Moshe spoke to theChildren of Israel's tribal heads, saying: This is what G‑d has commanded...

Classic Questions

Was this passage said only to the tribal heads? (v. 2)

Rashi: [Moshe] honored the leaders by teaching them first, and only later the rest of the Jewish people.

From where do we know that with other commandments he did likewise? From the following verse: "Aharon and all the leaders of the community returned to him, and Moshe would speak to them. Afterwards, all the children of Israel would draw near" (Shemos 34:31-32).

But why did scripture choose to mention this point here?

To indicate that when the annulment of vows is done by an individual, he must be an expert [such as a tribal leader]. If no individual expert is available, it may be annulled by three laymen.

Mishnah: The Rabbinic principle of releasing vows [through asking an expert] "floats in the air," i.e., it has no real basis in scripture (Chagigah 10a).

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Connection Between Vows & Tribal Heads (v. 2)

Rashi addresses the question of why verse 2 suggests that the current passage was said only to the tribal heads and not to all the Jewish people. Surely, the laws of vows which are recorded here apply to all Jews?

Rashi rejects the notion that these laws were actually taught only to the tribal leaders, and concludes that scripture is alluding to an unwritten law: The reason why the Torah stresses the connection between tribal leaders and the laws of vows is "to indicate that when the annulment of vows is done by an individual, he must be an expert," such as a tribal leader. And "if no individual expert is available, it may be annulled by three laymen," who, in the absence of any better solution, constitute an ad hoc "Jewish court."

Rashi here is alluding to the rabbinic principle that a person who regrets a vow that he made may seek an "expert" to release him from the vow. As Rashi himself explains in his commentary to the Talmud, the expert is able to "find a loophole for the person, due to the implications that this vow imposes on him. [The expert demonstrates that] if the person had originally been aware of these implications, he would never have made the vow, thus showing that the vow was invalid in the first place" (Rashi to Gitin 63b, s.v. charatah).

However, this principle is a rabbinic law which "has no real basis in scripture," as the Mishnah states. Rashi, in his commentary on the Chumash, however, presumes that the reader is familiar with this concept, writing, "when the annulment of vows is done by an individual...," as if the student of scripture is already aware that vows can be annulled by finding a loophole. All that our verse seems to add is the detail that this individual must be an expert.

But how is the reader supposed to know that an individual can release a person from vows in the first place?

A Logical Approach

Perhaps it could be argued that Rashi deemed the process of finding a loophole in a vow to be totally logical, and thus (at the literal level) does not require any basis in scripture. The expert does not annul a pre-existing vow, which would definitely need some scriptural source, since scripture decrees that all vows are binding; instead, he releases the person from the vow by demonstrating that the vow was never valid in the first place (as explained above). This, it would seem, is in sharp contrast to the laws described in the current passage, where a father or husband annuls his daughter's or wife's vow through a scripturally empowered right of annulment.

Rashi deemed it obvious that if a loophole is found in any vow, a person can avoid observing what he originally (and mistakenly) thought to be a binding vow. Therefore, Rashi did not have to inform us of this principle.

What Rashi does teach us, based on verse 2, is that the person who finds that loophole must be an expert, which is why the Torah openly addresses this passage to the leaders, the "experts" of the Jewish people.

However, in the final analysis, this explanation is unacceptable, because:

  1. It is difficult to accept at the literal level that there are two totally different mechanisms ("annulment" and "release through a loophole") through which the obligation of vows can be removed, when Rashi makes no indication of such a major distinction in his commentary.
  2. On the contrary, Rashi writes explicitly that the only distinction between an expert and a father in the way they remove vows is in the language they must use ("an expert must use words that imply releasing, and a husband, words of annulment"—Rashi on v. 2, s.v. zeh hadavar), which indicates that the actual mechanism though which the vow is removed is the same.

The Explanation

Rather, it would seem that at the literal level there is only one mechanism by which a vow can be canceled, and that is through annulment, as the Torah indicates explicitly in the current passage that a father or husband may annul the vow of his daughter or wife. Likewise, in the case of an expert, at the literal level, the expert has the power to annul the words of a vow, as Rashi stresses, "When the annulment of vows is done by an individual, he must be an expert."

Rashi did not need to clarify the scriptural basis that an expert has the right to annul a vow, since he deemed it to be self-evident: In the same way a father has the right to annul his daughter's vow, because he is an authority figure (Rashi to v. 4), the tribal leaders have the right to annul the vows of their followers, over whom they are authority figures. Rashi only adds that this is not limited to the head of one's tribe in particular, but rather that any authority figure (such as an expert in Jewish law) is acceptable for this purpose. And, in exceptional circumstances where an expert cannot be found, even three laymen can form an ad hoc "court," which is authorized to annul a vow.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 33, p. 186ff.)