Appropriate and Inappropriate Vows

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard that Israel came by the way of Atarim. And he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow unto Hashem, and said: If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And Hashem heard the voice of Israel, and delivered the Canaanites. And they utterly destroyed them and their cities. And the name of the place was called Charmah. (Sefer BeMidbar 21:1-3)

1. Bnai Yisrael’s encounter with Arad
Parshat Chukat continues the narrative of Bnai Yisrael’s journey through the wilderness to the Land of Israel. Parshat Korach focused on events that occurred in the second year of this journey. Parshat Chukat discusses events that took place in the final year. At this point in their journey, the nation is approaching the borders of the Land of Cana’an. The rulers of the land anticipate that they will soon be confronted with the invasion of Bnai Yisrael. The Kingdom of Arad launched a preemptive attack against Bnai Yisrael and although beaten back, achieves some success and takes captives.

In response to the attack Bnai Yisrael makes a vow to Hashem. The nation vows that if Hashem delivers Arad to them, then they will destroy their enemies and their cities. This interpretation of their vow reflects the literal translation of the passage.[1] However, most commentaries explain that the intent was not to destroy the cities. Instead, the people vowed that they would not take any of the spoils of the campaign for their personal use. All spoils would be contributed to the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – for its support and upkeep.[2]

The account ends by recording that Bnai Yisrael did conduct a successful campaign against Arad and adhered to the conditions of the vow.

In short, Bnai Yisrael recognized that the first encounter had a tragic element. Captives had been taken from among Bnai Yisrael. The people first made a vow to Hashem before launching a campaign against Arad to address this tragedy. What was the purpose of this vow and why did the people regard it as a necessary prerequisite to a campaign against Arad?

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: If G-d will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then Hashem will be my G-d, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be G-d’s house; and of all that You will give me I will surely give a tenth unto You. (Sefer Beresheit 28:20-22)

2. The substance and objective of Bnai Yisrael’s vow
It will be helpful to more carefully consider the substance of the vow made by the nation. Essentially, the people were committing to forgoing the opportunity to enrich themselves with the spoils. Instead, they would contribute the spoils to the service of a higher cause – the Mishcan. Malbim discusses the objective of such a vow in the context of a similar incident.

The first city in the Land of Cana’an conquered by Bnai Yisrael was Yericho. Before capturing the city, Yehoshua made a vow that was very similar to the vow made before the campaign against Arad. Yehoshua pledged that all of the spoils would be contributed to the Mishcan. Malbim explains that Yehoshua’s vow was intended to communicate an important idea. The conquest of Yericho was not accomplished through the brilliant tactical planning and flawless execution of an effective military campaign. It was a miraculous event and an expression of Hashem’s providence. In fact, Hashem had conquered Yericho. Bnai Yisrael were not the true conquerors. Contributing the spoils of the victory to the Mishcan acknowledged that Hashem was the actual victor and the spoils were appropriately His.[3]

The same explanation can be applied to the vow made by Bnai Yisrael in this instance. The nation appealed to Hashem for His help in campaigning against Arad. They acknowledged that they lacked the strength, experience and resources to wage a successful battle against their enemy. They could only succeed with the support of Hashem. Their vow acknowledged that a victory would not be theirs. It would be an expression of Hashem’s providence. Therefore, the spoils were rightfully Hashem’s.

According to the Commentary of the Baalai HaTosefot, the model from this vow is derived from the vow made by Yaakov in the course of his journey from his father’s home to the household of Lavan. Yaakov experienced a prophecy in which Hashem assured Yaakov that He would be with him. Yaakov responded and vowed that in response to the fulfillment of this prophecy he would create a house for Hashem at the site of the prophecy and he would tithe his wealth to Hashem.[4] The midrash explains that a principle is derived from Yaakov’s vow. This principle is that it is appropriate to respond to challenges and danger with such vows. In other words, when a person is confronted with danger or a daunting challenge, it is fitting to take a vow to perform a meritorious act or adopt a virtuous behavior in exchange for deliverance from the peril.[5] In other words, the nation applied the principle demonstrated by Yaakov and responded to its sense of danger and peril by committing to a vow similar to the one developed by Yaakov.

Better is it that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay. (Kohelet 5:4)

3. The Torah’s attitude toward vows
The commentators raise an important question regarding the appropriateness of the vows made by Yaakov and Bnai Yisrael. An introduction is required to understand the question.

The above passage explains that is preferable to refrain from making vows rather than making a vow and not fulfilling it. The Talmud explores this principle and concludes that, in general, vows should be avoided. If a person does make a vow, he should appeal to the court to release him from the vow.[6] This is accomplished by appearing before a court of three judges. The members of the court may be lay-judges. The laws governing the circumstances under which a court can release a person from a vow are somewhat complex. In general, if the court determines that the vow was made in error – without adequate consideration of its consequences, then the court can release the person from the vow.

Maimonides provides a brief summary the Torah’s position regarding vows. He explains that a person is permitted to make a vow in order to restrain himself from a negative behavior or encourage a positive behavior. Of course, this assumes that the additional imperative imposed by the vow is necessary for the proper behavior to be adopted or the negative behavior to be abandoned. For example, if a person is parsimonious and makes a vow to give a percentage of his monthly income to charity, the vow is appropriate. A person who struggles with laziness and makes a vow to walk for twenty minutes every day, has made a proper vow. Again, this assumes that the vow is necessary to establish the change in behavior. Other than under these circumstances, vows should be avoided and if a vow is made, the person should appeal to the court to release him from the vow. Maimonides explains that the Torah discourages vows because they are a potential “stumbling block”. The violation of a vow is a serious sin. The more frequently a person resorts to making vows the more likely he is to violate one or more of his vows.[7]

With this introduction the question posed by the commentators emerges. The Torah discourages making vows. Why, then, was it appropriate for Yaakov and Bnai Yisrael to take vows? Would it not have been more appropriate for Yaakov to make a private commitment without framing it as a vow? Should not Bnai Yisrael have refrained from adopting the formal commitment of a vow? After the conquest they could have contributed the spoils to the Mishcan, even without previously making a vow. In fact, in the case of Yehoshua’s vow regarding Yericho, the vow was violated precipitating a terrible punishment.

One of the commentators on the Midrash Rabbah – Yefat Toar – contends that this question is implicitly acknowledged by the Midrash. As explained above, the model for making vows at times of peril is Yaakov. The Midrash is emphatic asserting that Yaakov’s vow serves as a model. Yefat Toar suggests that the reason the Midrash emphasizes Yaakov’s role as a model is that the assertion that such a vow is appropriate and even praiseworthy is completely counter-intuitive. In other words, had Yaakov not demonstrated that it is appropriate to make a vow at a time of peril, it would be assumed that even such vows are included in the Torah’s general condemnation of making vows and creating potential stumbling blocks. When Bnai Yisrael made their vow in preparation of its campaign against Arad, it relied upon Yaakov’s example.[8] However, it remains to be explained why vows are permitted and even encouraged at times of peril. Why are they not discouraged as potential entrapments?

4. Reconciling Bnai Yisrael’s and Yaakov’s vows with the Torah’s attitude
Tosefot and others suggest that vows made in response to danger or at a time of peril do not fall within the Torah’s general admonition against taking vows. They do not offer any indication of why such vows are excluded from the general principle. However, there is another unusual halachah regarding such vows that hints to the reason for their exclusion.

Ramah, in his glosses on Shulchan Aruch comments that not only is it fitting to make a vow at a time of peril, but such vows may not be annulled. In other words, it is not appropriate for a person to appeal to the court for release from such a vow.[9] According to Ramah the difference between vows made at a time of peril and a typical vow is extreme. A typical vow is discouraged. If one does take a vow, he is encouraged to appeal to the court for relief rather than risk violating the vow. A vow made at a time of peril is encouraged. If one does make this vow, he is discouraged from appealing to the court for release. He must endure the risk of violating the vow. How can this extreme contrast be explained?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to review an important message developed by Maimonides. Maimonides explains that when Bnai Yisrael is confronted with peril and danger it is incumbent upon the nation to call out to Hashem. Turning to Hashem is an acknowledgement that the challenge confronting the people is a consequence of their failings and unacceptable behaviors. This acknowledgement is the first step on the path to repentance. Taking this step will bring about the people’s salvation.[10] Maimonides further explains that an individual confronted with danger and peril should also respond by calling out to Hashem. In short, Maimonides maintains that we should respond to danger and peril by looking toward our own actions and behaviors as the cause. With this recognition we should call out to Hashem for His salvation and embark upon a journey of repentance.

In this framework, the Torah’s treatment of vows made in response to danger and peril can be understood. Maimonides maintains that by calling out to Hashem one acknowledges personal responsibility for the challenge with which one is confronted and also embarks upon a path of repentance. However, essentially the person is asking Hashem to deliver him even though he has just taken the first step upon this path. Will the person continue on this journey of repentance? If delivered from the peril, will he maintain his commitment to change his behaviors and attitudes? Will the deliverance from the peril eliminate the essential motivation for change?

This is the role of the vow. The vow in response to peril is a firm commitment to change that must be executed. The commitment is made while still in peril but it is unlike a commitment that is made only in one’s heart. A private and unarticulated commitment can be abandoned after the peril or danger has passed. A vow must be fulfilled. In fact, as explained above, Ramah rules that it should not be annulled by appeal to the court. Now, this ruling can be fully appreciated. The vow was a commitment to change that was intended to bind the person even after the danger and peril passed. It was intended to respond to and counter the natural tendency to be less motivated to change and repent once the motivator – the danger – has passed. Where it permitted to annul such a vow, then its very purpose and design would be undermined.

Now the exception granted to such vows from the general admonition against vows emerges. Ordinarily, vows are discouraged because they can ensnare a person in sin through their violation. Instead, a person should act properly without relying on a vow as a motivator. In other words, the problem with vows is that a vow is made at a moment during which the person feels that the vow is appropriate and at which he is fully committed to execute it. The fulfillment of the vow takes place at a later time. At that time the commitment and motivation may have passed and even recollection of the vow may have a faded and been lost.

This very characteristic of the vow is the reason that it is an appropriate response to danger. It is true that the vow made in the present is a commitment to act after the peril has passed. There is a real danger that it will be forgotten or ignored at this future time. However, the vow does give expression to the person’s sincere commitment to change and repent. It translates a weak and unarticulated vision into a firm commitment.

1. Targum Unkelus Sefer BeMidbar 21:2
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 21:2.
3. Baalai HaTosafot, Commentary on Sefer Bereshiet 28:20.
4. Midrash Rabbah Parshat VaYetze 70:1.
5. Mesechet Hullin 2a.
6. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Nedarim 3:23-25.
7. Rav Shmuel Yaffa Ashkenazi, Yefat Toar Commentary of the Torah, Parshat Veytze (Quoted by Lekutim on Midrash Rabbah, Parshat VaYtze 70:1.)
8. Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 228:45.
9. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:1-2
10. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:9.