I have a friend who, whenever he says that he will or will not do something, always adds the disclaimer bli neder (lit. “without an oath”). What’s up with that?


Swearing or making an oath is considered a very serious undertaking. In fact, the prohibition of making a needless oath (never mind a false oath) is considered grave enough that it’s one of the top Ten Commandments, just after the commandment not to serve idols.1

The word bli (בלי) means “without.” The word neder (נדר), which literally means “vow” and technically refers to a specific type of oath, has come to colloquially refer to all types of oaths and vows.2 Thus, when someone says, “I will bli neder do X,” he is saying, “I am not making a vow, but I will try to do X.”

The question is, do we always need to say it? And does it truly help to absolve us of our responsibilities?

Wait! Did I just make a vow?

An official oath in a beit din (Jewish court of law) would include G‑d’s name. However, in truth, any language that resembles a vow, even if it does not include G‑d’s name, may in fact be considered a vow. Furthermore, when it comes to doing an additional mitzvah (or even a custom or stringency), just accepting upon oneself to do it, or doing it three times, with the full knowledge that you aren’t obligated to do it but wish to do so anyhow, can in and of itself be considered a vow.3

It is for this reason that one must be careful to specify bli neder, “without a vow,” when saying that he will perform a mitzvah. Furthermore, the rabbis advise that one accustom himself to saying bli neder even when promising to do something, as a precaution against accidentally violating the prohibitions regarding vows.4

It is, however, important to keep in mind that while the disclaimer bli neder may take care of the prohibitions regarding making and keeping vows, it does not absolve you from your responsibility to keep your word. As the verse states: “According to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.”5

Charity pledges

Be especially careful when it comes to charity pledges. According to many opinions, even if you just mentally decided to give to charity but didn’t verbalize it, it is a binding vow. This is based on the verse “Hezekiah answered and said, ‘Now you have invested yourselves to the L‑rd; come close and bring [peace] offerings . . . and every generous-hearted one, burnt offerings,’”6 which refers to voluntary commitments or “contributions” made in one’s heart to bring a burnt offering to the Temple.

Rabbi Yosef Caro rules that nowadays, since donations aren’t made to the Temple, a charitable vow must be verbalized to be binding.7

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, however, rules that even nowadays, if one made a firm commitment8 in his mind to make a charitable contribution, it is binding like a vow, and one should be extra careful to keep his commitment.9

Oops, I made a vow. Now what?

The exact process of how and when one can nullify a vow is well beyond the scope of this article—there are in fact two whole tractates of the Talmud, Shevuot and Nedarim, dedicated to the laws of oaths and vows. If you did make a commitment or vow, or you’re unsure if what you said or did constitutes a vow, and you are no longer able to keep it, you should contact a competent rabbi for guidance.

In the merit of our being careful about making and keeping oaths, may G‑d fulfill His oath and bring the final redemption!