SALT - Tuesday, 20 Tammuz 5779 - July 23, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
Thursday 22 Tamuz, July 25
            The opening section of Parashat Matot discusses the laws of nedarim – vows, whereby a person voluntarily decides to forbid upon himself something which the Torah permits.  The Torah strictly requires one to abide by his self-imposed prohibition, though the oral tradition provides the mechanism of hatarat nedarim – the annulment of vows, which can be achieved by standing before a court and proclaiming one’s remorse for taking the vow.
            The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (22a) makes a strong statement condemning the practice of taking vows, warning that one who takes a neder (vow) is comparable to one who constructs a bama – a private altar.  Once the Beit Ha-mikdash was built, it became forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere other than in the Mikdash, and thus private, personal altars are strictly forbidden.  The Gemara compares taking a neder to constructing a bama, and it then continues that one who fulfills the vow – as opposed to seeking its annulment – is comparable to one who offers a sacrifice on a bama.
            Keli Yakar, in his opening comments to Parashat Matot, explains this comparison as referring to arrogance.  Taking upon oneself voluntary restrictions, beyond those which are imposed by the Torah, bespeaks a degree of condescension, as the individual chooses to create his own set of laws rather than simply follow the laws required of all Benei Yisrael.  In this sense, taking nedarim truly resembles a bama, a personal site of sacrificing which one builds in place of the Beit Ha-mikdash, where the rest of the nation brings their sacrifices.
            However, Keli Yakar notes, there are times when one takes a vow not for the sake of condescendingly withdrawing from the rest of the nation, but simply out of anger.  A person who becomes angry at his fellow might impulsively vow not to derive any benefit from that other person, or declare a vow proclaiming his possessions forbidden to his fellow.  Keli Yakar writes that the nature of a person’s true motivation in pronouncing his vow can be determined by whether he later utilizes the solution of hatarat nedarim.  If, after recomposing himself, he chooses to annul the vow, this demonstrates that he pronounced the vow in a moment of tension, during an outburst of raw emotion, and did not truly mean to arrogantly take on new restrictions.  But if even after regaining his equanimity, the individual insists on abiding by his self-imposed restrictions, then this shows that he made a rational decision to create new rules for himself, arrogantly separating himself from the rest of the nation.  And thus taking a vow is comparable to building a bama – a measure which can potentially lead to condescending withdrawal from one’s fellow Jews – but it is only when one makes the willed decision to adhere to the vow, rather than seek its annulment, that he is considered as having sacrificed on a bama, making a conscious, resolute choice to practice religion differently than everybody else.
            Keli Yakar explains along these same lines a different statement made by the Gemara there in Masekhet Nedarim, that one who takes a vow is called a “rasha” (wicked person), even if he fulfills his vow.  The Gemara makes the assertion based on a textual association between the verse in Sefer Devarim (23:22), “If you desist from vows, you will not bear iniquity,” and the verse in Sefer Iyov (3:17), “There [after death] the wicked desist from their rage” (“Sham resha’im chadelu rogez”).  These verses both include variations of the root ch.d.l. (“desist”), suggesting a link between them, and thus the Gemara establishes that one who takes vows is regarded as “wicked.”  Keli Yakar notes the significance of the fact that this connection is inferred from the description of the wicked “desisting from rage.”  What this means, he writes, is that a vow reflects “wickedness” if it is taken and maintained even after the “rage” has passed, when one has returned to his senses, and is no longer overcome by fierce emotion.  If the person insists on keeping his vow, this shows that it was not a mistake, a byproduct of a rush of emotion, but rather a calculated decision to arrogantly take on additional laws and restrictions.
            The Gemara there in Masekhet Nedarim speaks also of the severity of anger, making the famous, startling statement, “Kol ha-ko’eis kol minei gehinnom sholtim bo” – that anger renders one liable to the harshest punishments in the afterlife.  However, as important as it is to strive to avoid anger, we are all prone to becoming angry on occasion.  Keli Yakar’s insight perhaps teaches us to try, as much as possible, to repair the damage caused by our anger once it subsides.  If it happens that we make inappropriate or hurtful remarks in a moment of tension and aggravation, we should strive to “annul” those remarks, to eliminate their negative effects, in order to contain whatever harm they may have caused.  We are strongly urged not to become angry, but as frail human beings, it is all but inevitable that we will from time to time.  Keli Yakar teaches us that when this happens, we are bidden to correct whatever mistakes we may have made in our rage, to rebuild the bridges that we may have burned – or at least damaged – by our anger, and to do everything we can to “annul” the negative effects of our temporary loss of composure.