Rabbi Akiva said: Jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah. Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence.
This will be our fourth and final class on this mishna. Up until now we’ve discussed R. Akiva’s first two statements. Of the remaining three, two — the third and the fifth — are closely related to themes we’ve discussed in the past. I will basically refer the reader to our previous discussions. We will then, for the remainder of this class, discuss the remaining theme — #4.
R. Akiva’s third statement is that tithes — separating the appropriate quantities of our crops (or our paychecks for us white-collar employees) — will assure our financial success. Our inclination would be to see charity as a necessary evil — as a decreasing of our savings, but as necessary because of G-d’s commandment and our moral obligation to mankind. Yet the Sages tell us otherwise. Giving charity will increase our wealth rather than decrease it. As we all know too well, G-d ultimately controls our life savings; He holds the purse strings. He has more than enough messengers to deny us our wealth if it is undeserved: the fridge will go, a kid will need braces, an infirm parent will require large amounts of medical or home care, G-d forbid. “Saving” money has little bearing on how much we will ultimately be left with. Investing it is basically a lost cause. (Not to belittle making the proper effort. But realize that the best investment we can possibly make involves giving that deserved 10% to those in need.)
Recently (3:8) we noted that this phenomenon, that charity generates wealth, goes even further. The Prophet Malachi exhorted the people to “test” G-d in this: give more charity and see the results. In this one area we have every right to expect that G-d will deliver on His promises. In that class, we discussed the ramifications of this — why here alone does G-d allow us to test Him, something we do not see in any other area of Judaism. Any of my readers is welcome to take the Pepsi challenge and try this out, but for the complete discussion, please follow the link above!
Our mishna’s final statement is the importance of silence as a means of acquiring wisdom. Our purpose in study should not be to make ourselves heard or impress others with our acumen. It is to humbly gather knowledge ourselves. And for this there is no better means than silence. We discussed this at greater length at the end of Chapter 1, please see our discussion there (1:17).
We finally arrive at R. Akiva’s second-to-last statement and the last we will deal with — that vows are a protective fence for abstinence. Vows, their fulfillment and their annulment are lengthy and complex topics in Jewish law. Simply speaking, we have the ability to bind upon ourselves new obligations or restrictions beyond that which the Torah requires or forbids. For example, a person may swear he will fast the next day, bring his animal as a Temple offering, adhere to his diet, etc. and the act he commits to will become a Torah obligation for him, or the item he forbids will become as forbidden to him as pig. A do-it-yourself prohibition. And our mishna appears to recommend such a practice as a means of ensuring we keep ourselves in line.
In truth, however, the Torah generally frowns on oath-taking. Deuteronomy 23:23 writes: “If you refrain from taking an oath, you will not bear a sin.” Why take the risk of obligating yourself with a promise you may not keep — possibly for reasons beyond your control? The Talmud likewise states, “Whoever takes a [voluntary] oath, even if he fulfills it, is called sinful” (Nedarim 77b). There is no reason to take undue risks. We learned earlier that one should “say little and do much” (1:15). If you want to perform great deeds, do them! And if you cannot, keep quiet! But what is gained by making magnanimous promises which you might not be able to fulfill when the time comes?
Further, in the case of restrictive oaths, the Torah does not really recommend that we make our lives unduly difficult with additional restrictions. The Talmud states it so well: “The Torah hasn’t forbidden enough already that you want to add to it?!” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1). Judaism places quite enough restrictions on us, thank you. Attempting to be more pious than the Pope (the High Priest?) may simply be courting disaster.
If so, how are we to understand our mishna which seems to encourage oath-taking? Our mishna is presumably discussing a person who wants to refrain from inappropriate behavior, and who places upon himself vows towards that end. To understand, we must define what type of improper behavior our mishna refers to (for again, if it’s permissible, why should we be restricting ourselves?) and why at times one is permitted to go so far as the risky approach of taking an oath.
In Numbers Chapter 6 (1-21) the Torah discusses the Nazir. A Nazir is a man or woman who takes a special type of oath, forbidding upon himself a number of activities — drinking wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact with ritually unclean objects, such as a corpse. (The long-haired, super-strong Judge Samson was a type of Nazir. See Judges 13-16.) At first blush, we would assume the Nazir is a person of superior holiness, one who separates himself even from certain permissible pleasures and spiritual impurity. The Torah does not require this behavior of all of us but offers this “advanced track” to someone looking for higher levels of piety.
But it is not so simple. The Talmud (Ta’anis 11a) is far more ambivalent about our oath-taking teetotaler. Numbers 6:11 writes that the Nazir must in certain instances bring a Temple sin offering, and he must do so “for he has sinned against a soul.” The Talmud asks, “Against whose soul did he sin? [His own — ] for he denied himself wine.” Again, if the Torah does not forbid wine, why should this fellow invent transgressions?
On the other hand, G-d did include the section of the Nazir in the Torah. Why does G-d allow a person to take such vows if He does not care for such abstinence in the first place?
The answer is that vows are considered drastic action. We should not normally need them — they are both risky and overly restrictive — but some people have no choice. Say a person cannot handle alcohol. He knows he has a problem. Telling himself, cajoling himself, knowing how detrimental liquor is to himself, his family, his career, and his life just do no good. He is an addict; he is out of control. He is incapable of trusting himself to make rational decisions. The normal avoidance and moderation which is fine for the rest of us is for him a waste of time. He needs drastic action.
And so the Torah created the concept of vows. Such a person can forbid liquor upon himself, making it in the eyes of the Torah the equivalent of pig. He has created a new restriction — he has gone beyond the bounds of what even our Torah forbids — but he had to. For he needed a vow. He needed to trek that dangerous path towards improvement — because it would just not happen any other way.
Perhaps this is part of the idea behind the Nazir as well. He too realizes he is addicted to pleasure — even to such permissible pleasures as wine or the simple grooming of his hair. Such pleasures do not simply allow him to enhance his enjoyment of life, as they should. They control him. He lives for pleasure. He realizes it has to stop but is helpless to do anything about it.
And so, the Torah created the Nazirite Vows. But the Torah went further. It forbade the Nazir not only to drink wine, but to consume any product remotely related to the vine: grape juice, grape skins, raisins, raisin bran, even a grape Nehi. 😉 And the message is clear: If you want to get yourself under control, go to the absolute opposite extreme. Don’t go anywhere near a bottle; don’t consume anything even remotely reminiscent of wine. Take drastic action: take an oath. You can’t be “normal” about this; you cannot drink in moderation. You are fighting a war.
As is often the case, the Torah deals with specifics, but the message for us is far from specific. If we cannot control ourselves in certain ways, if we have a weakness, a craving or addiction, we must go to the opposite extreme. Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil’ De’os 2:2) writes that one who cannot control his anger must make himself into a doormat. He must never argue, raise his voice, or talk back — even when perfectly justified. If he allows himself to get started, there’s no telling what kind of damage he will do to himself and to others, how quickly relationships which took years to nurture will be destroyed. If, however, he adopts the opposite practice, it will slowly become second nature to him (for how we act eventually becomes who we are), and ultimately he will attain that golden middle.
At the conclusion of the section of the Nazir, the Torah discusses the procedure the Nazir must undergo at the completion of his period of abstention. The Torah then concludes, “and afterwards, the Nazir may drink wine” (v. 20). R. Moshe Alshich (of 16th Century Tzefas, Israel) asks in his commentary: Why does the Torah still refer to him as “the Nazir”? Didn’t he just complete his vow? Isn’t he now an ordinary individual? We might even call it a contradiction in terms to write “the Nazir may drink wine!”
R. Alshich answers that ideally, even after the Nazir’s oath is concluded, he should remain a Nazir — not literally, but in spirit. Now that he has conquered his addiction, now that wine does not control him, he may partake — and in fact he should enjoy that which G-d has granted us in this world. But it should still be in the spirit of the Nazir. He is not enjoying this world because he lives for it or because it controls him. He enjoys this world because G-d has given us a beautiful world. For a healthy individual, there is no reason to add restrictions the Torah did not forbid. The physical pleasures of life can be enjoyed and can increase the recovered Nazir’s appreciation of the G-d who has granted them. And in that spirit, “shall he drink wine.”
(As an important postscript, after sending out a previous version of this class, a medical student wrote back to me saying that current medical opinion is that the recovered alcoholic should never dabble with spirits again — for his old ways may readily return. I therefore quote the Alshich’s comment not as a practical statement of guidance for recovering alcoholics but as an accurate statement of man’s ideal relationship with the pleasures of this world.)
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.