Hataras Nedarim, customarily done before Rosh Hashana, annuls all vows. When are both words and thoughts halachically binding, and when not? Is there a difference between a good deed and a full mitzva? At times we plan to do things that we do not end up doing. Do those thoughts constitute vows? Why do people say bli neder? Of this and more in the coming article.
This week’s parasha begins with the obligation to keep promises: “If a person will make a vow to G‑d or an oath to obligate himself, he must not break his word. He must fulfil that which he vowed or swore to do” (Bamidbar 30:3). The recent Daf Yomi masechtos of Nedarim and Nazir examine various vows, oaths, and other utterances that must be upheld. Simply saying “amen” to another person’s vow, or saying “me, too” upon hearing a vow is considered as having made a vow.
On the other hand, the text of Hataras Nedarim customarily recited on Erev Rosh Hashana requests a blanket release of all vows, even those in thought without actually pronouncing it. Apparently, this text indicates that thinking of a commitment is binding, even without having uttered a word. What is the nature of an unexpressed commitment? Is keeping it obligatory like a regular pronounced vow? If every thought or good intention requires acting upon it, how can we ever change our minds? We all strive to do better, to perform a mitzva in the best possible way, but in real life many positive goals fall by the wayside. If we cannot take on any commitment for fear of failing to live up to them, how will we ever improve?
The answer lies in the various levels of commitment. In this article we will try to explain the different levels and situations, and how to uphold our commitments to ensure we do not transgress the prohibition of breaking an oath, which is very severe.
Pledges for Tzedakah
The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 6a) explains the pasuk: “Observe and do what is emitted from your lips just as you have pledged to the Lord, your G-d, as a donation, which you have spoken with your mouth” (Devarim 23:24). The Genmara (Rosh Hashana 6A) derives a different halacha from every word. From the word(s) “with your mouth” the Gemara learns that one who pledges a sum of money to charity is obligated to fulfill it. This is ruled in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 257:3): promising to give a sum for charity is a vow, even without mentioning the word ‘vow’ explicitly or any other related term.
Similarly, the Gemara writes (there, and elsewhere) that consecrating something occurs even without uttering the word vow. Therefore, one who says, “I will offer a sacrifice” is obligated to bring a sacrifice to the Mikdash.
Does this halacha apply specifically to tzedakah, or is it also relevant for other general good intentions?
Good Intentions as Vows
The Gemara (Nedarim 8a) writes that one who says he intends to learn a specific chapter of Torah the next day “has made a great vow to G-d.” The Rishonim are divided as for the Gemara’s implication. Does the Gemara only mean that when announcing an intention as a vow it is a “great vow”, or does simply stating a learning goal become a vow?
Practically, the Shulchan Aruch rules (YD 213:2) that stating plans to learn something it is considered having made a vow, binding just like a charity pledge. The Rama adds that this halacha is not limited to Torah study – it includes any commitment to perform a mitzva. However, the Gra (ibid, footnote 7) opines it is not a vow, and the Gemara here refers to explicitly taking a vow to learn Torah.
The Maharam Padova (chapter 72) says that since the Rosh forbids it, he is afraid to rule leniently due to the severity of vows, and therefore one must annul a vow of this sort if he needs to violate his commitment.
Swearing to Do a Mitzva
What is the source in the Torah that a thought to do a mitzva constitutes a vow even without a clear oral statement?
The Ran (Nedarim 8a) writes that it is derived from the word(s) in the pasuk, “with your mouth” which includes one who made a pledge for tzedakah even without making an explicit vow or oath. The Gemara teaches that every mitzva is similar to tzedakah.
Other opinions maintain that the source for this halacha appears later in this week’s parasha. The Tribes of Gad and Reuven stated that they would lead the rest of Am Yisroel in their war of conquest after settling their families in their own land on the eastern side of the Jordan. Moshe Rabbenu answers them with the words: “So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep, and what has proceeded from your mouth you must do” (Bamidbar 32:24). Rashi explains that their statement, even though not expressed as a vow, obligated them nevertheless since it was a commitment to do a mitzva.
The Shela, though, disagrees that this can be a source: in his opinion, the verbal commitment of these tribes was non-obligational, following up on it is was only a worthy virtue. This explains Moshe Rabbenu’s blessing he gave the Tribe of Gad at the end of his life in Parashas VeZos Habracha: “And he came at the head of the people; he did what is righteous for the Lord, and what is lawful with Yisrael” (Devarim 33:21). He did, “what is lawful with Yisroel” – what he was obligated to do, and also, “what is righteous for the Lord” — what he said he would do even though he wasn’t halachically obligated.
The Chochmas Adam (91:5) gives still another source for this halacha. He cites the psukim: “And Yaakov uttered a vow, saying, ‘If G-d will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my G-d; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of G-d, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You” (Bereshis 28:20-22). The Torah considers Yaakov’s statements as a vow even though none of the words he uttered indicate that. This teaches us that when Yaakov took on a commitment to do a mitzva — make the stone into a house of G-d and tithe all he had, the Torah sees it as a vow. Hence, the intention to do something positive, even without formally swearing on it, is still called a vow.
Full Vow vs. Partial Vow
The Rosh (Nedarim 8a) writes that one who states he will learn a section of Torah, even without mentioning any words to indicate an oath, has made a vow of the same level as pledging money for charity. His son, the Tur (YD 213), and the Bach (ibid) explain that he means that although it is not a formal vow, it is considered like a vow to give tzedakah, where any utterance is enough to be considered a vow.
Similarly, the Birkey Yosef quotes (Shiyurei Bracha, 213:2) ‘a holy individual’ who says that the Rambam (Nedarim 1:29) and Shulchan Aruch (YD 213:3) see a commitment to learn Torah like a vow, which although not exactly the same, carries the same obligation. This also seems to be the approach taken by the Igros Moshe (YD 1:127:8).
Committing to a Hiddur or Chumra
Rav Moshe Feinstein was presented a question by a community that accepted upon itself to always employ two shochtim. This was designed to increase both the shochtim’s credibility, allowing one to check the other’s knife, and eliminate other mishaps. Eventually, the government increased taxes, and the community could no longer afford two salaries. The local rabbi asked if the community was still obligated to employ two shochtim or not. Rav Moshe, considers whether since it is done to enhance fulfillment of a mitzva, it obligates the community just like a regular vow.
He decided, that although he has no direct proof, in his opinion this halacha only refers to a full mitzva such as Torah study, giving tzedakah, or offering a sacrifice. A hiddur or positive action does not fall into this halacha, and even if one committed himself to doing so, as long as he didn’t use the terms that create a vow or oath, he is not obligated to fulfill it.
While employing two shochatim is certainly a positive measure which prevents many problems, it is not a hiddur mentioned in halacha and therefore, cannot be considered a neder.
The Chasam Sofer (Volume II, 222) writes that the Geonim who penned the text of Hataras Nedarim for Erev Rosh Hashana added a sentence meant to annual even commitments made without speaking, similar to one who made up his mind to bring a sacrifice, which is binding. He learns this from the pasuk: “…The congregation brought [peace-]offerings and thanksgiving-offerings, and every generous-hearted one-burnt offerings” (Divrei Hayomim II, 29:31). We see that thought alone in one’s heart (and not lips) can obligate a person to bring a sacrifice. Following this halacha, any commitment or decision to do a mitzvah obligates. He adds, (Chasam Sofer volume IV chapter 102) that even a decision is obligating and considered a vow. Therefore, accepting upon one’s self a fast day obligates even without invoking neder terms.
Deciding to Fast
Thinking of fasting obligates even without uttering a single word (according to Rabbenu Tam, Tosefos Avoda Zara 34a) if one made a firm decision just as an animal becomes consecrated for a sacrifice in thought alone.
Erev Rosh Hashana Proclamations
Customarily, we make a Hataras Nedarim ceremony before Rosh Hashana, at the end for which we make an official announcement that any vows, oaths, or wordless decisions are all nullified. After this ceremony, it seems that keeping one’s words is not obligatory, and there is no penalty for failing to do so.
However, the poskim write that one who knows of an explicit vow he took which he would like to stop keeping, should undergo a vow annulation ceremony (Hataras Nedarim). Only where the decision was never uttered aloud, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomo) permits one to rely on the proclamation on Erev Rosh Hashana. Regardless, it is always recommended to add the caveat “bli neder” after any statement of intentions.
Therefore, practically, in order to save oneself from mishaps, one should make the Erev Rosh Hashana proclamation, and women can appoint her husband to do so in their name. Although it is recommended to renew this proclamation once a year, basic halacha requires that it be done only once in a lifetime. As long as it was not retracted, it remains in effect.
Keeping Bli Neder Commitments
The Shela (Matos, Derech Chayim Tochat Musser 4) highlights a lesson from the pasuk: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do” (Bamidbar 30:3). Apparently, the obligation to follow up on commitments appears in this pasuk twice – “He shall not violate his word, according to whatever came out of his mouth he shall do”. Why the repetition? He answers that the first mention refers to explicit vows and oaths; the other — to those said bli neder, which are not binding. Living up to non-neder-commitments is praiseworthy. And indeed, many Amoraim in the Gemara were careful to ensure they were faithful to every word they uttered.
In this article we focused on announcements of good intentions, but there is another sort of action that obligates people — doing a mitzva or following a custom three times, even without saying anything. Repeating an action three times with intention to continue doing so forever receives the status of an oath and is considered a vow which must be upheld or annulled. This topic will be discussed, bli neder, in our next article.