If a man takes a vow to Hashem, or swears an oath to create a prohibition upon himself, he may not desecrate his word.
Vows are confusing. Sometimes they are recommended. Sometimes they are frowned upon. More confusing is how they work. A person takes something that is perfectly permitted according to Torah law, pronounces a verbal formula, and voila, it changes its spots. It turns into something impermissible. To boot, the Torah doesn’t just suggest honoring one’s word as an exercise in personal integrity. It views it as an actual, Torah-level prohibition like eating a cheeseburger or a BLT sandwich. How does this happen?
The explanation, I believe, is simple. It is axiomatic that Hashem demands of us not to be bound and shackled to our desires. We are directed countless times in our Torah to act in ways that are inconvenient and otherwise opposed by our perceived wants and needs. The Torah expects us to get past them; He expects that we can work our way free of their pressure, by reining in our passions and lusts.
Seen this way, the intended nature of vows is apparent. They are some of the tools to cut through the shackles that bind us to our desires. They can be an effective way for us to self-discipline, to restrain ourselves when our resolve weakens. Hashem provides them in our tool kit to get our assigned jobs done.
Moreover, we are taught that we are held accountable according to the extent of our understanding. The more we understand, the more Hashem expects – no, demands! – of us. When we realize that we need to protect ourselves by imposing individualized restraints on our behavior, those restraints rise to the level of Torah! They, too, become part of halachah – of what Hashem commands us to do.
This approach is the key to unlocking the meaning of a passage in the gemara.
Porters broke a keg of wine belonging to Rabbah bar bar Chanan. He took their garments as payment. They went to complain to Rav, who said to Rabbah bar bar Chanan, “Give them back their garments.” Rabbah bar bar Chanan asked Rav, “Is that the law?” Rav responded, “Yes, as it is written, ‘In order that you go on the path of the good people.’” Rabbah bar bar Chanan gave them back their garments. The porters then said to Rav, “We are poor, we labored the entire day, and we are hungry and have nothing to eat.” Rav then instructed Rabbah bar bar Chanan, “Pay them their fee.” Rabbah bar bar Chanan asked Rav, “Is that the law?” Rav responded, “Yes, as the verse continues, ‘And keep the ways of righteous people.’”
Rav’s rulings sound…progressive, but they hardly can be called din/the law. A person has the right to say that he is not interested in performing a mitzvah min ha-muvchar/a choicely performed mitzvah. He can opt to stay within the letter of the law, without going beyond it. And that is exactly what Rabbah bar bar Chanan conveyed to Rav. “Is that the law? I wish to follow what the law asks of me, and nothing more!” Why did Rav instruct him to go beyond, and act on what we ordinarily call a midas chassidus/the way of the extremely pious?
The answer is as we explained above. Rav recognized Rabbah bar bar Chanan’s spiritual level, including what values he had fully comprehended and internalized. Rabbah bar bar Chanan fully understood the “right thing to do.” For him, that comprehension became normative. It became part of Torah, for which he would be held fully accountable.
For him, it had indeed become din.
- Based on Daas Torah by Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, Bamidbar, pgs. 236-237 ↑
- Bamidbar 30:3 ↑
- Bava Metzia 83a ↑
- Mishlei 2:20 ↑