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My Vows I Shall Fulfill

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 frum question

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

Answer:

What is a neder?

It is rather obvious why we are studying this topic this week – since Parshas Matos begins with the laws pertaining to vows.

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 that he 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, he risks violating an additional prohibition, bal te’acheir leshalmo, “Do not delay paying it” (see Devarim 23:22).

In general, one should be careful not to make vows or pledges. For one thing, one who does so 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, he 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 gaba’im 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 to 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) Shevuos – oaths

A shevuah – 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 makes a shevuah that he will be in shul for shacharis for the next three days. Should he fail to make it to shacharis any of those days, he would be breaking his shevuah, which contravenes a Torah prohibition.

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

(3) Kabbalas 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 who expresses these plans, intending to perform an exemplary act, 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. Specify that it is being done bli neder.

(4) Kabbalas tzedakah, intending to donate charity

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

(5) Performing a stringency

Someone who is aware that performing a certain hiddur in halacha is not obligatory, and begins to keep it with the intention of observing 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 kerias 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. After performing hataras nedarim, he may continue the practice of standing during kerias haTorah, but should have in mind that he is doing it bli neder.

A woman began lighting a third Shabbos candle in her own home after her first child was born. This practice might now become an obligation. She then did so the first time she visited her parents’ house; most women who kindle more than two lights before Shabbos do so only in their own home, but kindle only two when they are guests in someone else’s home. She asked a shaylah whether she should have hataras nedarim on the practice of kindling a third light, and she was told to do so.

(6) Three times

Someone who performs a stringent practice three times without saying bli neder must continue to fulfill the hiddur, even if he had not planned to observe it always (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 obligated?

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

Example:

Hadassah decides that she will eat only glatt kosher meat or will use only chalav 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). It is still proper to donate the money, but stating that it is prevents bli neder a mishap should one forget or later be unable to do so.

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 going 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 paying

In addition to the abovementioned 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, someone saying, “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’acher, since he could have given it immediately, as there are poor people around. If there are no poor people, he should set aside the money until he finds a poor person. 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 (Rema, Yoreh Deah 257:3). However, someone who pledged to contribute to destitute 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 creating obligations is rather extensive, we want to find out, quickly, how to release ourselves from these vows.

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

How does one undergo hataras nedarim?

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 – and he should be knowledgeable concerning 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, with 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 asks the nodeir several questions that must be answered truthfully. The talmid chacham thereby determines whether 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 many details must be met for the hataras nedarim to be valid. (The details of what constitutes an adequate basis for hataras nedarim are beyond the scope of this article.)

Once the talmid chacham feels that there are adequate grounds for hataras nedarim, 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 – the person is no longer obligated to carry out the vow.

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

The difference between a neder and a shevuah

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

When has a vow or an oath been created? We’ll discuss that in part 2 of this article.