Oath of Office
Volume 5 Issue 41
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
The portion of Matos begins with the laws governing commitments and
pledges. In Torah law, words are not taken lightly and when one makes an
oath, the implications are exacting. The portion begins, "Moshe spoke to
the Roshei HaMatos, the heads of the tribes, saying: This is the thing that
Hashem commanded. If a man takes a vow to Hashem or swears to enact a
prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; whatever he said
he shall do" (Numbers 30:2-3). The portion continues to discuss vows
that one places upon himself, as well as vows that are between husbands
and wives and fathers and daughters. The Torah continues to detail the
complex laws of both the obligation and revocation of vows.
What is strikingly different in this portion is the way it was transmitted.
Normally the Torah does not talk about the teaching of the law to the heads
of the tribes. Back in Parshas Ki Sisa, the Torah tells us that Moshe
would first teach Ahron, then Ahron's children, then the elders, and only
then all of Israel (Exodus 34:31-32).
But the Torah hardly ever reiterates that point. Here, in Matos, Moshe
emphasizes his directive to the heads of the tribes. Why? Wasn't the whole
Torah given to them first? Why repeat that fact here?
Rashi explains that Moshe meted honor to the elders and leaders because
they play a vital role in the laws of vows. Unlike other judicial actions,
the power of annulment of vows is done by individuals who are experts.
An expert can rule on vows and has the ability to decide which ones are
valid, and which ones are senseless and inconsequential. He can evaluate
vows that were made under duress and those invoked out of fear. He has the
power to render them void. Therefore, unlike other commandments, Moshe
specified the role of the leaders in reference to vows.
But perhaps there is another important significance to specifying the role
of elders when talking about vows.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger was a world renowned Talmudic sage who wrote on almost
every aspect of the Torah. However as the Rabbi of Pozen, which was part of
the Austrio-Hungarian empire, his custom was to defer responding to
questions that were sent from outside his country. After all, he felt that
the stature of other rabbis would be diminished had all their congregants
sent their questions to an out-of-town rabbi.
However, he once received a letter from Bialostock, Poland to which he did
He began his response: "Although I am unworthy of answering questions from
distant lands that are filled with great rabbis and Halachic scholars, and
surely Poland is not lacking in either, his time I will answer." Then
Rabbi Akiva Eiger added his reason.
"A few months back I was at a simcha (joyous occasion) at which someone
from your town said that he would write me concerning a difficult
matter. Though I did not encourage him to do so, I also did not discourage
him. In fact, I may have even nodded my head slightly. That may have been
taken as a commitment to answer the question. And If I even appeared to
have consented, I surely do not want to appear as if I have reneged on a
The Torah transmits the laws of oaths through the heads of each tribe
because it wants to reiterate to them the importance of a leader's
adherence to commitment. The eyes of a nation are focused on their words,
their promises, and their commitments. It is only fitting that those who
bear the tremendous responsibility of assuring their tribes of their needs
and requests, should be the very ones that transmit those laws.
Unfortunately, the words of contemporary leaders and elected officials
don't mean much. Abba Eban once said, "It is our experience that
political leaders do not always mean the opposite of what they say."
The Torah hands the responsibility of the burden of words upon those who
are faced with the greatest challenge to meet their commitments. Torah
leaders shall personify the commitment to, "all that will come out of his
mouth he shall keep." It is no wonder that the Torah specifies the role of
the tribal leaders when discussing the importance of commitment. For when
the leaders keep their word, the nation follows in step.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
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