My Vows I Shall Fulfill

It is rather obvious why we are studying this topic this week – since the laws pertaining to vows are the first subject mentioned in Parshas Matos.

Question #1: Quiz question

Can performing a mitzvah become a liability?

Question #2: Is this a “klutz question?”

What does it mean that I am doing something “bli neder?”

Question #3: A sixty-thousand-dollar question

Yankel asks: “When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Question #4: A frum question

“My friend Billy Nader* says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?

Answer: What Is a Neder?

Someone who recites a vow, an oath or a pledge is required to fulfill it (see Bamidbar 30:3). By virtue of the vow, oath or pledge, one creates a Torah obligation on oneself that one is, otherwise, not required to observe. For example, someone who declares that he will begin studying daf yomi every day is now obligated to do so, even on a day when it is inconvenient. Similarly, one who pledges tzedakah at yizkor or pledges a contribution to a shul upon receiving an aliyah becomes fully obligated min haTorah to pay the donation. In the case of a pledge to tzedakah¸ one must redeem it as soon as practical; otherwise, one risks violating an additional prohibition, bal te’acheir leshalmo, do not delay paying it (Devarim 23:22), as I will soon explain.

In general, one should be careful not to make vows or pledges. For one thing, he has now created a stumbling block for himself; since he runs the risk that he will not observe his commitment (see Nedarim 20a, 22a). Furthermore, one has created an accusation against himself, for by committing to observe something that the Torah did not require, he implies that he is so skilled at observing mitzvos that he can add a few of his own. The Satan can now level accusations against his occasional laxities in a much stronger fashion (see Nedarim 22a, based on Mishlei 20:25). (There are a few circumstances in which one is encouraged to make vows, but we will leave that topic for a different time.) For this reason, it is better not to pledge to contribute to tzedakah — if you have the money available, donate it; if it is not currently available, don’t pledge it! (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 203:4). It is very important that gabayim be in the habit of declaring that people’s pledges are bli neder, and a similar wording should appear on pledge cards.

Different Types of Obligations

There are six main ways that one may create an obligation upon oneself either to fulfill something or to abstain from doing something.

(1) Nedarim, vows

A neder, a vow, in which one declares that something otherwise permitted is now prohibited — such as, declaring that certain foods are prohibited.

Example:

In her desire to keep to her diet, Yaffah states: “I am going to prohibit all chocolate on myself.” Yaffah has now created a neder, which prohibits her, min haTorah, from eating chocolate.

(2) Shavuos, oaths

A shavua, an oath, in which one swears to fulfill or refrain from some activity — such as swearing that one will fast on a certain day, or that one will say Tehillim every day.

Example:

To repair his somewhat sloppy record at making it to minyan every morning, Shachar swears a shavua that he will be in shul for shacharis for the next three days. Should he fail to to make it to shacharis any of those days, he will be breaking his shavua, which contravenes a Torah prohibition.

Whether a specific declaration constitutes a neder or a shavua depends on halachic technicalities, usually contingent on how one makes the declaration. Several halachic differences result from whether someone made a neder or a shavua, including that violating a shavua is a more serious infraction (Ran, Nedarim 20a). Later in this article I will mention another important difference between them.

(3) Kabbalos mitzvah, declaring that one will perform a good deed

Someone who declares: I will arise early and study this chapter or that mesechta has declared a great vow to the G-d of Israel (Nedarim 8a). Someone intending to perform an exemplary act who expresses these plans has now obligated himself, even though he did not use the terms “vow,” “oath,” or “pledge” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 213:2).

Example:

Asking others to say certain chapters of Tehillim can create a stumbling block. One should be certain to specify that they are accepting bli neder.

(4) Kabbalas tzedakah, intending to donate charity

In the specific instance of contributing tzedakah funds, even deciding to give to tzedakah without verbalizing one’s intention creates an obligation to donate tzedakah (Rama, Yoreh Deah 259:13; see also Choshen Mishpat 212:8; based on Shavuos 26b).

(5) Performing a stringency

Someone who is aware that performing a certain hiddur in halacha is not obligatory, and begins doing so, intending to observe it regularly, becomes required to continue the practice as a form of vow. It becomes a binding obligation, requiring hataras nedarim, annulling vows, even if the individual fulfilled the practice only one time, and even if he did not declare that he intends to continue the practice (Nedarim 15a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 214:1).

Examples:

Someone who begins standing during keriyas haTorah, intending to continue the practice, becomes obligated to do so, unless he specified that he is doing so bli neder. He should perform hataras nedarim at the first opportunity, so as to avoid violating the prohibition of abrogating observance of a vow.

A woman began lighting a third Shabbos candle in her own home after her first child was born, and then did so the first time she visited her parents’ house. This now became an obligation. She asked a shaylah what to do and was advised to make hataras nedarim on the practice of kindling a third light, and, certainly, when she is a guest in someone else’s home.

(6) Three times

Someone who performs a stringent practice three times without saying bli neder must continue to fulfill the hiddur, even if he did not necessarily plan to always observe it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:7).

Saying “Bli Neder

Should I not observe hiddurim? I want to do these mitzvos, but I certainly do not want to be punished if I fail to continue performing them! How do I avoid becoming responsible?

To avoid creating this liability, someone expressing intent to perform a good deed should be careful to say that he/she is acting bli neder, without accepting it as a responsibility (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4). Similarly, someone who begins practicing a halachic hiddur should say that he is not accepting it as a responsibility.

Example:

Hadassah decides that she will eat only glatt kosher meat or will use only cholov Yisroel products, both meritorious activities. She should state that she is doing it “bli neder.”

Similarly, when pledging money during Yizkor, while making a mishebeirach or making any other oral commitment to donate charity, one should be careful to say bli neder. When others are pledging to tzedakah and one feels pressured to participate, specify that the pledge is bli neder (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 257:4).

Saying “Bli Neder” Even for a Non-mitzvah

Some authorities recommend saying bli neder on all one’s activities, even those that do not fulfill a mitzvah, so that the habit helps prevent one from inadvertently creating nedarim (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:4).

Example:

Chavah tells her husband, “I am planning to go to exercise class this morning, bli neder.” Although the statement that she plans to exercise does not create any obligation on her part, habituating herself to say bli neder is a good practice to develop.

We can now answer one of the questions asked above. “I have a friend who says bli neder on almost everything. Is this being too frum?” The answer is that your friend is being astutely cautious and following the advice of halachic authorities.

Don’t Delay in Paying

In addition to the above-mentioned concerns involved in pledging tzedakah, the Gemara rules that the mitzvah of bal te’achar, not to delay the donation of a korban, applies also to tzedakah (Rosh Hashanah 6a). This means that someone who pledges money to a charitable cause is required to pay the pledge as soon as he can.

To quote the Rambam: Tzedakah is included in the laws of vows. Therefore, one who says “I am obligated to provide a sela coin to tzedakah” or “this sela shall go to tzedakah” must give it to poor people immediately. If he subsequently  delays redeeming the pledge, he violates bal te’achar, since he could have given it immediately since there are poor people around. If there are no poor people, he should set aside the money until he finds poor people. However, if, at the time of his pledge, he specified that he is not intending to redeem the pledge until he locates a poor person, he is not required to set aside the money (Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 8:1).

Someone who declares that he will give tzedakah to a certain poor person is not required to give the money, until he sees that person (Rama, Yoreh Deah 257:3). However, someone who pledged to contribute to deprived people, without qualifying which poor people he meant, is required to fulfill his pledge immediately (Mordechai, Bava Basra 491).

What Is Hataras Nedarim?

Now that we realize that the obligations included in making vows is rather extensive, we want to find out, quickly, how to release ourselves from these vows.

Chazal derive from the Torah that there is a way one can be absolved from a vow, pledge or other such commitment, which is called hataras nedarim. Performing hataras nedarim does not in the slightest way diminish the reward that one receives for the good deeds one performed. It simply removes the continuing obligation to perform the vow from the individual who created it. Therefore, in the vast majority of circumstances, someone who made a neder should perform hataras nedarim, so that he does not violate the neder (see Nedarim 22a).

How Does One Perform Hataras Nedarim?

First, the person who made the vow or other commitment goes to three Jewish men who understand the logic of halacha and know the basics of how hataras nedarim operates (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:1 and commentaries). These three form a type of ad hoc beis din for the purpose of releasing vows. One of the three should be a talmid chacham proficient in the laws of hataras nedarim, including which vows one may not annul (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 67:8).

The nodeir, the person who made the vow, shares with the three (or, at least, the talmid chacham who is proficient in the laws of nedarim) the content of the vow, oath, or good practice from which he desires release and why he seeks relief. The talmid chacham will ask the nodeir several questions that must be answered truthfully. The talmid chacham thereby determines whether or not there are valid grounds to release the nodeir from the commitment (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:14). Only a talmid chacham who understands the very complicated laws of vows should undertake hataras nedarim, because there are many details that must be met for the hataras nedarim to be valid. (The details of what does and what does not constitute an adequate basis for hataras nedarim are beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that the talmid chacham feels that there are adequate grounds for hataras nedorim, the beis din declares the neder or other commitment annulled, by declaring mutar lach, mutar lach, mutar lach – the activities prohibited by the vow are now permitted. Of course, in the case of a vow to do something, the words mutar lach mean the reverse — you are no longer obligated to carry out the vow.

Someone who violated his vow prior to performing hataras nedarim has indeed sinned, and is required to perform teshuvah for his or her infraction.

The Difference between a Neder and a Shavua

There is a halachic difference between performing hataras nedarim to release someone from the obligation he created with a neder, and between performing hatarah after someone recited a shavua. Whereas in most instances one should arrange to release someone from a neder, one annuls a shavua only under extenuating circumstances (Rama, Yoreh Deah 203:3; Rambam end of Hilchos Shavuos). Explaining why this is so will need to wait for a future article.

May I appoint an agent to perform hataras nedarim for me?

No, one must ask directly to the beis din to release oneself from vows (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:16). If the members of the beis din do not understand the language that the nodeir speaks, they may use an interpreter to facilitate communication (Rama ad loc.).

There is one instance in which someone may make an agent to release nedarim. Sometimes, a husband may act as an agent for his wife to annul her nedarim. If a husband finds three people already gathered together — for example, they were performing hataras nedarim for him or for someone else — he may act as his wife’s agent to ask them to release her from her neder at the same time, if she appointed him to do so on her behalf (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

How does a woman perform hataras nedarim?

A woman who has a specific oath, vow, or practice from which she wishes release should arrange to perform hataras nedarim with a talmid chacham or beis din. As I mentioned above, if she is married, she may ask her husband to be her agent to perform hataras nedarim at a time when he is doing so for himself (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234:56).

Hataras Nedarim on Erev Rosh Hashanah

At this point, we can address Yankel’s question:

“When I attended a Gemara shiur on Nedarim, I got the impression that performing hataras nedarim requires having a talmid chacham deliberate over the specific neder, until he concludes that there are grounds to release the neder. This seems to have no relationship to what we do on Erev Rosh Hashanah.”

Indeed, Yankel’s question is extremely valid: hataras nedarim requires that one mention, specifically, the vow from which one seeks redress, and the beis din must deliberate whether this particular neder can be revoked. It is, therefore, unclear whether the generic hataras nedarim recited on Erev Rosh Hashanah, indeed, releases one from any commitments. The proper thing to do is to mention to an appropriate beis din every specific neder or practice that one wants annulled.

Mesiras Modaah

The Gemara mentions that should one declare at the beginning of the year that all the vows one makes in the course of the year are invalid; this pronouncement has some value. This declaration is called a mesiras modaah. The Gemara concludes that this statement has only limited value, and one should not, intentionally, rely upon it. In point of fact, the standard hataras nedarim procedure performed on Erev Rosh Hashanah includes a mesiras modaah.

Kol Nidrei

The Rishonim dispute whether the purpose of Kol Nidrei that we recite at the beginning of our Yom Kippur service is also meant to be a form of hataras nedarim, performed at a time when virtually everyone is in shul to include the maximum number of people, or whether it is a mesiras modaah. It is for this reason that there are three different versions of the text: one that has kol nidrei refer to the past year’s declarations, which means that it is hataras nedarim; one that refers to the coming year’s declarations, which means that it is a mesiras modaah; and one that mentions both the past and the future years, which means that it is meant to accomplish both.

There is another interesting difference in halachic practice that results from this last dispute: Should the congregation recite Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan? If it is a mesiras modaah, then one must declare it oneself, and each individual should read the Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan. On the other hand, if it is a form of hataras nedarim, then it should be declared by the chazzan alone accompanied by the two honored men alongside him who hold the sifrei Torah, so that they form a beis din that is annulling everyone’s nedarim. The Mishnah Berurah (619: 2) rules that we should consider it a mesiras modaah, and therefore concludes that each individual should recite Kol Nidrei softly along with the chazzan.

Conclusion

Now that we realize how serious our speech can be, we should reflect not only on the ideas of nedarim, but also on all the ramifications of our speech. As the pasuk (Mishlei 18:21) states, maves vechayim beyad lashon, Life and death are controlled by our tongues!

*Obviously, this is not his real name, but a nickname.

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