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 cons himself.
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 involved.
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
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com