Parshat Matot -Masei

July 21st, 2017

Parshat Matot opens with a discussion of vows, warning us to keep the promises we make and how they might be annulled. The opening verse is puzzling “And Moshe spoke to the Heads of the tribes ….saying this is what Hashem commanded” Why do we not have the usual opening and Hashem spoke to Moshe? And why did Moshe speak to the leaders and not everyone? This and the details following raise questions for our sages to try and interpret.

Rashi explains that Moshe simply wished to honour the leaders and that they should stress to Bnei Yisrael seriousness of making promises, in fact many of our modern day leaders should take note. More interesting is the commentary of Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam, who digresses from his usual brevity and opens “I was asked in the town of Aniav in the province of Loujon about this strange opening in the Parsha?” perhaps wanting to give credit to the people of the town, and I must admit I cannot find where this might be, but clearly somewhere in France. Rashbam then explains that this discussion of vows comes directly after the end of the last Parsha which presented the festive sacrifices and closes “These you shall offer in the relevant festivals, besides your vows and offerings…” In temple times one would plan to go up to the temple at festival time and this is to remind everyone that when they go up to Jerusalem not to forget all the other thanksgiving and other offerings they promised over the past few months and when the next verse says “lo yachel devaro – he should not break his word” Rashbam translates it differently as “he shall not delay his word”

Ibn Ezra takes a different track and suggests that this discussion of vows actually took place after the request from the two tribes of Reuven and Gad to stay in the good grazing lands on the west of the Jordan which appears later on in the Parsha. We are told there that the two tribes came to the Moshe and the Heads of the tribes and that Moshe accepted their request but made them promise to cross the Jordan and fight to conquer the holyland, with the rest of the tribes. In fact we are told that the two tribes verbally responded and committed and so it makes sense that the Leaders of the tribes should be the ones that make sure they carry out their promise.

Returning to the topic itself of breaking a vow, there is an intriguing Mishna in Hagiga 10a which tells us “The laws concerning the dissolution of vows float in the air and have nothing to rest on.”  Meaning that there is nothing written in the Torah that allows the dissolution of vows other than the special case of a father or husband annulling a woman’s vows. This is an example of the oral law, a tradition handed down by Moshe but not written down, and only hinted to in the text and in fact some suggest that this is what Moshe related when he talked to the heads of the tribes. The Torah here expects a person to take their vows seriously, but the Talmud laid out a procedure of “Hatarat Nedarim” the freeing or unbinding of vows which we are accustomed to do in front of three people before Yom Kippur and which is the essence of the Kol Nidrei prayer.  This hopefully makes a person still realize the seriousness of promises.

In researching sources I found this lovely entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia “Vowing has practically disappeared from Jewish practice. A curious exception is the accepted formula for making offerings when called up to the reading of the law. The donation is introduced by the words “ba’avor she-nadar” (as he has vowed) – which is the origin of the Yiddish expression “shnodder” for an offering. When called up in the Shool in Basel I was presented with a list of about twenty different shool funds to choose from. In Panama they have a system of roulette type chips with amounts on them for you to take and remember what you promised and put in your desk as you could not carry them home. Interestingly the Rashbam’s explanation is relevant – do not forget after Shabbat the shnodder you promised on Shabbat.