Revoking Vows (Hafarat Nedarim)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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 This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l (whose yahrzeit is Tamuz 21),
by the Wise and Etshalom families. Yehi Zikhro Barukh.

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PARASHAT MATOT-MASEI

 

Revoking Vows (Hafarat Nedarim)

 

By Rav Binyamin Tabory

 

            All nedarim may be annulled (hatarat nedarim) by a Beit-Din (court) if it finds that the neder was made in error or ignorance.  The mishna states (Chagiga 10a) that annulment of vows is "floating in the air," meaning, as Rashi explains, that the Biblical text contains but an allusion to this institution, as its laws and details were transmitted through the oral tradition.

 

            The Torah did, however, state explicitly that a husband can revoke the nedarim of his wife, a concept called "hafara" (Bamidbar 30:4-30).  A husband may perform hafara only on those nedarim which affect their marital relationship or may cause great anguish.

 

            A father may likewise perform hafara on the nedarim of his daughter.  The Rambam ruled (Hilkhot Nedarim 12:1) that there is no limitation at all on this halakha, and the father may revoke any neder taken by his daughter.  Others disagree and maintain that the father may revoke only nedarim which may cause great anguish (Kesef Mishneh and other commentators ad loc.)  Hatarat nedarim completely annuls the neder as if it were never made, but the effect of hafara is not as clear.  There is considerable discussion as to whether hafarat nedarim also annuls the neder retroactively, or merely cancels it from that moment on.  According to the second perspective, the neder was valid until the actual moment of hafara.  (See the discussion in Nazir 21b, the ruling of the Rambam in Hilkhot Nedarim 13:2 and 13:15, and Kesef Mishneh ad loc.)

 

            The Rambam lists as one of the 613 mitzvot the mitzva "to judge cases of hafarat nedarim" (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, mitzvat asei 95).  He emphasized that this does not mean that we should revoke nedarim.  Rather, it simply means that there is a law which is to be implemented in such cases.  The Rambam mentioned as well the law of hatarat nedarim, in addition to hafara, but he did not count it as a separate mitzva.  He perhaps felt that only mitzvot which are firmly rooted in the biblical text may be classified as mitzvot.  Hatara, which, as we saw, has little textual basis in the Torah, cannot be counted.

 

            The Ramban (ibid. 96) disagreed with the Rambam and refused to count hafarat nedarim as a mitzva.  We have seen (shiur for Parashat Chukat) that the Ramban consistently disputed the Rambam's inclusion of this type of mitzva.  The Rambam counted mitzvot such as the laws of tum'a and tahara (ritual purity), and the Ramban argued that these are merely laws determining personal status, rather than an actual mitzva.  He felt that only obligations and restrictions should be counted.  The Ramban writes that there is a positive obligation to fulfill nedarim (Mitzva 94), as well as a negative mitzva not to transgress a neder (lo taaseh 197), and hatara and hafara are simply laws instructing us how to avoid the issue of nedarim, rather than mitzvot.

 

            A different picture arises from the Rambam's formulation in his Mishneh Torah.  In his introduction to Hilkhot Nedarim, he describes the third mitzva of this section as follows: "To revoke a vow or oath, and this is the law of hafarat nedarim explicated in the biblical text."  This seems to suggest that there is a real mitzva incumbent upon a father and husband to do hafara.  If this is the case, would there also be a mitzva upon Beit Din to do hatarat nedarim?  The Rambam very possibly held that there is, indeed, such a mitzva, and for this reason emphasized that hafara "is explicit in the biblical text."  He perhaps sought to indicate that hatara, too, constitutes an actual obligation, only it could not be counted among the 613 mtzvot because it has no explicit Scriptural basis.

 

            Interestingly, a variant text in the Frankel edition of the Rambam adds but a single letter to this passage text, such that it reads, "The vow or oath shall be revoked... "  This reading would be more consistent with the Rambam's comments in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, by which this "mitzva" is not an actual obligation, but merely a law.

 

            The Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Semak. mitzva 107) seems to maintain that there is an actual mitzva and obligation to perform hafara.  He quotes the verse "and her husband shall revoke it" (Bamidbar 30:14), which suggests an imperative quality to hafara.  He also cites the comment of Bar Kappara recorded in the gemara (Yevamot 109a) that a person should always "adhere" to three things: chalitza (the ritual for refusal of a levirate marriage), creating peace, and hafarat nedarim.  We should note, however, that the Semak at times lists rabbinic laws in his list of taryag mitzvot, and we therefore cannot conclude that he considers hafara a biblical obligation.  However, his citation of the biblical text does suggest that he followed the literal meaning of the verse, that a husband or father actual bears an obligation of hafara.

 

            Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon takes the basic approach expressed in the Semak and develops it further.  He listed two separate mitzvot of hafara (mitzvot asei 103-104): an obligation upon a husband, and a mitzva incumbent upon the father.  It is noteworthy that Rabbeinu Saadya chose not to include hafarat nedarim in his list of communal and court obligations.  The fact that he instead included it in his list of standard mitzvot asei clearly shows that he disagreed with the Rambam and Ramban, and viewed it as a personal obligation.  Furthermore, if the "mitzva" were to deal with the laws of hafara, it would be counted as one mitzva.  By counting two separate mitzvot of hafara, Rabbeinu Saadya makes it clear that he considers hafara to be an outright, personal obligation.

 

            The Shibbolei Ha-Leket (317) records the practice to recite a berakha over hatarat nedarim.  He strongly disagrees with this custom and writes, "The source of this custom is unknown.  How did this custom arise?  The person who vows is obligated to fulfill the neder.  The fact that it can be annulled is not a positive mitzva which requires a berakha; it is not even a rabbinic obligation.  It is merely a remedy prescribed by the Torah... "

 

            The Shibbolei Ha-Leket obviously agrees with the position of the Rambam and Ramban and therefore sees no possibility of a berakha.  The custom of reciting a berakha would be far more compatible with the approach of Rabbeinu Saadyah and the Semak, that there is a biblical, or at least a rabbinic, mitzva to perform hafara (and presumably hatara, as well).

 

            We have thus seen at least three opinions as to the nature of the mitzva of hafara and hatara.  The Ramban felt that hafara and hatara should not be counted as mitzvot at all.  The Rambam (in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot) viewed them as procedural laws, which he counts as one mitzva.  The Semak held that there is a mitzva, but it may only be rabbinic in origin.  Finally, Rabbeinu Saadya felt that two separate mitzvot are to be counted, and we may reasonably assume that this view prompted the custom recorded by the Shibbolei Ha-Leket to recite a berakha over hatarat nedarim.