Creating sanctity

“When a man vows a vow to G‑d or swears an oath imposing an obligation on himself…he must do whatever he expressed orally.”1 This idea is very puzzling: How can it be that if a person says that he will not do something, it becomes actually forbidden for him to do it? Why is it that “he must do whatever he expressed orally”?

It is logical that a person should incur the penalty of lashes for eating pig meat or for working on Yom Tov. Here, however, we discover that a person can receive lashes even if he merely declared that he is designating a certain book as a sacrifice, and then went ahead and studied that book. Why is it that simply by saying something, one can generate a new prohibition, and be punished by merely breaking his word? What is the source of a person’s ability not only to establish a prohibition but also to create a situation where the attendants of the court must ensure that he does not break his word?

The Torah presents here a whole new array of prohibitions. There are prohibitions that the Torah imposes, to which G‑d subjects us. But there are also prohibitions of another type, a world of obligations that one can create for oneself. By means of various kinds of vows, one can build a whole structure that has all the authority of Torah laws, which emanated from Sinai.

Our sages say that a vow takes effect only “by what is itself ­forbidden by a vow;”2 that is to say, a vow takes effect only if one makes it in the same way that one consecrates a korban. In essence, a vow is similar to consecrated property. Just as a person can create consecrated property, he can also cause a vow to take effect.

Here, too, the same question arises: How can a lowly person, undistinguished in wisdom, fear of G‑d, and holiness, cause something to become sacred? How is sanctity created?

The following anecdote may help to illustrate the problem. There was once an exalted personality who was an outstanding Torah scholar and a great man. After his rebbe died, he was crowned the admor, the chief Hasidic rabbi of the town. One day, he met the town rabbi, who was a mitnaged with a tendency to insult people. The rabbi asked him, “Reb Avrum, I don’t understand: Beforehand, you were just a person like everyone else. Now, you have become the holy admor. How did this happen?” The new admor answered him in his characteristic manner: “Look, it is like designating terumah. There is one kernel that is like all the other kernels; it looks exactly the same. But when a Jew takes this kernel and declares, ‘This is terumah,’ it actually becomesterumah; it has the sanctity of terumah, and all the laws of terumah apply to it. So, too, when Jews choose someone and elevate him above the community, he becomes holy.” Not to be bested, the town rabbi responded, “This approach also has a drawback, for the Mishnah states that if a deaf mute, an imbecile, or a minor separate terumah, it is not considered valid.”3

Essentially, this discussion raises exactly the same problem that we raised above. The question does not begin with the admor; it actually begins with the kernel. How is it possible to say that this kernel is now sacred? How can it be that one can take a kernel and declare that, from now on, it is a sacred kernel, and in fact it then is immediately rendered sacred?

This is not a halachic question, but a more fundamental problem: What is the source of this power to consecrate? From where does one get the ability to invest something with sanctity and change its essential nature?

If one were to knock on the table and announce, “From now on, this table shall no longer be made of wood; it shall be made entirely of gold,” the rest of the people in the room would laugh at him, and rightfully so. What does it matter that he said it is gold? By contrast, if that same person says, “From now on, this table is sacred,” this statement has an immediate effect; the table objectively becomes a sacred object, and one must treat it differently. The same thing happens in the case of terumah. Previously, it was produce like any other produce. Now, one must treat it with great respect and follow all the laws that now apply to it.

Generally, an object derives sanctity from its relation to the sacred. There is the inherently sacred, the essentially sacred, and a sacred object is that which relates to the sacred in some way. This understanding would explain why a Torah scroll is sacred. To be sure, the scroll was written in ink by a human being, but its sanctity does not come from this. Rather, it received its sanctity from that fact that it contains holy matters. Nevertheless, this still does not explain the source of man’s ability to bestow sanctity upon anything in the world simply by pronouncing that it is sacred.

Array of sanctity

In the case of vows and consecrated property, we see that besides the ordinary powers of sanctity and prohibition, a person has the power to cause an array of sanctity to take effect on additional things. We see, then, that holiness is not a defined, limited spiritual dimension – a holy time, a holy place, and a holy people – because we, too, have, in some way, the ability to expand holiness through our own power.

This ability expresses itself in all the various sanctities – in the sanctity of place, in the sanctity of time, and even in the sanctity of Israel.

Regarding the sanctity of place, the Talmud states that it is possible to expand the Temple and the courtyards.4 There we see that, in principle, there is nothing impeding the expansion of this sanctity. In order for this expansion to take effect, a king, a prophet, and two thanksgiving offerings are required. In addition, there is no halachic impediment to the expansion of the sanctity of Jerusalem – the city borders may reach all the way to Damascus, if that is our desire. All that is required is that the sanctification be implemented properly.

We routinely add to the sanctity of time by accepting Shabbat early, at the expense of the mundane weekday. The custom in Jerusalem is to add an additional segment of time to Shabbat, beyond what is added in most places. Moreover, one who wants to accept Shabbat as early as midday on Friday can do so.

What is possibly most surprising of all is that one may even add to the sanctity of Israel by accepting proselytes. We take a non-Jew who knows that he is a non-Jew, and we convert him. How can we do this? After all, many kabbalistic works discuss the concept of the Jewish soul, which is special and unique. Yet now, when a non-Jew decides that he wants to become a Jew, we allow him to do so. The act of circumcision itself, a requirement for acceptance into the Jewish people, does not make one a Jew; there are countless people who are circumcised for one reason or another, and none of them becomes a Jew as a result. Certainly, immersion in a mikvah does not make one a Jew; otherwise, anyone who would bathe in the ocean would become a Jew as a result. What allows a non-Jew to become a Jew is our decision to extend the sanctity of Israel to him. Once we do this, he truly becomes sanctified with the full sanctity of Israel.

Just as it is possible to make a vow and to create consecrated ­property, it is also possible to dissolve and nullify vows, and to retro­actively dissolve the sanctity of consecrated property.5 This, too, is part of our ability to create sanctity. It is also possible to dissolve the sanctity of terumah and maser.6 One can approach a rabbi and say, “I declared that this should be terumah and I now regret having done so.” As a result, the terumah ceases to be terumah, and this is essentially the case regarding consecrated property as well.

One of the common questions on this subject relates to slaughtering consecrated korbanot outside the Temple. When a person slaughters a consecrated offering outside the Temple, thereby incurring the punishment of karet, why couldn’t he obtain the retroactive dissolution of the animal’s consecration, thus retroactively absolving himself of sin?

On this basis it would be possible to save oneself from all sorts of punishments. For example, if a consecrated ox becomes mixed with a thousand other oxen, none of the thousand oxen can be used.7 But in such a case, why not retroactively dissolve the ox’s sanctity and thus solve the whole problem?

Many Torah scholars have investigated questions of this kind – whether there is a time limit beyond which it is impossible to dissolve the sanctity of an object, or whether there may even be a prohibition against doing so.

Vows can be released and nullified because the power to make a vow is what gives one the power to nullify it; if one consecrates something, one can seek the release of its sanctity as well.

Nowadays, thank G‑d, we are generally more restrained in making vows, compared to former generations. To be sure, problems with vows still exist, but they are not as they once were. Nevertheless, before the Days of Awe, as well as in the Kol Nidrei prayer, people cleanse themselves of vows, demonstrating that it is possible to erase the very sanctity that we create.

The power to build and to destroy

The section on vows says something about our power to create, and also about our ability to nullify our creations. It is within our power to create another dimension within an object, and it is also within our power to remove and nullify this dimension.

Some claim that the power to consecrate and to make vows is connected with Israel’s essential holiness, which can be seen in the verse, “You shall be holy unto Me.”8 But in truth, vows and consecrated property are not unique to the Jewish people. Rather, they stem from man’s creation in the image of G‑d. Indeed, non-Jews are obligated by such vows just as we are.9 Man can generate sanctity in things because he himself is connected to holiness. As a result, he can do things that at first glance seem relegated to the domain of G‑d.

When the Torah says that “he must do whatever he expressed orally,” it says something momentous about man’s essential nature, similar to the Talmud’s statement that if tzaddikim want to, they can create worlds.10 Presumably, even one who is not a tzaddik, and who cannot create a world, can create a new reality with his pronouncements. We have within us the ability to connect elements from life and form from them a different reality. Putting aside the halachic aspect of vows, the subject of vows comes down to a very basic question: What is man? Parashat Matot teaches that man is endowed with the power to build and to destroy. By the power of speech alone, man can build a world – a new reality – and with the same simple act, destroy it.

Parashat Matot begins uniquely: “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes…This is the word that G‑d has commanded.”11 Our sages say that this is the prophetic manner unique to Moses, as all other prophets prophesied with the introductory formula, “Thus says G‑d,” whereas Moses prophesied with the introductory formula, “This is the word.”12 It is no coincidence that Moses’ unique prophetic manner is featured here: “This is the word” – a momentous matter is stated here.

Whoever vows is as though he built a bamah

On many occasions, our sages seem to frown upon the whole institution of vows: “Rabbi Meir says: ‘It is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill’13 – better than both is not to vow at all.”14 And if someone made a vow, he should go to a learned person and absolve the vow rather than fulfill it, for “whoever vows is as though he built a bamah, and whoever fulfills [the vow] is as though he burned incense upon it.”15 This analogy to a bamah requires explanation.

Why do people make vows? Most vows are made either due to a quarrel, where each person forbids himself to interact with the other, or due to anger, where a person becomes angry at a person, animal, or even an inanimate object, and prohibits it for himself in his frustration. He tries to open a door, but it does not open – so he makes a vow. In any case, when a person makes a vow, this vow becomes endowed with life. “You have been snared by the words of your mouth.”16 You said something and thehasreby created a new reality in the world that possesses objective force.

When one makes a vow never to eat a certain food, one constructs a framework that has a certain sanctity, like consecrated property. The difference, however, is that this vow is not dedicated to G‑d, but to one’s own pride. The vow is a bamah, built in response to being denied one’s desires. A bamah can serve one of two purposes: the slaughter of a consecrated offering outside the Temple or idolatry. A vow is the same way; the purpose of the vow might be pure and holy, but more likely this is not the case – it is a form of idolatry.

Hence, our sages say that if one has already built a bamah, the best thing to do is to destroy it immediately. Likewise, if one has already made a vow, it is best to run quickly and nullify it.

There is a common refrain throughout the book of Kings: “The people still brought sacrifices and burned offerings upon the high places (babamot).”17 To this very day, people continue to bring sacrifices and burn offerings on all sorts of bamot. It is a mitzvah to destroy such bamot, and it is certainly not a mitzvah to offer korbanot upon them. If one fulfills a vow that one made, one is essentially offering a korban upon this bamah. The bamah was constructed – possibly for the sake of idolatry – by making a vow, and by fulfilling that vow one offers a korban upon it.

What remains for us?

Nowadays, when it is no longer possible to offer korbanot to G‑d, never­theless, we still have the ability to dedicate things to Him. When a ­person wants to dedicate something to G‑d, the Torah provides a way to construct special sanctity for all sorts of things. One can take time and dedicate it, conferring true sanctity upon it. If one says, for example, that he will study Torah at a certain time, sanctity is conferred upon that time. If one says that he will dedicate a certain place for studying Torah, sanctity is conferred upon that place. This is very significant, for it shows that we still possess the power to create genuine sanctity.

If one wants to go further, he can also make himself holy. Parashat Matot lists the booty collected during the war against Midian, including sheep, cattle, donkeys, and even people, regarding all of which the Torah delineates how much must be set aside as tribute to G‑d. One can understand this as a broader statement about our relationship with G‑d: One can take oneself and devote part of oneself to G‑d.

As weak as one may be in other areas, every person possesses the power to generate real, objective sanctity. When a person vows to study Torah, his study will not always necessarily be on the highest level. ­Nevertheless, he succeeds in creating sanctity, like the sanctity of the Altar, sanctity that rests upon a designated time or upon the commitment to study itself. He promised, and now he sits down and fulfills his vow, thereby changing something within himself.

Even if we cannot build a real altar, a vow enables us to build a small altar, and to exercise our ability to generate holiness in the world.