Miketz: Oaths & Vows

December 24, 2008

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.

On the one hand, G-d’s remarkable permission to use His name in this fashion enables us to endow an ordinary utterance with the some of the awe of Divine revelation. On the other hand, used irresponsibly it has the ability to degrade the listener’s awe of this revelation so that it seems something mundane and changeable, like an ordinary human utterance. No wonder Chazal tell us that of all the Ten Commandments, it is specifically at the third commandment that the entire world shuddered with awe. (Shavuot 39a.)

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.


The gemara (Yevamot 109b) says that making an oath is like building a private altar (bama), and that fulfilling it is like making a sacrifice there. We recall that since the Temple reached its permanent home in Yerushalayim, making such private sacrifices became eternally forbidden (Megillah 10a).

The parallel is as follows: A pious person longs to demonstrate his devotion to G-d by making offerings and by expressions of devotion in everyday activities. When there is no unique, permanent convention for offerings and devotions, then each person must decide their manner and extent for himself. But now that HaShem has given us, to the Jewish people as a whole, Yerushalayim for the Sanctuary and the precepts of the Torah to guide our devotions, private initiative becomes problematic. G-d has already informed us how to serve Him!

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.

The difference, according to the Sefat Emet, is that on Chanuka we have the additional commandment of Hallel v’Hodaah, praise and acknowledgement for the Chanuka miracle.

(As explained in the gemara there.) These in turn represent two different levels of appreciation: praise is possible only for someone who truly appreciates the magnitude of the miracle. But mere acknowledgment is possible even for a lowly person, stained with transgression. Even if he can’t whole- heartedly praise God for the miracle, he can at least recognize and acknowledge its existence.

But acknowledgment of the mere fact of the miracle brings in turn to an appreciation of its significance. In fact, it is specifically the lowly person who will be able to perceive that mere flesh and blood are not really worthy of miracles, and that they are a special benefice from God. This will lead the person in turn to sincere praise of Hashem, which is the essence of the inner fire represented by the Chanuka light. (Sefat Emet, Chanuka 5633, sixth night)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.