A Shevua to Suspend a Mitzva (Part 1)

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

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Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families 
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, 
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.

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Typically, if one violates a shevu’a, he must offer a korban oleh ve-yored. However, the mishna in Shevuot (25a) exempts a korban in a situation in which a shevu’a about a mitzva act was violated. This exemption I derived from the clause “le-hara o le-heitiv” (Vayikra 5:4) (to perform something beneficial or detrimental), which qualifies the types of false oaths that mandate a korban. This clause implies a shevu’a about voluntary activities. Halakhic activities do not afford the type of flexibility implied by that phrase, and they are therefore exempt from korbanot.

A complementary gemara in Nedarim (16b) and Shevuot (25a) similarly eliminates the malkot (normally administered for false (future) oaths) in the case of an oath regarding the performance of a mitzva. This is based on the verse, “lo yachel devarav” (Bamidbar 30:3) (he should not violate his words), in which the word “devarav” is loosely interpreted as referring to one’s personal affairs. The syntax implies malkot for violation of oaths taken about personal issues. Since halakhic-centered activities are ritualistic, they are not personal, and their violation do not yield malkot or an issur.

In this shiur and the one that follows, we will explore the nature of the malkot exemption for a shevu’a le-vatel mitzva, an oath taken to violate a mitzvat asei.

By excluding halakhic activities from the scope of the bal yachel violation, is the Torah establishing a formal scope of shevu’a capabilities? Since a shevu’a is a personal reordering of a halakhic map, it only applies to neutral/personal activities. Activities which are halakhically legislated are not within the domain of shevu’a influence. Alternatively, the exemption may be more technical. Although a shevu’a has been taken to withhold from eating matza, this personal oath conflicts with the standard halakha to consume matza. When faced with a clash between a personal oath and a halakhic mandate, a person must prioritize the halakhic activity, even at the expense of violating his oath. The Torah enshrines this prioritization by eliminating the issur of the oath.

To summarize the question, are halakhic activities beyond the domain of shevu’a ability, or does the Torah mandate shevu’a violation as the price for mitzva compliance? Why can’t a shevu’a to break a mitzva operate?

The primary nafka mina to this issue relates to a shevu’a to reinforce mitzva performance, le-kayem et ha-mitzva. Would such a shevu’a obtain? Presumably, if halakhic activities are not within the domain of shevu’a, it would matter little whether the shevu’a aims to suspend the performance of the mitzva or to bolster it; a shevu’a can only be applied to neutral, non-mitzva activities. Indeed, this is the position of the Ramban (in Milchamot Hashem at the end of the third perek of Shevuot), who claims that similar to a shevu’a le-vatel mitzva, a shevu’a le-kayem mitzva is halakhically meaningless. In contrast, the Ba'al Ha-Ma'or (at the end of the third perek of Shavuot) and the Ran (based on Nedarim 8a, which cites a verse to defend a shevu’a to uphold a mitzva) claim that unlike a shevu’a to suspend a mitzva, a shevu’a to execute a mitzva is indeed binding. Presumably, they view the inapplicability of a shevu’a to suspend a mitzva as a result of the inevitable practical clash between performance of a mitzva and loyalty to a shevu’a (which entails suspension of the mitzva). When the mitzva and the shevu’a overlap, the shevu’a remains in force.

A second question relates to the violation of a shevu’at shav when asserting a shevu’a to suspend a mitzva. The mishna that delineates shevu’at shav scenarios (Shavuot 29a) lists someone who swears to suspend a mitzva (not to eat matza on the night of Pesach) as having violated shevu’at shav. At first glance, this indicates that a shevu’a surrounding halakhic activities is completely meaningless, since it was applied to activities "outside the domain" of an oath. Shevu’a shav is typically defined as a pointless and halakhically meaningless oath. As mitzva activities lie beyond the scope of a shevu’a an oath pivoted upon a mitzva is irrelevant and consequently in violation of shav.

If, however, shevu’at shav is defined slightly differently – as oaths that inevitably will be broken – perhaps a shevu’a to suspend a mitzva would qualify as shav even if the oath itself is valid. Even if halakhic activities are within the jurisdiction of a shevu’a, an oath to suspend a mitzva may be classified as shav because the resolution of this practical clash between mitzva and shevu’a will always favor the mitzva, and never the shevu’a. This guarantee of shevu’a violation is sufficient to render that shevu’a as a shav. (Of course, this question is highly dependent upon the definitions of shevu’a shav, which were outlined in a previous shiur (The Definition of Shevu’at Shav).

An interesting additional debate emerges between the Rambam and the Rashba about a shevu’a to suspend “opportunistic” mitzvot, mitzvot kiyumiyot. Most mitzvot are absolutely and unconditionally obligatory, but there is a small set of mitzvot that are condition-dependent. For example, only someone who wears a four cornered garment is obligated to attach tzitzit. If one chooses not to wear such a garment, he is exempt from the mitzva. Would an oath not to wear tzitzit be suspended, in the manner that an oath not to eat matza would be?

The Rambam (Shevuot 1:6) freely extends this exemption to tzitzit, whereas the Rashba (Shavuot 25a) does not (he discusses an oath about optional tzedaka as applying, even though an oath about mandatory tzedaka would not). Perhaps these positions reflect the differing manners of understanding the exemption of shevu’a to suspend a mitzva. If a shevu’a fundamentally does not apply to halakhic actions, it should not apply to any halakhic activity – whether that activity is unconditionally or conditionally mandatory. The action is still defined as a mitzva, and it should therefore be immune to shevu’a. If, however, shevu’a can be applied to halakhic activities, but the mitzva will always override the oath fulfillment, perhaps there are types of mitzvot that will not override the oath compliance. One example, may be a mitzva that is conditional and possibly less severe than classic, unconditional mitzvot.

Another example of a mitzva that may not override oath compliance would be a mitzva derabbanan. The Ritva (Nedarim 13b) assumes that just as a shevua to suspend a mitzva does not obtain, a shevu’a to suspend a mitzva derabbanan similarly would not apply. If a person takes an oath not to read the Megilla, he must violate the oath and recite it. By contrast, the Tur (Yoreh De'ah 279) quotes his father the Rosh as claiming that only mitzvot de-oraita are unsuited for shevu’a.

By extending the rule to derabbanan activities, the Ritva may be taking a more fundamental view about the incompatibility between oaths and halakhic activities. Since oaths can only be imposed about personal and neutral activities, they cannot be applied to mitzvot derabbanan. By contrast, the Rosh may maintain that shevu’a applies to all acts, but when compliance clashes with a mitzva, the mitzva is prioritized. Perhaps when a shevu’a clashes with a mitzva derabbanan, the shevu’a compliance is prioritized.

These two models of understanding why a shevu’a does not apply to a mitzva are articulated by the Afikei Yam (1:36).