on all Jews.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.
Rabbi Asher Meir will be the Scholar-in-Residence IY"H at the Center's Shabbaton in Chafetz Chaim on Shabbat Parshat Vayigash, January 5-6. See TIYULIM section for details.