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Annulling Vows on Erev Rosh HaShanah

Wrong Turns

Lengthy Selichos accompanied by fasting make erev Rosh HaShanah a day of teshuvah. So too, as Yom Kippur enters, everyone's mind is set on the upcoming day's avodah: repentance. As part of this teshuvah process, hataras nedarim (annulment of vows) is performed both on erev Rosh HaShanah and on erev Yom Kippur. Why do we choose to focus specifically on the transgression of vows at this crucial time?

HaShem's Torah contains 613 mitzvos, each one a separate path which leads to the strengthening of our relationship with Him. Anyone who walks straight along these paths can be sure that he will reach Olam Haba, the world to come. However, creating new paths will almost inevitably take a person away from his sought-after destination.

Although all transgressions divert us from Olam Haba, there is an aspect of nedarim that makes it worse than other aveiros. Falling prey to any other aveirah represents a stumbling, but since we are on the right road we can get up, brush ourselves off, and continue walking. When making a vow, a person accepts upon himself an obligation that the Torah does not require of him, thus creating a new path. Following this road will seriously disrupt his journey.

On very rare occasions, it may be appropriate to make a vow in order to inspire oneself to improvement via the discipline of a neder. As a general rule, however, vows are viewed as undesirable. HaShem's Torah takes us straight to our destination; any human additions run the risk of diverting us from our goal.

During these critical days, we attempt to clear the path to righteousness of any obstacles by annulling all our nedarim. In doing so, we hope that our fulfillment of HaShem's Torah, exactly as He commanded it, will find pleasure in His eyes and arouse Divine mercy during this time of judgment (based on the commentary of Vilna Gaon, Mishlei 20: 25).

Ordinary People

"Someone who made a neder and regrets it should go to a chacham mumcheh with breadth and depth of Torah knowledge ... and he will annul the vow by himself" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228: 1). What is considered "breadth and depth of Torah knowledge"? The Gemara cites Rav Nachman as an example of such a talmid chacham (Bechoros 36b). Since in our times there is no one who even comes close to this level, it is understood that a yachid (one individual) cannot perform hataras nedarim (Shulchan Aruch, ibid.).

"If there is no individual who is that great in Torah available, one should go to three common folk ... and they will annul the neder for you" (Shulchan Aruch, ibid.). Who are these "ordinary people"? Although they do not need to be talmidei chachamim themselves, they must be able to comprehend halachos taught by others (Shach and Taz, ibid.). Normally, a beis din must consist of at least one talmid chacham, but since hataras nedarim does not have the same status as other judicial proceedings, this requirement is waived (Shach, ibid.).

The three individuals who perform hataras nedarim can be related to each other, and the person whose vow is being rescinded can also be related to them (Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 3). Once again, the halachah differentiates between a normal beis din, in which relatives are disqualified, and a beis din for hataras nedarim. However some similarities still exist between hataras nedarim and other cases. Children under the age of bar mitzvah and women of all ages may not serve as one of the three individuals who annul a vow (Rav Akiva Eiger, ibid.).

Women and Children

Since women cannot be part of the beis din for hataras nedarim, should they do hataras nedarim for themselves altogether? Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would not require women to do hataras nedarim on erev Rosh HaShanah, but would rather have them rely on the annulment that is done during Kol Nidrei, at the beginning of the Yom Kippur services (Halichos Shlomo 1: 10).

In order for the hataras nedarim of Kol Nidrei to be effective, a person must be present in shul and say the words together with the chazan (Mishnah Berurah 619: 2). If a woman's hectic routine does not allow her to be in shul, her husband can act as an agent to terminate her vows (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234: 56). Even though one normally cannot appoint a shaliach to cancel a neder, based on the principle "ishto kegufo" (a man's wife is like himself), a special exception is made (Shach, ibid., 70).

The halachah describes a concept termed "muflah samuch le'ish" (a minor who makes a neder right before he becomes an adult). When a child who is one year shy of the age of bar or bas mitzvah (i.e. a twelve year old boy and an eleven year old girl) makes a vow, we check to see if the child realized what he or she was doing. If we see that the child does understand what a neder is about, then the vow is halachically binding (Bamidbar Rabbah 10: 20).

Should hataras nedarim be done for children who fit in this category? The poskim differentiate between making a neder and annulling one. Even though the vows of these children are considered valid, this validity does not automatically mean that they are granted the opportunity to rescind them. Since it is not clear whether the option of terminating a vow was given to children, if they wish to do hataras nedarim they must wait until their bar or bas mitzvah. Therefore, they do not perform hataras nedarim (Sha'arim HaMitzuyanim Behalachah 128: 24).

This ruling creates a tremendous responsibility for children in the year before they become bar or bat mitzvah, for any vow they make could be binding. In this vein, when the grandchildren of Rav Shlomo Zalman reached this age, he cautioned them to be vigilant to always say "bli neder." Aside from the practical benefit of eliminating vows, this practice trains children to "guard their tongues" for the rest of their lives (as cited in Halichos Shlomo 1 [38]).

Dressed in White

A person who awaits a decision from the high court as to whether he will be sentenced to life or death is usually in a state of extreme trepidation until the pronouncement of the final verdict. Only after the decision has been issued will he have the peace of mind to concern himself with his outer appearance. One would think, therefore, that on erev Rosh HaShanah, as we are hovering on the threshold of life and death, personal cleanliness should be the last thing on our minds.

Not so. The Jewish people go out of their way to cleanse themselves and their garments, take a haircut and put on fine, white clothing on erev Rosh HaShanah. By putting aside our emotional fears for the sake of honoring the Yom Tov, we show complete confidence that HaShem will perform a miracle for the Jewish nation as a whole, and pronounce us innocent in judgment (Medrash cited by Tur 581).

On another level, wearing white reflects the dual nature of the day. This color represents repentance while simultaneously reminding us of the shrouds that we will wear on the day of death (Maharal as cited in Bach 597: 1).

What should one do if he finds himself on erev Rosh HaShanah in a place where the custom is not to dress in white? Although he should certainly put on fine clothing, it is preferable not to wear his normal Yom Tov attire. Clothes that are elegant but not overly lavish help to maintain a balance between rejoicing in Yom Tov and remembering the serious nature of Rosh HaShanah (Mishnah Berurah 581: 25).

Half-Day Fasting

In general we do not fast on erev Yom Tov so that we will be able to usher in the holiday in a pleasant state of mind. What about erev Rosh HaShanah? How can a person possibly think of food when in a few hours he will be standing before HaShem, facing a life or death judgment? In order to strike a compromise, the custom is to fast only part of the day on erev Rosh HaShanah.

The poskim differ as to the appropriate time to break the fast. Some fast exactly half a day until chatzos, midday (She'ilas Yavetz 2: 147), while others eat only after having recited Mincha (Machatzis HaShekel 562: 1). A final opinion rules that those who have the strength to continue fasting should refrain from eating until plag haMincha, an hour and a quarter before sundown (Mishnah Berurah 562: 10). The sefarim caution that if fasting will adversely affect a person's davening or the way he treats others, he is better off eating (Ya'aros Devash).

The Rishonim write that some people would refrain from fasting before Rosh HaShanah since it was the custom of non-Jews to do so. For this reason, the Rema writes, many have the minhag to eat before Alos HaShachar (halachic dawn) on erev Rosh HaShanah in order to show that they are not following the ways of the non-Jews (581: 2). However, kabbalistic writings warn against eating before dawn (Zohar as cited in Elef LeMagen 581: 92). Some resolve this conflict by drinking coffee or tea before Alos HaShachar, since it is permitted to drink before tefillah and drinking is not included in the restriction of the Zohar (Elef LeMagen, ibid.).

The Problem of Toys

In the tefillos of the Yamim Nora'im, we mention that one of the reasons why we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is to commemorate Akeidas Yitzchak. The medrash reveals that this awe-inspiring event almost did not take place. As Yitzchak was on his way to the akeida, the Satan came to him with all sorts of ploys to obstruct him. Finally when all else had failed, the Satan told Yitzchak that if he died, all the toys that Sarah had made for him would go to Yishmael. At that point Yitzchak got very nervous and almost turned around to go home (Bereishis Rabbah 56: 4).

These words of Chazal provide a powerful insight into understanding ourselves. All of the "toys" that we grew up with are imbedded deep within us. At times, we are willing to sacrifice everything for HaShem, but the thought of giving up these toys eats away at our inner essence.

A number of years ago, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg made a kiddush in the yeshiva for no apparent reason. When asked what the occasion was, he replied that he had heard that the Yankees won the World Series, and he had not gotten excited over it. Overjoyed that after so many years he was finally able to get the baseball of his youth out of his system, he decided to host a kiddush.

Some people think to themselves, "If only I had been brought up in a different environment I would really be able to serve HaShem properly." This is a mistake. HaShem gives each person specific toys in their youth in order that they rise above them in their adulthood. Avraham Avinu and the four Imahos - Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah - all grew up in the homes of idol worshipers. Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest person to ever walk the face of the earth, was raised in the palace of Pharaoh. There is a special Divine Glory that can only shine forth if a person is raised in such an environment, and then consciously abandons it to serve HaShem.

On erev Rosh HaShanah, as we stand at the edge of the Day of Judgment, we rid ourselves of our nedarim, fast half a day (if we can), and wash and dress in fine clothing. All these actions are steps toward revealing our true inner identity. After we have reached that point, we can present ourselves on Rosh HaShanah as we would really like to be: free of our childhood toys.

In the merit of preparing for Rosh HaShanah, may we all be signed immediately into the book of life, health, happiness, and prosperity, both in physical and spiritual matters, for the upcoming year.


Priceless Integrity, Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org.

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