Keeping Your Word
This week’s parsha concentrates upon the great commitment of the spoken
word. In English Common Law and in most legal systems in the world,
agreements that are not committed to writing and then signed by the parties
are of little enforceable value.
Though the parsha concentrates on the legalism of vows and oaths in Jewish
law and life, the general message that it conveys is a clear one – the
spoken word binds a person to what is said and declared. This is part of the
general pattern of the Torah to rigidly enforce the value of truth and to
warn humans of the dangers of duplicity and falsehood in personal
relationships. The ultimate punishment of a con man is that he eventually
Today’s financial markets are strewn with the wreckage of such falsehoods
and cons. Ironically, most of them originate without criminal intent
involved. But once involved with falsehoods, the trap closes on individuals
and it becomes well nigh impossible to extract one’s self from the clutches
of this self-made web of falsehood.
My word is my bond was the slogan of honest people in all commercial
enterprises. There are many fields of economic endeavor where this motto yet
has legal effect and the spoken word is itself a binding commitment to buy
or sell or to establish a price for an item.
Jewish rabbinic responsa over the ages is replete with instances of
enforceable oral commitments. It is not for naught that the rabbis warned us
that wise men should be careful as to what they say. Saying is signing – it
is committing and it is binding.
There are two tractates of the Mishna and Talmud – both of considerable size
and complexity – that deal with this issue of the legal and spiritual
ramifications of the spoken word. Nedarim – the tractate that deals with
vows (there is no perfect translation of this Hebrew term in English) –
appears in seder Nashim – the order of the Mishna and the Talmud that deals
with marriage, divorce and domestic relations.
This placement comes to emphasize to us the necessary commitment and honesty
that is the basis of the relationship of marriage and family. The vows and
commitments that a husband and wife make to each other are deemed sacrosanct
in Jewish life and law. Only by realizing the seriousness of vows can one
train one’s self in honest speech and true emotional commitment in family life.
The tractate of Shavuot – dealing with oaths that are taken (again there is
no exact nuanced translation of this Hebrew word in English) – is found in
the order of Nezikin (torts, courts and commercial issues) in the Mishna and
Talmud. Honesty and probity in the world of finance and commerce is
dependent upon keeping one’s word. Breaking one’s word damages everyone
Many a person has been ruined by the inability to withstand the temptation
of breaking one’s word for a seemingly short-term financial gain. Since this
temptation is omnipresent and very persuasive, the Torah goes to great
lengths to emphasize the importance of keeping one’s word under all
circumstances. It reconfirms to us the maxim that “Life and death themselves
are dependent upon the spoken word.”
Rabbi Berel Wein