Shiur #02: The Prohibitions Relating to False Oaths (Part 1)

  • Rav Shmuel Shimoni
Sources:
 
            In the next shiur we will examine the Amoraic dispute regarding the prohibitions that are transgressed when one swears falsely about the past or the future. It is recommended that one learn the relevant Gemara in its entirety, from p. 20b, "ki ata Rav Dimi amar Rabbi Yochanan," until p. 21b, "mema'et leshe'avar." One who is pressed for time can suffice with the sections most relevant to our discussion: p. 20b, "ki ata Rav Dimibelo yachel devaro"; p. 21a, "meitivei ei zoha-yadua le-adam"; Tosafot, s.v.  konamot.

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Shiur #02: The Prohibitions Relating to False Oaths (Part 1)
 
            In continuation of last week's introductory shiur, we will dedicate the next two shiurim to a passage which is not the first passage in the chapter, but which clarifies the prohibitions that are transgressed when one falsely swears about the past or the future, and as such it complements last week's discussion which focused on the definition of the various prohibitions. Since the Gemara implies that the two Amoraim who disagree, Rav Dimi and Ravin, maintain their respective positions both according to Rabbi Yishmael (who says that there is no liability for a sin-offering for an oath relating to the past) and according to Rabbi Akiva (who says that there is such liability), we will try along the way to understand the relationship between the two disagreements and to present a comprehensive picture of the various opinions regarding liability for a sin-offering and for lashes.
 
I. The Opinions of the Amoraim Regarding Liability for a False Oath Relating to the Past
 
            According to Ravin (21a), one who takes a false oath relating to the past is liable to lashes for transgressing the prohibition: "And you shall not swear by My name falsely" (Vayikra 19:12). According to its plain meaning, this verse focuses on the prohibition of lying and on the profanation of God's name that this involves. This is the essence of an oath relating to the past, which of course lacks any undertaking of an obligation or creation of a new law. As we saw, according to Rabbi Akiva, when this prohibition is transgressed inadvertently, there is also liability for a sin-offering. According to Rabbi Yishmael, there is no liability for a sin-offering in such a case, and the Gemara on p. 3a initially thinks that there is no liability for lashes either. In the end, however, it is determined that even according to Rabbi Yishmael there are lashes. It turns out then that, according to Rabbi Yishmael, the liability for lashes follows from the lie, but liability for a sin-offering – as is clarified in the Gemara on p. 26a in the passage mentioned in last week's shiur – does not follow from the lie, but from the violation of a law that a person creates for himself: "to do evil, or to do good" (Vayikra 5:4).
 
            This position of Ravin is the simple and familiar position, which draws a clear distinction between a false oath and a vain oath. A false oath relates to a statement that is not trivial, that is to say, that is not manifestly true or false, and that is supported by an oath that could be persuasive were it true, but turns out to be false. Such an oath, when taken deliberately, is punishable with lashes for the false oath, and when taken inadvertently it bears liability for a sin-offering, according to Rabbi Akiva. In contrast, a vain oath is an oath that alleges something that "is contrary to the facts known to man," as is explained in the Mishna on p. 29a, for example, an oath that a stone is gold, a statement that is patently false. According to the Yerushalmi, which the Rambam codifies as law, a vain oath also includes a true oath, when that truth is manifest to all – for example, an oath that a stone is a stone. According to the simple understanding, the essence of a vain oath is not connected to a lie, but to the insult to the name of God that it involves, when God's name is used for vain purposes. Punishment for an oath taken in vain is imposed only when the vain oath was taken deliberately – lashes for the violation of the prohibition: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" (Shemot 20:7).
 
            It is interesting to note in this context that the Minchat Chinukh (commandment no. 30) introduces the novel position that if a person takes an oath that a stone is gold he has transgressed two prohibitions and is liable for two sets of lashes; he is liable for having taken a false oath, since the content of his oath is false, and he is liable for having taken an oath in vain, as the oath is manifestly false. The simple understanding, however, is that a manifest lie is not regarded as a false oath but as a vain oath and nothing more, since nobody could have been persuaded by this lie.[1]
 
            Rav Dimi has a different position regarding an oath relating to the past:
 
[If one says: "I swear] I ate," or, "[I swear] I did not eat," [and he transgresses the oath,] it is a vain oath; and its prohibition is [derived] from this [verse]: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."
 
            According to Rav Dimi, the verse, "And you shall not swear by My name falsely," applies to an oath relating to the future (an issue we will deal with later), but when a person takes an oath relating to the past, and utters words that are false from the moment that they are uttered, we are dealing with a different concept – an oath taken in vain. Ostensibly, according to Rav Dimi this term refers to a lie that has no chance of being proven true. This is different than the usual understanding of an oath taken in vain: an unnecessary utterance, and a belittling exploitation of God's name for content that is manifestly true or untrue. We must, however, reconcile Rav Dimi's position with the Mishna on p. 29a that deals with a vain oath, regarding two points:
 
  1. It is clear from the Mishna that there is no sin-offering for a vain oath taken inadvertently; whereas in our Gemara it says that Rav Dimi says what he says even according to Rabbi Akiva, who maintains that a sin-offering is brought even for an oath relating to the past.
 
  1. The Mishna states that not every oath relating to the past falls into the category of an oath taken in vain, but only lies that are manifestly untrue: "Which is a vain oath? If he swore that which is contrary to the facts known to man, saying of a pillar of stone that it is of gold; or of a man that he is a woman; or of a woman that she is a man."
 
It is clear that even Rav Dimi must concede that there is a difference between the lie of "I have eaten" or "I have not eaten," and that of "saying of a pillar of stone that it is gold."[2] "I have eaten" and "I have not eaten" are perceived as vain oaths because they are defined as false from the moment that they were uttered, but the full idea of a vain oath relates specifically to an oath the falseness of which is manifest to all. When the falsehood is manifest, it falls under the full category of a vain oath which removes it from the category of shevuat bitui and exempts the person from liability for a sin-offering. A falsehood that is not manifestly false falls into the wider category of shevuat bitui which imposes liability for a sin-offering, but the precise definition of the prohibition that is transgressed is not a false oath (as would appear according to Rav Dimi regarding an oath that relates to the future), but a vain oath. [The Ritva in his explanation of Rav Dimi might be alluding to this point when he says: "'I have eaten' and 'I have not eaten' is a vain oath. This means that this too falls into the category of a vain oath, and all the more so a really vain statement, where one takes an oath that is contrary to the facts known to man."] In my opinion, it stands to reason that Rav Dimi does not accept the position of the Yerushalmi that even a true oath can be a vain oath (where one swears that a stone is a stone), for according to him, the idea of a vain oath is connected in its very essence to the false content of the statement; but I have not found an explicit source that says this.
 
II. An Oath Relating to the Future – The Opinion of Rav Dimi
 
            The disagreement between Rav Dimi and Ravin relates both to an oath relating to the past as well as to an oath relating to the future. Let us begin with an examination of the position of Rav Dimi:
 
When Rav Dimi came [from Eretz Israel] he said that Rabbi Yochanan said: [If one says: "I swear] I shall eat," or, "[I swear] I shall not eat," [and he transgresses the oath,] it is a false oath; and its prohibition is [derived] from this [verse]: ”You shall not swear by My name falsely." [If one says: "I swear] I have eaten," or, "[I swear] I have not eaten,” [and it was untrue,] it is a vain oath, and its prohibition is [derived] from this [verse]: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Vows come under the prohibition of: "He shall not break his word."
 
            According to Rav Dimi, if a person takes an oath relating to the future, and then violates his oath, he is liable for "You shall not swear by My name falsely." According to the simple understanding, his liability is for the lie and the profanation of God's name that that involves. See Rashi: "This is what it means: You shall not swear by My name in order to lie through your oath in the future" (s.v. ve-azharteih). It would appear that according to him we are not dealing with a retroactive revelation that the oath was false (an understanding that we discussed in the previous shiur), but rather with a later action by which the person is regarded as "lying through his oath."[3]
 
            If so, the liability for lashes – both with regard to an oath relating to the past and with regard to an oath relating to the future – is connected to the lie. Let us compare this to the positions of the Tannaim regarding a sin-offering for an inadvertent shvuat bitui. According to Rabbi Akiva there is liability for a sin-offering even in the case of an oath relating to the past, and in the previous shiur we demonstrated that the plain meaning of Rabbi Akiva's words indicates that the liability for a sin-offering is essentially the same in the two cases in which it is found, and this leads us to the conclusion that what obligates the sin-offering even in the oath relating to the future is the lie (because there is no creation of a new law with respect to the past). Therefore, it seems that joining the position of Rabbi Akiva with that of Rav Dimi fits in with the approach that subjects the various liabilities for a false oath – the lashes and the sin-offering, for the past and for the future – to the idea of a lie.
 
            According to Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, liability for a sin-offering is imposed only for the violation of a law that a person created for himself, "to do evil, or to do good," and therefore such liability can only be imposed for an oath relating to the future. It turns out then that combining the position of Rabbi Yishmael with that of Rav Dimi indicates a separation of the liabilities: The liability for a sin-offering is for the violation of the law that the person created for himself, whereas the liability for lashes is imposed for the lie in the oath relating to the future. The prohibition of lying is a serious offence, but it was not assigned atonement through the bringing of a sin-offering in the case of an inadvertent transgression; on the other hand, the violation of a law that a person created for himself is not subject to a negative prohibition, and it does not carry a punishment nor does it lend itself to atonement when the violation is carried out deliberately.
 
            However, according to some Rishonim, there is room to qualify this last assertion. While it is true that Rav Dimi said that with an oath relating to the future, one transgresses the prohibition, "You shall not swear by My name falsely," whereas for vows, he transgresses the prohibition, "He shall not break his word" – the verse itself states: "When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word" (Bemidbar 30:3), and already the Tosafot wrote (ad loc.):
 
With an oath, one also violates the prohibition, "he shall not break his word," as it is written: "Or swears an oath… he shall not break his work." And in chapter 2 of Nedarim (16b) it is explicitly taught that with an oath there is liability for "he shall not break his word." Here it means: With a vow, there is only "he shall not break his word." (s.v. konamot)
 
There is room to ask also with regard to the prohibition of "he shall break his word," whether there is liability for the lie in the violation of the obligation that had been undertaken (at the end of the next shiur we will relate to the interesting approach of the Tosafot in Gittin regarding this point). However, there is support for the fact that like with vows this liability relates to the violation of the law that the person created for himself (and clearly there is no concept of a vow regarding the past). Let us once again mention the Gemara on p. 26a which explains that according to Rabbi Yishmael there is liability for a sin-offering only for an oath relating to the future, that is, for something that can be viewed as a violation of a personal law, because "[we include only oaths] similar to [the oath] to do evil, or to do good, where the prohibition is on account of 'he shall not break his word,' but exclude this [oath] where the prohibition is not on account of 'he shall not break his word,' but on account of 'you shall not lie.'" If the prohibition of "he shall not break his word" does in fact apply to the violation of a personal law, then it turns out that according to Rav Dimi there are two prohibitions regarding an oath relating to the future: one relates to the lie ("and you shall not swear by My name falsely") and the other relates to the violation of the law ("he shall not break his word"); and the sin-offering according to Rabbi Yishmael is located on the side of the second liability.
 
Here it should be noted that while the violation of the personal law and the prohibition of "he shall not break his word" are connected to liability for a sin-offering in the case of an oath, they are not connected to such liability in the context of a vow. It may be proposed that there is a special stringency regarding the violation of a law that was created with the help of the name of God, but this must be clarified in the framework of the disagreement about the need for the Divine name with regard to an oath, but this is the not the forum to expand on the matter. Let us simply note that the proposal raised above is not necessary, for in the verse of "he shall not break his word," and also in the verse relating to the sin-offering for a shevuat bitui (Vayikra 5:4), there is no specific mention of swearing by the name of God. And it is possible that on the contrary, there is room to say that if the oath relating to the future is based on the violation of a law and the prohibition of "he shall not break his word," there is less need for the name of God than for an oath relating to the past regarding which one transgresses the prohibition of "and you shall not swear by My name falsely." This indeed is the position of the Ra'avad in his strictures to the Rambam, Hilkhot Shevuot 2:3[4] (and further study is required to understand the difference between an oath and a vow).
 
            According to the simple understanding of Rashi, it would appear that he did not accept the position of the Tosafot:
 
Vows come under the prohibition of: "He shall not break his word" – that is to say, "he shall not break his word," which relates to the future, does not come to warn about an oath relating to the future, for an oath relating to the future is derived from "and you shall not swear by My name falsely." Rather it comes to prohibit vows, to the exclusion of Ravin who said that the prohibition of an oath relating to the future is derived from "he shall not break his word."
 
According to Rashi, it seems that we must make a sweeping distinction with regard to the position of Rabbi Yishmael according to Rav Dimi between liability for a sin-offering which is based on the violation of a personal law and liability for lashes which is based on the lying.[5]
 
III. An Oath Relating to the Future – The Position of Ravin
 
Let us now consider the position of Ravin:
 
"[I swear] I have eaten," "[I swear] I have not eaten" [and it was untrue], are false oaths, and their prohibition is from: "You shall not swear by My name falsely." "[I swear] I shall eat," "[I swear] I shall not eat" [and he broke the oath], he transgresses: "He shall not break his word."
 
Ravin's words imply that the prohibition regarding a false oath relating to the past is based on the lie; whereas regarding an oath relating to the future the liability is based on the prohibition to violate the law that the person who took the oath created for himself. It is interesting to note the difference in the formulation of these two prohibitions. In the first there is a definition of the essence of the prohibition, "false oath," which is followed by the biblical source for the prohibition. In the second, there is only a determination of the verse that is transgressed. This implies that the idea of falsehood is a fundamental concept and that the Torah establishes its parameters in the context of an oath, while the prohibition of violating a person's autonomous law is a special novelty introduced by the Torah in the passages dealing with oaths and vows.
 
If we try to combine the position of Rav Dimi with regard to lashes and the positon of Rabbi Yishmael with regard to a sin-offering, the path is paved before us. Regarding an oath relating to the future there is no question of falsehood, but only the person's obligation to the autonomous law that he created, and for the violation of this obligation there is liability for lashes if the violation was deliberate and a sin-offering if it was inadvertent. Only regarding an oath relating to the past is there a question of falsehood, and for that there is liability for lashes, but not for a sin-offering.
 
As for the position of Rabbi Akiva, the matter is more complicated. It may be argued that the same distinction that is found in the position of Ravin between the lashes for an oath relating to the past and the lashes for an oath relating to the future is found according to Rabbi Akiva with regard to a sin-offering. However, as we already mentioned, the wording of Rabbi Akiva in the Mishna on p. 25a ("If the verse amplifies for that, it amplifies for this also") implies that the foundation of the liability is the same both in the case of an oath relating to the past and in the case of an oath relating to the future, and if that is the case, it stands to reason that the basis is the falsehood, as we tried to explain in the previous shiur. According to this, we reach a distinction that is the opposite of that which was proposed above (when we combined the position of Rav Dimi with that of Rabbi Yishmael): The liability for the sin-offering is based on the falsehood in the oath, even in the case of an oath relating to the future, whereas the liability for lashes in the case of an oath relating to the future is precisely the violation of the law created by the person taking the oath, similar to the liability in the case of a vow. It turns out that even though the foundation of falsehood is valid both with regard to the past and with regard to the future, and it underlies the liability for a sin-offering, its transformation into a defined act of transgression that can impose liability for lashes is limited to the case of a clear cut lie, that is to say, the case of an oath relating to the past uttered falsely by the person taking the oath.
 
Thus far we have explained the position of Ravin based on the reading in the standard editions of the Gemara. It would appear, however, that the Ri Migash had a slightly different reading:
 
"[I swear] I have eaten," "[I swear] I have not eaten" [and it was untrue], are false oaths, and their prohibition is from: "You shall not swear by My name falsely." "[I swear] I shall eat," "[I swear] I shall not eat" [and he broke the oath], are false oaths, and their prohibition is from: "When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word."
 
From this reading it would appear that like the position of Rav Dimi (if we ignore the internal difference between a false oath and a vain oath), according to the position of Ravin as well there is a general line of falsehood with regard to oaths, both with respect to the past and with respect to the future, only that the biblical prohibition is split and derived from two different sources (and the prohibition of "he shall not break his word" is also centered around the lie). Presumably, this indicates that the nature of the lie in the two cases is different. In the previous shiur, we tried to understand this difference, but we are still dealing with a broad common denominator of falsehood. According to this approach it is possible that there is a certain difficulty with understanding the position of Rabbi Yishmael, and we might have to propose a principle similar to the one that we proposed when we explained his position in accordance with Rav Dimi. But the position of Rabbi Akiva seems relatively straight-forward.
 
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Sources for the next shiur: The Prohibitions Relating to False Oaths (Part II)
 
            In the next shiur we will continue to clarify some of the points that were discussed in the previous shiur. We will examine the definition of an action that bears liability for lashes. For this purpose it is recommended that one continue with the Gemara on p. 21a until the first colon on p. 21b.  See also the Rambam's position: Sefer ha-Mitzvot, negative commandments 61, 157; Hilkhot Shevuot, introductory headings; 1:1-4; 6:2 (regarding the release of an oath by a sage); Hilkhot Nedarim, introductory headings; 1:4; 3:7-8; Hilkhot Sanhedrin 19:4.
 
(Translated by David Strauss) 
 
 
 

[1] See also the words of the Maharal in Tif'eret Yisrael, chapter 45.
[2] The Gemara later brings the words of Ravin, who responds to the words of Rav Dimi and presents a different approach: "'[I swear] I have eaten,' '[I swear] I have not eaten' [and it was untrue], are false oaths, and their prohibition is from: "You shall not swear by My name falsely." … And what is a vain oath? Swearing that which is contrary to the facts known to man." It may be understood that the narrowing of a vain oath to the case of one who swears that which is contrary to the facts known to man is the position of Ravin, that was not accepted by Rav Dimi.
[3] Perhaps, however, this should be understood differently that the focus is the prohibition of an oath taken in such a manner that afterwards he will lie with it. See also the formulation of the Ritva: "'[If one says: "[I swear] I shall eat," "[I swear] I shall not eat," [and he transgresses the oath], this is a false oath.' This means: It is called a false oath because he lies through his oath when he break it. And its prohibition is derived from this verse: 'You shall not swear by My name falsely.' This means: You shall not swear by My name in a manner that you shall lie through it."
[4] For a proposal similar to this, see Chiddushei Rabbi Shimon Shkop, Nedarim, no. 2.
[5] See, however, Ritva, s.v. konamot, who understands that even Rashi accepts the Tosafot's approach, that the prohibition of "he shall not break his word" certainly applies also to an oath relating to the future. See the words of the Meiri, who disagrees, and adds: "For in the entire Talmud we find "he shall not break his word" in connection with a vow, and not an oath."