The Torah portion of Matos begins with the laws of vows and the nullification and absolution thereof.1

Taking a vow means that an individual imposes a specific stricture upon himself, prohibiting himself from deriving benefit from something that otherwise would be permitted.

By and large, vows can be annulled by a father, husband or sage, either through absolution (shi’eilah), invalidation (hafarah), or annulment (hatarah).

The Rambam2 makes the following statements regarding vows:

“He who vows in order to be morally upright and amend his actions is considered quick-sighted and praiseworthy. E.g., a glutton who forbids himself to eat meat for a year or two …. All are valid means of serving G‑d. It is with regard to such vows that our Sages state:3 ‘Vows are a fence for abstinence.’ ”

The Rambam goes on to say:4 “Although these [vows] are a form of [divine] service, a person should not make numerous prohibitory vows, nor should he customarily do so. Rather, he should abstain from those things that should be abstained from without resorting to vows.”

In Hilchos De’os the Rambam writes:5 “Our Sages have commanded that we only refrain from those things that the Torah told us to refrain from …. Thus our Sages said:6 ‘Does it not suffice that which the Torah prohibited; you forbid yourself other things as well?!’ ”

We thus have three kinds of spiritual service: a) abstaining from permissible things by means of a vow; b) abstaining without resorting to a vow; c) not abstaining from permissible matters.

How are we to reconcile these three different forms of service?

In fact, the Rambam addresses three groups of people, each on a different spiritual plane.7

When one is on a lowly level, one must abstain from non-essential permissible matters, since chasing after them has a deleterious spiritual effect. An individual who by his very nature is drawn to worldly pleasures must resort to a vow in order to keep himself from over-indulging.

Then there is the individual who is on a higher spiritual plane. It is unnecessary for such a person to vow in order to refrain from physical delights. Still, since this person has yet to attain a truly lofty level, he too must limit his involvement.

Finally, there is the person who has attained a superior level of holiness. Such an individual need not fear that partaking in a physical matter will cause a spiritual descent. Rather, such a person is commanded to occupy himself with physical matters, refining and elevating the permissible to his or her level of sanctity. As the verse says:8 “Know Him in all your ways.”

In light of the above, we also understand the nullification and absolution of vows in the context of man’s spiritual service:

When one prohibits oneself from partaking in things that are in and of themselves permissible, it is possible for one’s father, husband or sage9 to elevate that individual to a higher level, such that the person need no longer be bound by his or her vow.

Here as well, there are two distinct aspects:

a) The person might only be elevated to a level at which the vow is invalidated (hafarah), i.e., the individual must still remove him or herself from the matters in question, but this can now be accomplished without a vow.

b) Then there is an annulment of the vow (hatarah) , wherein the sage causes so great a degree of holiness to descend upon the individual that the very need to separate himself from permissible worldly matters vanishes.

Rather, the person is able to fully engage in all permissible matters and elevate them to holiness.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXXIII, pp. 186-192.