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One of the mysteries of life is that it is the ordinary, mundane things that are our undoing. The same person who is capable of the most noble thoughts and inspiring creations finds it so difficult to resist that extra cookie or that questionable dollar. Why is it easier to develop our spiritual potential than to gain mastery over our physical selves?

Chassidic teaching explains this phenomenon as a matter of chronology. A person's physical drives are his from the womb, while his spiritual faculties develop only later in life.1 The same is true on the cosmic level: the spiritual vitality of our world, as well as our own souls, hail from the world of Tikkun, which is the more "recent" phase of G‑d's creation, while the physical substance of the universe is the residue of the primordial world of Tohu--the volatile world that self-destructed when its vitality proved too potent for its own defining parameters.2 So the effort to overpower one's primordial physical drives can prove an extremely difficult task for the more "recent" spiritual powers of man.

Two Degrees of Relation

In the 30th chapter of Numbers, the Torah discusses the laws that pertain to the annulment of vows. One of the ways in which a vow can be annulled is through veto by a husband, who has the authority to declare his wife's vows null and void.

The Torah differentiates between two categories of husband: an arus, or betrothed, and a baal, or full husband. Under Torah law, marriage consists of two distinct stages. First comes the betrothal (erusin), by which the bride becomes "forbidden to the rest of the world." 3 From this point on, for another man to have relations with her is tantamount to adultery, and to dissolve the betrothal requires a get (writ of divorce), as for a full-fledged marriage. The betrothal, however, only establishes the prohibitive side of marriage (the exclusion of all other men from the relationship), but not the substance of the relationship itself—the two still cannot live together as man and wife. This is achieved through the second stage of marriage, the nissu'in, which renders man and wife "one flesh." 4 In Biblical and Talmudic times, the eirusin and the nissu'in were held on two separate occasions, so that for a certain period of time (usually a year) the bride and groom were bound by the prohibitions of marriage but had not yet begun their actual life together. In this period, the groom is called an arus; following the nissu'in, he assumes the status of baal.

Regarding the annulment of vows, the arus and the baal differ in two respects. The baal has the authority to annul his wife's vows on his own, while the arus can do so only in conjunction with his bride's father. On the other hand, there is also an area in which the authority of the arus is greater than that of the baal: the baal can only annul vows made by his wife after their marriage (nissu'in), while the arus can revoke earlier vows, including those made by his bride prior to their betrothal.

The Talmud explains that these two laws are interdependent. Because the baal's ability to annul his wife's vows derives solely from the relationship between them, he has no authority over vows made before this relationship came into being. And because the arus' authority is in partnership with the father, it extends as far back as that of the father. 5

The Negative Life

No two human beings live the same life. As the Talmud puts it, "just as their faces differ from each other, so, too, do their minds differ from each other." 6 Nevertheless, our sages describe two basic types of individual and state that every man falls under one of these two general categories. Maimonides refers to them as "the perfectly pious" and "the one who conquers his inclinations." 7 In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi speaks of them as the tzaddik and the beinoni. We might call them the baal personality and the arus personality.

The "arus personality" is one whose life is taken up with the struggle against evil. Because he is forever battling the negative in himself and the world, he has scant opportunity for cultivating the good. He is like the arus and his bride, whose relationship is defined solely by what must be disavowed and resisted.

The "baal personality" is beyond all that. The dark side of human nature does not haunt him and the enticements of evil do not tempt him. Instead, he devotes his life to the development of the divine goodness and perfection implicit in G‑d's creation. He is like the baal and his wife, whose marriage has progressed beyond merely excluding all that is deleterious to their relationship, to the realization of their union and the generation of progeny.

Morally and spiritually, the baal stands on his own two feet, secure in his station, all but immune to the forces that threaten the integrity of the arus. The arus, on the other hand, knows that he cannot do it on his own, that "were it not for G‑d's helping him, he could not defeat the evil inclination."8 Everything he achieves is "in conjunction with the father"--he is ever dependent upon his Father in Heaven for the strength to wage the battle of life.

But in the arus' limitation lies his strength. The baal might be sovereign in his spiritual world, but he lacks the capacity to deal with that which preceded him—his reach does not extend to the volatile world of Tohu. It the arus who, drawing his authority from the father, confronts the primordial font of raw energy trapped in the physical reality. He might never win the battle, but his very engagement of his adversary realizes a deeper and more potent stratum of the divine purpose in creation.9

See Genesis 8:21 and Rashi, there; Zohar, part I, 189b; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim, 4:2 (Mahadura Batra); Ethics of the Fathers 5:22.
Zohar, part II, 176b; ibid., III, 128a, 135a-b and 142a-b; Etz Chaim, Heichal HaNikkudim, Portal 8; Shaar HaHakdamot, Derush Be'Olam HaNikkudim; Torah Ohr, Vayeishev 27c, Va'eira 56d and Yitro 110d; et al. See our other articles on "Tohu and Tikkun."
Talmud, Kiddushin 2b.
Talmud, Nedarim 66b-67a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 234.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a.
"Eight Chapters" of introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers.
Talmud, Kiddushin 30b.
Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 612-614.
From an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Clayton Winton Spokane, WA, USA June 30, 2013

FalseGodsBeforeThee Throughout the Torah, indeed the Tanakh in entirety, we are reminded to not offer offspring to Molech, nor get caught-up in the cult-worships of Baal. It is interesting that a husband is referred to as 'baal,' perhaps a reminder that no man is to be worshiped, not even by a woman of her husband (nor vice versa, nor any version of 'betrothed', same-sex inclusive).

I mention this because of the exploration of the topic, Matot-Massei, and the article's introductory statement: "mastery over our physical selves/existence." Indeed, we have choices; there is no such thing as "impossible to resist" or "...I couldn't help myself (so I just went-along with it)" -- as those are just reasonable-sounding statements we are taught to say after-the-fact, after proving weakness, or giving-in to temptations for that "extra dollar" or "clandestine tryst" or whatever situation one's life is confronted with, even while doing such noble deeds as serving and protecting, nurturing and proving compassion. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein July 30, 2012

To Sophia, Ashland As you can see from this article, the laws of vows and their annulment have deeper significance than merely the legal aspect. The laws are a reflection of this deeper plane. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind several details regarding these laws: a) a young girl must be at least eleven years old (and a boy at least twelve) to have the maturity to make a binding vow. b) The father (and "Arus") can only annul vows of a young lady up to about twelve-and-half. After that she is considered to have outgrown parental supervision. c) A husband (and according to some, a father also) can only annul vows that pertain to abstaining from something, or would cause inconvenience to the husband. Since he (and the father) is obligated to provide for his wife (or daughter), these vows affect him as well. Reply

sophia Ashland, OR July 22, 2012

hmmm I wonder why a man is in charge of a woman's vows and not a woman in charge of a man's vows or equal in power? I hear said that woman is more "advanced" than man, and for that reason all the 613 mitzvot apply only to men, Woman is "closer to HaShem by her nature, so why the patriarchal overlay and control by men over women. Even in the younger years when woman is over children, why then is not the woman over the vows of pre bar and bat mitzvah? Reply

Anonymous La Jolla July 22, 2011

Profound I found this article really enlightening and profound. It really takes a halachic concept and delves into its spiritual underpinnings- which is so important. Thank you and Good Shabbos! Reply

Arnold Fort Morgan, CO October 25, 2010

arus revoking vows So could the arus revoke his betrothed wife's vows if the father agreed to revoke his (arus) vows as well? Was reason to revoke an issue if both parties came to an agreement to annul? Was a violation of the conditions agreement necessary for revocation to be justified? Reply

Anonymous south palm beach July 9, 2010

Wow! This is so profound and fascinating! Reply

Anthony Cape Town, South Africa July 9, 2010

Arus Many thanks. I found this helpful and encouraging. Reply

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