Parashat Matot: "If a Man Vow a Vow to the Lord"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion



This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l (whose yahrzeit is Tamuz 21),
by the Wise and Etshalom families. Yehi Zikhro Barukh.



ParAshat Matot


"If a man vow a vow to the lord"



            The beginning of our parasha, which deals with the laws of vows, opens as follows:


And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded. If a man vow a vow to the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Bamidbar 30:1-3)


            The Torah describes a person who vows a vow to God or swears an oath to forbid something to himself, and concludes with the command, "He shall not break his word (lo yachel devaro), he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."


            The biblical commentators disagree about the meaning of the expression, "lo yachel devaro." The Ibn Ezra writes as follows:


"Lo yachel devaro" - like lo yechalel ("he shall not profane"). It does not bear the sense of mechila, ("waiving")…. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.)


            The exciting issue of vows raises many questions. The Torah does not clearly state its position on vows. According to the Torah, is a vow desirable or not? Scripture formulates the law in bedi'eved terms: "If a man vow a vow." Does this imply that there is no mitzva to take a vow, and that we are dealing here with an admonition directed at one who has already taken a vow that he should not break it, or is it being alluded here that a person is encouraged to take a vow?


            Chassidic thought deals with these questions and with the spiritual significance of vows and oaths.




            The first distinction that must be made here is between vows and oaths. R. Yisrael of Koznitz puts forward a novel proposal:


"If a man vow a vow to the Lord, or swear an oath, etc." Scripture alludes to one who walks in the path of God, strengthening himself in his service of God and erecting for himself fences and vows, so that he may become a throne and a chariot to his Creator. This is [the meaning of] "If a man vow a vow to the Lord," that he vows and separates himself from various things. "To the Lord," so that he himself should become a habitation and dwelling place for his Creator. Thus, through these thoughts – stirring up from below – he stirs up the world of thought above, as it were, so that He might rest His Shekhina on him. Therefore, Chazal have stated that whoever takes a vow, it is as if he has taken a vow by the life of the king, for by way of his thoughts regarding vows and abstinence he shake the life of the king, namely His thoughts, as it were. "Or swear an oath" - [the word] oath (shevu'a) is derived from the word "seven" (shiv'a) days of creation, that he swears to do such-and-such in order to strengthen the validity of the seven days of creation during which the world had been created. For his entire intention in "binding his soul with a bond," is that his soul should be tied and bound to God. Therefore, when one swears an oath, it is by the king himself, for with his oath he connects to the king himself. Then if his entire intention is exclusively for God, "he will not profane his words," that man will not make his words mundane, for all the words that he utters, even his mundane conversations, will exist and stand, and as he decrees, so will it be. "He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth," that is, as he says with his mouth, for example, the one sons, and the other life or sustenance, the King, blessed be He, will do, in accordance with the mystery of "You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto you" (Iyyov 22:28) (Avodat Yisrael, Matot)


            A vow, according to the maggid of Koznitz, constitutes an abstention from certain things or actions: "And he erects for himself fences and vows… that he vows and separates himself from various things."


            A person decides to abstain and purify himself by distancing himself from those things that according to his outlook and understanding distance him from God and establish a barrier between him and the Shekhina. A vow, according to the maggid of Koznitz, consists of abstention and erecting fences that prevent a person – against his will, even if at a certain moment he does not identify with that abstention – from coming into contact with those things that, according to his understanding, distance him from his Creator.


            An oath, on the other hand, according to R. Yisrael, constitutes an obligation to perform certain actions which, according to his outlook and understanding, draw him closer to his Creator: "He swears to do such-and-such."


            The difference between a vow and an oath that emerges from the words of the maggid of Koznitz, corresponds to the fundamental and well-known distinction between "turning away from evil" (sur me-ra) and doing good (aseh tov).


            An oath, according to R. Yisrael, is the aspect of "turning away from evil." It does not involve any positive action; it is entirely abstention from negative action, from coming into contact with things that defile and distance a person from God. Essentially, a person surrounds himself with a fence that protects him from external things.


An oath, on the other hand, is the aspect of "doing good." It directs a person toward and obligates him to engage in certain acts. The person is active and operative; and he anchors his will to act with an oath that obligates him to remain faithful to that will even if at a certain moment it passes and is no more.


Vows and Oaths – chariot for the shekhina and connection with God


The maggid of Koznitz strengthens his distinction between vows and oaths, in accordance what it says in the Sifrei, as cited below:


What is the difference between vows and oaths? Oaths, as if he swears by the life of the king. Oaths, as if he swears by the king himself. Even though there is no proof for the matter, there is an allusion to the matter: "As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you" (II Melakhim 2:2). (Sifrei, Matot 1)


            A person who takes a vow swears by the life of the king, whereas a person who takes an oath swears by the king himself.


            It would seem that we are dealing here with a distinction regarding the formulation of the vow and the oath. The maggid of Koznitz, however, tries to deepen and widen this distinction. His understanding is clarified by his description of the respective results of the vow and the oath.


            A vow brings a person to "become a throne and a chariot to his Creator."


            An oath brings a person to the state "that his soul is tied and bound to God."


            To be a throne and a chariot means to be a vessel. Such a person neither acts nor creates; he merely waits to receive and listen. The throne and the chariot are meaningless as long as the seat is empty. They are like an empty container with nothing in it; they are merely ready and prepared for the king to sit down upon them. When a person becomes a throne and a chariot, he "invites" his Creator to sit upon him, or in the words of the maggid of Koznitz, "he stirs up the world of thought above, as it were, so that He might rest His Shekhina on him."


            As long as a person restricts himself to turning away from evil, he does not draw near to or cling to the Shekhina, for he is passive, inactive, and not climbing upwards. He merely forms a large, empty space around himself, in which the Shekhina may come to dwell. As R. Yisrael puts it, he becomes a throne, a chariot, a habitation and dwelling place, all these being great spaces that allow the Shekhina to rest among them. The act is the act of the Shekhina, and the vow is the preparation of the vessels which will the Shekhina to act.


            According to the maggid of Koznitz, to swear by the life of the king means "to shake" the life and thoughts of the king. He wakes up and invites the king, as if to say: I am waiting for you. I have cleared a space, I have withdrawn from all the vanities of this world, I have silenced all the disturbing and concealing noises, I have constructed fences, and now everything is ready for You, O God, to dwell within me. This is stirring up from below that invites the stirring up above to dwell and act.


            In contrast, the maggid of Koznitz connects the oath to the seven days of creation; it is from the oath that creation receives its strength and vitality. It is by way of an oath that a person swears by the King of the world to do and to act. Here we are not dealing with abstention, but rather with the revalidation of action. When a person acts because of an oath, he validates the seven days of creation, and thereby "his soul is tied and bound to God." Why? What is the difference between an ordinary decision to do something and a decision that is accompanied by an oath to God?


            It seems that we may be able to reach the root of the matter through the conduct of R. Nachman of Breslov.


            R. Nachman dealt extensively with vows, and despite the caution that he advises in their regard, he encouraged his disciples to make wide use of this tool, to the point that his disciple R. Natan dedicated a separate prayer to it:


And thus help me with Your great mercy, that I may sanctify myself with Your supernal sanctity, and that You may speedily bring me to true sanctity and abstention. And I will hold fast to the holy ways of our forefathers, taking vows and immediately fulfilling them, for the sake of Your good will, so that through the vows I will attain true sanctity and abstention, and I will rise up to the place of the vow which is the wonder of wisdom. And through this, You will help me recognize the virtue and sanctity of the true sages, until I merit perfect faith in the sages. And through this, You will allow me to rise up and be included in the light of the fathers,[1] and the light of the fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, will sparkle in me. (Likutei Tefilot, I, 57)


            This high level that can be reached through vows brought R. Nachman himself to make frequent use of vows and oaths. R. Natan reports about him as follows:


He made very common use of vows, for on many occasions, when the day arrived, he accepted upon himself by way of a vow the entire order of service that he wished to perform on that day. And then afterwards, even if it was exceedingly difficult for him, he was forced to act on account of the vow. He acted in this manner on many occasions. And on many occasions he would erect all kinds of fences of abstention from certain desires or qualities by way of vows. And he would often take an oath about certain matters while holding a holy object so that he would be strong enough to abstain from whatever it was that he wished to abstain from. (Shivchei Moharan 15)


            On a superficial level, we seem to be dealing with a tool intended to ensure that a person will not retreat from his desire to perform a certain service or fulfill a certain mitzva. When such a desire arises, teaches us R. Nachman, we must anchor that desire by way of an oath or a vow, so that even when the hour passes, we will remain committed to it. R. Nachman would therefore accept modes of Divine service upon himself in the morning with a vow or an oath, so that from that moment on, he would be obligated to perform that service in any event, and he would be unable to change his mind or retract.


            It seems, however, that R. Nachman wishes to clarify a more profound principle. This is also implied by the prayer cited above, and by the teaching upon which it is based. It seems to touch upon our understanding of the concept of will and desire.


            According to Chazal, Kabala, Chassidut, and others, human will is regarded as the innermost and loftiest aspect of man. When a true desire to serve God and draw near to Him awakens in a person, we are dealing with a deep internal awakening that breaks through the material covering and garments in which a person's soul is wrapped. This awakening is indicative of penetration into the depths of a person, and it is from there that it operates. Taking a vow or an oath not only ensures the realization of such a desire, as we tried to say on the first level, but it also further deepens and elevates that desire.


            In many of his teachings that deal with man's desire to serve God, R. Nachman asks: Whose desire are we talking about? Are we dealing with individual desire and personal interest, or are we dealing with the appearance of God's will in man?


            R. Nachman teaches us that when I wish to perform a certain spiritual service, then it is I who has a desire. Even though we are talking about a good and positive desire, we are still talking about my human desire. From the moment that I attach a vow or oath to that desire, an additional partner enters into the picture – God.


            The issue of regret and changing one's mind that we raised earlier is not merely a technical problem. In the absence of an oath, regret is possible not only because there is no oath that bars regret, but also because the question of action or non-action depends exclusively upon my desire; when there is such desire, the act is done, when there is no such desire, it is not done.


From the moment that a person swears by God, he turns the execution of the act into the desire of God, and therefore regret is no longer possible. Breaking the vow or oath is not merely a formal problem, but rather an undermining of the Divine will. Perhaps I no longer desire to perform the act that only a few hours ago I had wished to perform, but God still so desires, and by performing that action I actualize not only my own desire, but God's desire as well. Vows and oaths bestow Divine validity upon the act about which we swear, even if it does not bear the clear character of a mitzva, and even if we are dealing with an optional action.[2]


Returning to the wording of the maggid of Koznitz, we might say that when a person desires to perform a certain action, and he swears about it by God, he binds his desire to the desire of God.


The maggid interprets the expression "le-esor isar al nafsho" ("to bind his soul with a bond"), not in the sense of abstention, but in the sense of binding: "a king is caught [asur] in his tresses."  Through his oath a person becomes bound to God. Through his oath he climbs higher and higher until he reaches the Throne of Glory where there rests the supernal desire, the pure will – the will of God. Now he must perform the action not because of halakhic formalism, but because of the Divine desire that the action be performed.


This leads to the amazing words of the maggid of Koznitz about giving validity and meaning to creation. When a person decides to sit all day in Torah study, he engages in his own personal action. But when a person takes a vow in that regard, we are talking about a part of the Divine will that reveals itself in the world, through which God continues to act therein. Man is bound to God, and becomes his partner in creation. For his human desire becomes bound by the bond of the oath to Divine desire, and when the action is performed, the Divine desire is created and actualized together with the human desire in the real world.


Returning to the distinction made by the maggid of Koznitz between vows and oaths – whereas when a person takes a vow, he comes to a halt, silently listens, and spreads out his hands in order to receive the Shekhina, when a person takes an oath, a person acts, and with his action that results from the oath, he allows God to participate in the actualization of the Divine desire, and his desire becomes bound to the desire of God.


From here we come to the ramification with which the maggid of Koznitz concludes his words: "'He will not profane his words, that man will not make his words mundane, for all the words that he utters, even his mundane conversations, will exist and stand, and as he decrees, so will it be."


These words may be understood in light of one of the important passages in the writings of Rav Kook:


Man's desire is bound to the desire of God, and it flows from the splendor of its light. But as long as a person does not reveal this relationship within him, that Divine quality does not reveal itself in him. However, to the extent that a person pays attention to know that we have no other desire but the revelation of the light of Divine desire – to the extent of that revelation, there becomes revealed within his desire the special power to be active, to bring into being, to create and to decree. And to that same extent comes prayer, displaying its wonders … sometimes even unintentionally, like the blessing and curse of a sage to which a condition had been attached, even if that condition is not fulfilled, and "an error proceeding from the ruler" (Kohelet 10:5) for good or for bad. It is also revealed in some action, like "he removed one of his shoes and it rained." "Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear" (Yeshayahu 65:24). (Shemoneh Kevatzim 8, 233)


According to Rav Kook, the refinement and elevation of man's desire to the point that it becomes bound to the desire of God is man's service through prayer. The more that man's desire becomes elevated and bound to God's desire, so "there becomes revealed within his desire the special power to be active, to bring into being, to create and to decree." Divine desire is absolute and its fulfillment is certain and necessary. "For He spoke, and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Tehillim 33:9).


Personal desire, in contrast, sometimes corresponds to Divine desire and becomes actualized, but sometimes not. The more that personal desire becomes elevated and corresponds to Divine desire, the more personal desire acquires that unique quality of "blessed is he who decrees and fulfills."


An oath, according to the maggid of Koznitz, and in great measure, according to R. Nachman as well, is one of the most important means of binding human desire to Divine desire. For that purpose, however, writes the maggid, perfect intention for the sake of heaven and true refinement of that desire is necessary, and then the oath will allow that bond. From the moment that a person attains that bond, he becomes a creator and God's partner, His desire becomes God's desire, and thus he becomes filled with all those unique qualities that pertain to Divine desire, as the maggid of Koznitz concludes: "With the mystery of 'You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto you.'"


vows and oaths – lekhatchila or Bedi'eved


            Thus far we have seen the positive and uplifting meaning of vows and oaths, both according to R. Nachman of Breslov and according to the maggid of Koznitz. Vows and oaths raise a person to a higher level and provide the actions that he had intended to perform with higher spiritual meaning, and thus they bind man and his actions to God and His desire.


            An entirely different, and in great measure contradictory approach is found in the words of R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica:


"If a man vow a vow." We find in tractate Nedarim: "What is konam? Rabbi Yochanan says: The language of gentiles ('strangers'). Resh Lakish said: A language that the Sages made up." The meaning of this is as I have written that the fear of God is wisdom (chokhma) and turning away from evil is understanding (bina). Chokhma is that a person should contemplate everything and well understand whether it is right before Him to do it, and that which is unfitting before Him he should fence himself from it. Bina is when a person's heart is so purified that nothing will enter it that is contrary to the will of God, blessed be He, and he will have no craving that is contrary to the will of God. Any person whose heart is not yet purified requires fences so that he not come to stumble. Therefore, R. Yochanan said that all the formulations of vows are the language of gentiles, because all the languages of the gentiles are the tongues of stammerers, as is known. And also this person who has not yet arrived at a state at which bina is fixed in his heart so that he should no longer need fences, therefore it is called the language of gentiles… (Mei Ha-shiloach, Matot)


            The author of the Mei Ha-shiloach distinguishes between two psychological states: the one, the trait of chokhma (wisdom), the other, the trait of bina (understanding).


            The world of vows and oaths belongs to the trait of chokhma, in which "a person should contemplate everything and well understand whether it is right before Him to do it, and that which is unfitting before Him he should fence himself from it." This is a world in which man contemplates the world, and fashions his outlook by cataloging what he sees as either good or evil, and establishing fences that will keep him away from that which is evil and bring him to that which is good.


            The Mei Ha-shiloach emphasizes that this psychological state is a logical and rational stand. Vows and oaths are the signposts that a person erects for himself, and they shape his conduct in the world, both in the sense of "turning away from evil" and in the sense of "doing good." We are not dealing with spontaneous streaming. Just the opposite! A person leaves almost nothing open. The vows that remove him from evil and the oaths that direct him to good indicate that a person is not relying on his intuition and natural flow. He is trying to anchor himself with vows and oaths that will prevent him from being carried away to evil and that will push him toward the good.


            As opposed to those who came before him, however, the Mei Ha-shiloach proposes the novel idea that we are dealing with an inferior level, and he even interprets the words of R. Yochanan in that direction.


            R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish disagree about the source of the words connected to vows, e.g., "konam." R. Yochanan maintains that they are rooted in the language of gentiles, which the Mei Ha-shiloach understands as the language of stammerers. Perhaps we should return to R. Yochanan's language of "strangers" in order to explain the words of the Mei Ha-shiloach, out of an understanding of the superior level, the level of bina.


            Whereas chokhma is directed at the intellect, bina is directed at the heart.


            A person who is attentive to his heart, who succeeds in refining his desires such that his heart in its deepest place will guide him, cannot bear an action that is not directed at God, and with all his might he strives to do what is good and right. A person's inner flow directs him toward the good and the right, and he must only refine himself in order to allow this flow. A person whose heart is refined, who is not estranged and alienated from his pure and refined desires, can rely on his inner intuition, on his natural flow, on his directed desire. Thus, he is not in need of vows and oaths that provide external guidance from outside the person.


            The world of laws and limits, asserts the Mei Ha-shiloach in his unique manner, results from strangeness, from alienation from the pure, inner desire, and therefore signposts are necessary – vows and oaths that are a strange tongue.[3]


A person who is familiar with the path, who knows the course by heart, does not need signposts, no-entrance signs, or guiding arrows. Bina spontaneously directs a person to what is good and right, and keeps him away from what is evil, and therefore he does not need oaths and vows. But someone who has become alienated from his bina, who has lost his inner flow, who does not hear the voice of God echoing in his heart, must employ his intellect to recognize what is good and what is evil, in order to define and keep himself away from what is evil and direct and push himself toward what is good. Not from inside, but from outside; not through bina, but through chokhma. He, therefore, requires external signposts – namely, vows and oaths.


It seems that the Mei Ha-shiloach would agree with the maggid of Koznitz that through vows and oaths a person binds all his actions and conduct to God, whether through effacement and preparation to become a chariot to the Shekhina, or through cleaving to Divine desire. Both, however, still express the gap between human desire and Divine desire, the bridge between them being accomplished through vows and oaths.


The higher level involves a unity of desires, such that the vow and the oath are unnecessary, and a person is committed not by his vow or oath, but by his desire. In great measure, just as one who takes a vow or an oath loses his freedom of choice regarding that act, so too one who cleaves to Divine desire loses his freedom of choice, and remains obligated psychologically and spiritually to the desire moving and operating within him, that he has revealed and exposed.


This is the level of bina which is superior, according to the Mei Ha-shiloach, to the world of vows and oaths.




[1] This prayer, like all of R. Natan's prayers, is based on one of R. Nachman's teachings in Likutei Moharan Kama 57.


[2] It should be noted that R. Nachman does not distinguish between vows and oaths, whereas the maggid of Koznitz makes that distinction. Thus, the words of R. Nachman that we come to explain here correspond only to what the maggid of Koznitz says regarding oaths.


[3] The Mei Ha-shiloach's understanding of this idea is more inclusive, and in many places he emphasizes that the entire world of mitzvot results from the strangeness and alienation of the absence of inner flow from and identity between our desire and the desire of God. The more we refine our inner desire, so will the degree of our dependence upon external laws diminish. This is a lengthy topic, requiring very careful examination.


(Translated by David Strauss)