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Broken Vows

Broken Vows

Parshat Matot


I am not much given to vows. Swearing off chocolate, ice cream or the Internet . . . I know myself too well. If I were to make such a promise, it would not be kept for very long. Still, my inner feminist bristles at the laws of vows described in the beginning of this week’s Parshah, Matot:

If a woman makes a vow to the L‑rd, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father's house, in her youth . . . if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand . . .

But if she vowed in her husband’s house, or imposed a prohibition upon herself with an oath . . . if her husband revokes them on the day he hears them, anything issuing from her lips regarding her vows or self-imposed prohibitions shall not stand; her husband has revoked them, and the L‑rd shall forgive her.

Any vow or any binding oath of self-affliction, her husband can either uphold it or revoke it.1

Any vow I make has to be validated by my husband first? I need his permission? Am I not an adult, capable of making my own promises and carrying them out?

But before getting worked up, it pays to read the fine print. First, let’s examine the father’s role in absolving his daughter’s vow. To whom does this apply? The term the Torah uses is bineureha—“in her youth.” Rashi explains that the verse does not refer to a minor child, since her vows are not binding at all, nor to an adult single woman, because she is responsible for her own oaths. So there is only a small window when a father can repeal his daughter’s vows—when she is between the ages of 11 and 12. A single woman older than 12, a widow or a divorcee is liable for her own vows.

What about a husband nullifying his wife’s vow? Here, again, there are caveats. What about a husband nullifying his wife’s vow?The type of vow that a husband can override is “an oath of self-affliction”—a vow that restricts food, drink, sleep or other physical needs, or a vow that impacts their relationship. But if a wife should pledge a large sum of her money to charity, for example, she is on her own. And the husband can nullify the vow only the day he hears it. If he waits until evening without speaking up, the vow stands.

Still, even if the husband’s powers over his wife are not as sweeping as a superficial reading would suggest, there’s an asymmetry here that’s unsettling: a man can overrule his wife’s vow; a wife does not have the power to overrule her husband’s vows.

What’s interesting to me is that the power of nullification given to men is within the context of a relationship. A single adult woman makes or breaks her own vow, while a husband can override his wife’s vow, and a father his daughter’s vow—but only in her youth, while she’s under his guardianship. This leads me to believe that the Torah is not making a statement here about a woman’s ability to be independent and to think for herself. Rather, the take-home message here has something to do with the bond between father and daughter, husband and wife.

While all of Torah is meant to be understood on a literal level, each passage also has an eternal message on a more abstract, psycho-spiritual level. Chassidic teachings explain that all of us have a blend of masculine and feminine traits. There is a part within us that makes vows, and a part that can overrule vows. According to chassidic teachings, these two parts correspond to the two intellectual attributes of binah, which is feminine, and chochmah, which is masculine.

There are many chassidic texts that explore the attributes of chochmah and binah and the relationship between them. To distill in brief, chochmah is an idea and binah is its development; chochmah is the big picture and binah is the details. Chochmah is abstract and somewhat detached from the world, while binah is more invested in this world.

Since binah is predominant in women, a woman may, for example, expend great effort not only in cooking a marvelous dish, but also in presenting it and serving it. A man may be perfectly happy just to eat a warm meal. A woman may fuss over bedding sets and matching curtains, while a man is satisfied to sleep on any flat surface.

This is not to say that all women are detail-obsessed and all men are oblivious Neanderthals. As mentioned, all of us have both masculine and feminine energies. Some men have a feminine side that is more strongly expressed, and vice versa.

So, what does this have to do with vows? A woman who is consumed with the myriad details of running a home may become concerned that she is too frivolous, that she is wasting her time on useless activities, and thus may decide to pull back. So she takes vows upon herself to “afflict her soul.” Why read a dozen cookbooks to put together a spectacular holiday menu? Perhaps I should read a book of Psalms instead. Am I fretting too much about my clothing and appearance? Maybe I should stop buying new clothes for a while.

And the attribute of chochmah, as represented by the husband or father, says no. Putting energy into worldly matters is not a bad thingYou are doing just fine. Putting energy into worldly matters is not a bad thing. In fact, G‑d placed us here in this world for a reason. He didn’t have to create a physical world at all. But He did, and He wants us to invest ourselves in it, develop it and beautify it into a place that He can call home. He doesn’t want us to pull back and become ascetics. So, please, don’t stop trying to make your home into a place of beauty, your table into a feast for the eyes. We need to work together, chochmah and binah, masculine and feminine.

This is why the absolution of vows takes place only within the context of a relationship. The bond between father and daughter, or husband and wife, guarantees that there is a balance of energies. We need the masculine traits of objectivity and broad perspective, chochmah, to ensure that our mundane activities are neither neglected nor over-elaborate. Then the womanly art of binah can truly flourish, and whatever we do to beautify our homes or ourselves will serve a higher purpose. The male steps in not to suppress the female, but on the contrary—to elevate and dignify her, to make certain that she herself appreciates what she is bringing to the table.

And through the bond between chochmah and binah, we draw down the highest divine energy into our midst, and make our home and our world into a true dirah, a palace where G‑d can dwell.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Matot-Massei 5722 [1962], published in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4, pp. 1076ff.)

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Shmuel israel July 22, 2015

chochma&binah I need to say that chochmah and binah are things which each of us can develop . man can be romantic while woman keep him in material reality and opposite. .. Reply

Anonymous san Diego July 18, 2015

"And I will nourish you with heritage of Jacob your father" - Thanks for writing this, I have a deeper appreciation for my wife and her ways. Reply

Anonymous toronto December 21, 2014

curses and oaths The only reason why I would cover myself with curses and oaths is if a righteous man suffers ridicule in his family.It has nothing to do with other families or nations . It is out of regret that I could not prevent this in my home. Self flagellation is a form of punishment of oneself not of another person. Reply

Peninah July 17, 2014

When I studied Parshah Matot I was so confused,I understood it vaguely but this article has cleared the questions I had.Thank you Chaya.I also agree with Yochannan's post.Its better not to make a vow than to make it and break it. Reply

Anonymous USA July 17, 2014

A balis tshuvah's idea... Thank you for this insight...I was a feminist in years gone by , and these points were tormenting I became frum! Are the majority of frum men given these they develop? Many commentaries given..similar to yours ..are not clearly stated to those who are bal tshuvahs, especially. Using all the gifts Ha'shem gives us is vital...both the chochmah and binah for all matters. Reply

Margot Webb Ca. July 17, 2014

It seems to me that rationalizing about a woman making a decision about herself, and then being told by a father or husband, the decision if not valid is a way of dummying down women. Perhaps the Torah needs an addendum so we can move ahead in our modern days.Surely G-d knows things are different now than they were thousands of years ago. Evolving in more complete people is absolutely needed to find the essence of the Divine.I also resent representing women as people who cook for their husbands. In today's society, the opposite is often true and women are doctors, scientists, teachers, etc. Glad the man likes to eat a warm meal....but so does a woman...and not necessarily cooked by her. Reply

Shifrah miami July 17, 2014

Beautifully explained in terms of chassdidus. The Women's movement of the 60's did a huge disservice to those (of us) who were indoctrinated. This is especially true of Jewish Feminists, but women in general, who turned away from 'orthodoxy' only to be disappointed by liberalism. When the torah is explained with love and through the eyes of chassidus, the erroneous misogynistic myths fade away. What is left is the quintessential blueprint for female rights, protection and adulation. Great article, Chaya! Reply

Anonymous July 17, 2014

vows overriden it is interesting discussion. When I read this, I see only that it is always good to have a different set of eyes examine a situation. I know that some could misinterpret the passage to fundamentalist chauvinism, but I think the intent is just safeguards for any decision or plan, be it a vow or other commitment. Often someone may take on burdens too big as a consequence of an event or situation. They see an injustice and feel the obligation to do something. A second set of eyes, whether father, husband or other helps puts commitments in perspective, especially if the person is young. When an outsider, father or husband removes the over sized obligation, the person feels relief and is able to make better plans or adjustments. Many things in this world we cannot control, but we feel the obligation to be superheroes. This relieves the stress. I do not see this as sexist, but just a wise universal principle. The people cited are core relationships women normally have. Reply

yochannan cheltenham england July 15, 2014

we are recommended by the sages not to make vows as it is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not keep it.

G-d understands and He would rather we were human in our honesty than try to be superhuman and not achieve what we promised.

i always say, G-d i cannot promise to keep all your laws but i do promise to do my best to keep all your laws.

All you can do is your best you cannot do anymore than that.

remember that its the intention that is important in being a servant to G-d, be genuine in being with G-d. Reply

Anonymous toronto June 19, 2014

Vows If a woman has taken a vow to the Lord neither her husband nor her father can absolve her. Which bond is stronger for a woman is dependent on who was their to help her in her time of need . Her family will always be there, but a husband is from another family. And her father might be still her guardian even after marriage . The one who takes decisions for her. Reply

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