I. No Vow
A common feature of Orthodox speech is the phrase “Bli Neder,” a disclaimer that the speaker does not intend to vow. We are careful not to invoke a biblical oath in our promises because if we fail to fulfill the promise completely, we may violate a prohibition. While we certainly intend to keep our word, we wish to limit the potential price of failure.
However, we would be wrong to utilize this halakhic phrase improperly. There are cases when it is necessary and cases when it is superfluous. The pedantic among us, in whose number I occasionally count myself, want to use the phrase appropriately. Therefore, we should explore when saying “Bli Neder” is warranted.
II. Plain Vow
A typical vow (neder) or oath (shevu’ah) invokes God’s name. However, the concept of yados nedarim (extensions of vows) means that even a partial language, such as that excluding God’s name, is also considered a vow or oath.
Additionally, the concept of kinuyei nedarim (idioms of vows) includes language other than the word “vow.” Even if you promise or commit to do something, or use any similar language, you are accepting an oath.
With all this in mind, it seems that if you promise to do something, you are effectively committing yourself with an oath. Therefore, it is appropriate to include a “Bli Neder” whenever promising, swearing or committing about anything. The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (67:4) states:
It is good to become used to [saying “Bli Neder“] even when you say you will do something religiously neutral (devar reshus), so you do not stumble on the sin of nedarim.”
Note that you must still fulfill your promises even if you say “Bli Neder.” The Torah commands: “He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Num. 30:3). Saying “Bli Neder” only removes the additional prohibition against violating a vow.
III. Mitzvah Vow
The Shulchan Arukh uses ambiguous language about committing to do a mitzvah. In one place (Yoreh De’ah 203:6), it says that someone who says he will do a specific mitzvah, such as learn this chapter of Torah, may take a vow to encourage himself. The implication is that merely stating that he will do the mitzvah is not a vow in itself. Elsewhere (ibid., 213:2), it states that someone who says he will learn a chapter of Torah (Rema adds: or any other mitzvah) is as if he vowed to do it. Is it a vow or not?
Shakh (203:4) notes this apparent contradiction and dismisses the earlier language. He quotes multiple sources that rule that saying you will do a mitzvah is binding as a vow. You can take an explicit vow in order to strengthen your implicit vow, as a form of personal encouragement. But even without that addition, you have still effectively vowed to perform that mitzvah.
The Chida (Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 213:2) leans in the other direction. Saying you will do a mitzvah is “as if” you take a vow but is not quite it. You are not technically bound by a vow.
However, it seems that the consensus follows the Shakh. See, for example, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (67:4) and Ben Ish Chai (Re’eh, year 2, no. 4), cited approvingly by R. Mordechai Eliyahu (Responsa Ma’amar Mordekhai, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 17). Therefore, whenever you say you will do a mitzvah, you should add “Bli Neder.” Otherwise, the penalty for failure is even greater than otherwise.
IV. Mitzvah Act
Customs are binding as vows. While this subject is deep and requires greater elaboration, a relevant manifestation of this phenomenon is the acceptance of a new practice. If you begin a new mitzvah practice or custom, and you know it is not required but are doing it anyway, you are accepting it as a vow. Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah214:1) recommends that anytime you begin a new stringency or custom, you say that you are doing it “Bli Neder” so it does not become binding as a vow.
The Shulchan Arukh states twice (Yoreh De’ah 203:4, 257:4) that when you pledge to charity, you should add “Bli Neder.” This addition, which is directly from the Rosh (Nedarim 1:8), applies to a Mi She-Beirakhpledge made in many synagogues after being called to the Torah. When asked how much you are donating, you should say the amount “Bli Neder.” However, this requirement for charity vows goes further than for other vows.
The Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 212:8) quotes two opinions regarding thinking about giving to tzedakah. According to some, if you decide in your mind to give to tzedakah, that is a binding vow even though you did my verbalize the commitment. According to others, it is only binding if you say it. The Shulchan Arukh concludes that all opinions would agree that nowadays, when donations cannot be made to the Temple in Jerusalem, a charitable vow must be verbalized.
However, the Rema (ad loc.) disagrees with that conclusion and rules like the first view. If you decide conclusively that you will give a specific amount to charity, you are bound by a vow to give it. If you wish to change your pledge, you must try to get the vow annulled. The Rema similarly quotes both opinions in Yoreh De’ah (258:13) and sides with the second view. Therefore, you even need to the “Bli Neder” about charity pledges.
Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, in his Darkhei Eliyahu footnotes to Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (67:2), that order counts when saying “Bli Neder.” Tosafos (Beitzah 20a sv. Nazir) say that when making a vow, once the words come out of your mouth you cannot revoke them. Therefore, Rav Eliyahu states, you must say “Bli Neder” before the language that would otherwise imply a vow. If you say “Bli Neder” after, it’s too late.
Based on this, during a Mi She-Beirakh after being called to the Torah, when asked how much you pledge, you should say (for example), “Bli Neder 18 dollars” rather than “18 dollars Bli Neder.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.