Shevuat Bituy Le-HaBa

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Last week's shiur considered the correspondence (if any) between a shevuat sheker and a shevuat shav.  This shiur will iy"H examine the dynamic between two different forms of shevuat sheker - an oath about actions in the past or one about actions in the future. 


     The first mishna in the third perek of Shavuot reminds us that the category of shevuat bituy (personal oaths, as opposed to monetary oaths discussed by subsequent sections of masekhet Shavuot) contains two forms of shavuot:

1) An oath about the past (I did something or I didn't)

2) An oath about the future (to do something or not to perform it)


It would appear that the model which best corresponds to the issur stated in the Torah is the former one - oaths about the past.  After all, the pasuk in parashat Kedoshim that prohibits false oaths - "lo tishavu vishmi la-shaker" (Vayikra 19:12) - emphasizes the 'sheker' factor.  An oath about past events is either true or false at the moment the oath is taken.


How might we understand the nature of an oath about the future?  An interesting gemara makes a casual and even offhanded reference about the difference between these two shavuot.  The mishna in the seventh perek of Shavuot discusses someone who has previously made false oaths.  He cannot take any future judiciary oaths, and must surrender the disputed money to his counterpart litigant pending that person's oath (the law of ke-negdo chashud al ha-shevua).  The mishna claims that ANY past false oath will invalidate the individual for future oaths.  Interestingly enough, the mishna omits mention of false shevuat bituy (even though it mentions practically every other known oath!!).  The gemara responds that since future oaths might not be considered false oaths (since at the time the oath was issued about a future action no falsehood existed) we might not invalidate someone who never fulfilled his shevua.  The gemara suggests that not fulfilling a future oath does not invalidate a person from taking any other oaths.  Does this mean that we do not consider the violation of future oaths as a form of sheker??


     This question strikes at the heart of shevua le-haba (future oaths).  We might concede the gemara's point that as the veracity of this shevua was a function of future decisions, we cannot describe the violator as a falsifier.  We might classify shevua le-haba as similar to neder - creating some future obligation.  The halakhic institution of neder empowers someone to define an item as prohibited, while shevua authorizes him to define certain personal actions that are now prohibited or obligatory (I won't or I will).  Having spoken the shevua, a person must now fulfill the new obligations he generated by his oath.  If the oath is violated, he has transgressed a prohibition but cannot be considered as having spoken falsely (since at the time of his oath his statement was not false and he might have even been planning to fulfill his words). 


     Alternatively, we might conclude that shevua le-haba is more symmetrical with a past oath.  The latter situation is a blatant lie (assuming the oath is false) while the former situation is a more subtle falsity.  If a person swears to take some action and ultimately does not execute his designs, his statements are PROVEN RETROACTIVELY to be false.  Indeed, we might not invalidate him for future judiciary oaths since this type of lie is not as audacious or flagrant as a lie about the past.  In the case of shevua le-haba, the 'sheker quotient' is both unknown and less severe.  Yet, in general, the essence of the violation is the falsehood similar to the issur of shevua le-sheavar (past shevua). 


     It should be noted that the Rishonim reach different conclusions about whether someone who doesn't fulfill a future oath is disqualified from future shavuot.  See especially Rashi in Shavuot 46b and the Rambam Hilkhot To'ain Ve-nit'an, chapter 2.  Yet even if we rule like Rashi that a person is not invalidated by violating a future oath, we still might claim that the nature of the issur for future oaths is the sheker, but since the falsehood is not as flagrant or certain, we do not disqualify him. 


     An interesting debate in the Amoraim could potentially reflect our question.  The gemara in Shavuot (20b-21a) cites a debate as to the source for the respective issurim of past and future oaths.  Rav Dimi claims that the basis for the issur of future oaths is the pasuk of "lo tishavu vishmi la-shaker," seemingly designating a future oath as a form of sheker.  By contrast, Rebbi Avahu claims that future oaths violate the pasuk of "lo yachel devaro" (he shouldn't violate his words).  This latter pasuk is written in parashat Mattot (Bamidbar 30:3) and apparently prohibits non-fulfillment of verbal pledges.  Notably, this pasuk applies primarily to neder, and according to Rebbi Avahu, to shevua as well.  At first glance, Rav Dimi and Rebbi Avahu are debating our very issue.  By refusing to base future oaths upon the pasuk of "lo tishavu vishmi la-shaker" and choosing instead "lo yachel devaro," might Rebbi Avahu have been claiming that unlike past oaths, a shevua le-haba cannot be termed sheker and can only be banned based on "lo yachel" - a general mitzva to fulfill verbal obligations. 


     One might claim that this issue was not just debated by the Amoraim but by the Tanaim as well.  The third perek of Shavuot cites two disputes (each involving Rebbi Akiva) that seem to revolve around this question.  The first mishna cites a debate between Rebbi Akiva and the Chakhamim about someone who swears not to eat.  Is this person allowed to eat less than a ke-zayit?  The Rabanan rule that as is the case with any issur in the Torah, malkut are justified only if the person eats at least a ke-zayit (less than a ke-zayit is still forbidden - either mi-deoraita or mi-derabanan - but without any penalty).  Rebbi Akiva argues that one who swears not to eat cannot even eat less than a ke-zayit.  We are immediately struck with the novelty of Rebbi Akiva's position.  Why should shevua differ from any other issur in the Torah in terms of its minimal shiur?  If eating less than a ke-zayit of neveila does not yield malkut, why should eating less that a ke-zayit of bread that you swore not to eat obligate malkut?


     We might claim that this machloket surrounds our original question.  If a shevua establishes a new act that is forbidden, then the dimensions of this act should correspond to the classic standards or criteria of the Torah's prohibitions.  If, in general, malkut is only administered for an act of eating a KE-ZAYIT of neveila, similarly malkut should only be imposed for the act of eating a KE-ZAYIT of bread that was banned through a shevua.  Might Rebbi Akiva be disclaiming the Chakhamim's view of shevua le-haba?  Might he have viewed it as a form of 'retroactive sheker' rather than the creation of a new prohibition?  If I must not eat the bread to maintain the veracity of my statement, maybe I should not eat any amount of bread whatsoever.  If the bread is not forbidden – rather, I must not eat it in order to protect the truth of my spoken words - then maybe I should not eat any bread at all.  Ingesting even a morsel could prove my prior statements false.  If, on the other hand, bread has become an item that is forbidden to eat, then the ke-zayit shiur should govern the presence of malkut.


     A second interesting debate among the Tanaim surrounds the issue of bringing a korban for past oaths.  Aside from the pasuk in parashat Kedoshim that bans false oaths ("lo tishavu vishmi la-shaker") a section in Vayikra perek 5 obligates a korban for any false oath that is a product of negligence (shogeg).  While describing the terms of the korban, the pasuk writes about oaths that were taken "to cause benefit or harm" ("le-hara oh le-heitiv," Vayikra 5:4).  Clearly, the direct reference is to future oaths (that can impact positively - to eat, or negatively - not to eat).  Past oaths are in no way referred to, since they will have no impact upon the future; they merely describe past events or alleged events. 


     Should a sacrifice be brought for past oaths that are negligently violated?  Rebbi Yishmael claims that no korbanot are obligated, since the pasuk warranting a korban only describes future oath ("le-hara oh le-heitiv").  Rebbi Akiva asserts that we can generate a korban for past oaths (even though the Torah does not outrightly stipulate a korban), by comparing it to future oaths (for which the Torah does stipulate a korban).  Rebbi Akiva clearly thought that past and future oaths are symmetrical and one can be inferred from the other.  By underscoring the falsehood of future oaths, one is in effect underscoring its similarity to past oaths.  In this respect, Rebbi Akiva's position appears consistent: he claimed that future oaths that are not fulfilled are a form of retroactive sheker.  Therefore:

1) the oath has been violated even if less than a ke-zayit were eaten

2) past and future oaths are structurally analogous and a korban for the former can be induced from the presence of a korban for the latter.




We questioned the nature of shevua le-haba.  Do we view this type of shevua as generating some new required or prohibited action, or do we view this type of shevua as a statement whose veracity is still suspended?  Possibly this question affects the decisions of which pasuk to base the respective issurim upon.  In addition, this issue might have dictated two different positions of Rebbi Akiva.


     One final machloket that should be considered surrounds the feasibility of hatfasa (defined below).  The gemara in Nedarim allows for two tracks in establishing an item as prohibited:

1) A person may explicitly define any item as assur be-hana'ah

2) He may also 'attach' an item to an already prohibited item through the mechanism of hatfasa.  For example, if a person has already articulated an issur upon a specific item, he may create the same identity for another item by merely stating "item A should be like item B."


Rava and Abaye (Shavuot 20) debate the viability of this device of hatfasa in the case of shevua.  If someone has already sworn not to eat this bread and subsequently he says, "this second piece of bread should be like the first piece," has a second shevua been generated?  Abaye likens shevua to neder, allowing hatfasa to operate.  Rava for his part denies the applicability of hatfasa to shevua, demanding that a shevua be explicitly stated. 


     To be sure, the application of hatfasa to shevua is a multidimensional issue.  In truth (see especially the Ran Shavuot 8a in the pages of the Rif), we might exclude hatfasa entirely from the world of shevua and limit it to neder, which has dimensions of hekdesh to it.  (For example, the gemara in Nedarim 35a considers whether someone who violates his neder has also committed me'ila - the sin for partaking of items belonging to hekdesh.)  Hekdesh typically is an identity that can be transferred from one item to another.  Likewise, the mechanism of neder allows for transfer of neder (hekdesh) status from item to item.  We might delimit hatfasa to neder, which exhibits similarities to hekdesh.



     However, we might just as likely explain Rava's position based upon the nature of shevua le-haba.  If indeed the shevua generates some new halakhic action, we might entertain the thought of hatfasa.  Can a person replicate a halakhic action that he generated through an act of shevua merely by stating 'this bread should attain the status of the previous bread.'  The concept is feasible, though certainly not undeniable.  If however, a future shevua generates no new halakhic identity and does not formulate any new act that is forbidden or obligated,  what is a person attaching the second item to?  A shevua le-haba merely issues a declaration and a person is then obligated to sustain the veracity of that statement.  In the absence of a new statement, no second shevua can emerge.  The efficacy of hatfasa lies in replicating the consequence of a previous neder/shevua with regard to a second item.  According to one view, a future shevua has not created any tangible or substantive halakhic consequences.  No items have been prohibited, and no act has been obligated.  Instead, a person must 'stick to his words.'  This model of shevua would in no way provide a template for the quick replication of a second shevua.