It is summer and families gather for wedding celebrations. In most wedding celebrations everyone looks forward to the couples’ vows. Will they write their own? Will they use traditional vows? Of course the vow is their pledge of loyalty and love. But the idea of a vow is not one that is part of a traditional Jewish wedding because vows are frowned upon by Jewish tradition!
In fact in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony there are no vows. Only the giving of the ring!
A neder, or vow is seen as a solemn obligation that has the same weight and same importance as Jewish law! This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, addresses making a vow. “If a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”
The Sages of the Talmud recognized that vows were often difficult to keep and many times people made them in haste. Because Judaism believes in the power of words, the Sages discouraged the making of vows because so many people had trouble with them. And so our tradition frowns upon making a neder or vow. The Talmud even states: “Even when one fulfills a vow he is called wicked.” (Ned 22a) . Judaism wants to make it difficult to make a vow and discourages making vows.
If you have made a vow you can be released from it by going to a Bet Din, a panel of 3 Jews who ask the person: “Had you known the consequences would you have made the vow?” And if you say “No”, then they have the ability to remove it from you. Another way to remove the vow is to go directly to a Torah Chacham, or sage can also help remove a vow. In our Torah portion, Mattot, we also learn that women have a different process than a man concerning vows because she must have the ascent of her father (if still young in her father’s house) or her husband if married to a man. If she is divorced or widowed (the Torah can’t imagine a single independent woman!) her vow stands on her word alone.
But the most common way to remove vows said in haste or rash vows is annually at the High Holy Days. First on Rosh Hashanah is a ceremony called “Hatarat Nedarim”. This is done on the morning before the Holiday and the Beit Din or court of three releases you from your unfulfilled vows of the previous year. In Sephardic communities, it is customary to repeal one’s vows twice each year: forty days before Rosh Hashanah, on the 19th of Av; and forty days before Yom Kippur, on the 1st of Elul.)
And then the evening of Yom Kippur we are released from vows through the Kol Nidre prayer. But the Kol Nidre prayer does not release us from vows concerning others. It only releases us from personal vows that we made that we again haven’t fulfilled. This is the way of making sure that if you didn’t perform the ceremony on Rosh Hashanah you won’t enter the year with the “sin” of unfulfilled vows.
Each of these was our Sages’ way of discouraging reciting vows and then finding that you can’t fulfill them. Brilliant really if you think about it. Perhaps this is our Sages’ way of keeping us from guilt when we don’t fulfill a pledge! So before you in a moment of emotion of joy or of grief make a vow, think twice about what our tradition says about making a vow.