Talmidav Shel Aharon
10-5767 Mitzvah 39-40
January 1, 2007
Mitzvah 39 – It is a positive commandment to fulfill the words that come from one’s lips – whatever one takes upon himself by a vow or oath.
Hafetz Hayyim: As it says in Scripture: “Whatever has passed your lops you shall keep and do, as you have vowed.” (Deut. 23:24) and if further says “He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Num. 30:3)
This is in effect at all times and it every place for men and for women.
Mitzvah 40 – It is a positive commandment to deal with cases of nullifying vows and oaths.
Hafetz Hayyim: As Scripture says, “when a man vows a vow to Hashem etc. (Num 30:3) This means that if the one who made the vow regrets it and is sorry for what has happened, he is to come to an expert scholar or to three ordinary persons if there is no learned expert there; and he says, “I swore or vowed about this-and-that and I have come to regret it. Had I know that I would suffer about the matter to such an extent or that this would happen to me, I would not have taken the vow or the oath.” Then the scholar or the three ordinary men tell him, “Have you already been sorry for it?” Whereupon he answers, “yes.” At that they say to him, “It is allowed for you.” Or “it is forgiven you” or “it is permissible for you”. It is in effect everywhere and always.
If these Mitzvot seem strange and foreign, it is more a function of modern society than the Torah or the Hafetz Hayyim. We don’t put much stock in words, vows or oaths these days. As the proverb says, “A verbal promise is not worth the paper it is printed on.” I have spoken in synagogue many times about this. We are so numbed by movies and the news of people who make promises and then break them, stranding or impoverishing hundreds of people, that we don’t trust anyone with their word. In ancient times, however, words meant a lot and a vow or oath taken in public, was as strong a bond as a written contract. There are still people today who fulfill their word even if it means a loss for them, but most people make big promises but later ask us to forgive them and release them from their oath.
Jewish Law is telling us two different, but related lessons. On the one hand, we should be prepared to follow through on our word. If we make a promise, vow or oath, we should not delay to fulfill it. If we borrow money and tell our friend, “I will pay you back tomorrow”, Than the repayment should be as early as possible in the day. If we promise to deliver merchandise or pick some one up at a certain time, we need to be there when we promise. If we are unsure of the time or the conditions, we should say it to our friends and associates up front, and not expect them to be patient with understanding or with us. Our word must be true.
On the other hand, when someone else makes a promise and we know that they can not keep it, or if a person makes a promise and we can clearly see that it was a big mistake and they are hurting because of it, we should be the ones forgiving and understanding. We should never force someone to hold to an oath if we know that they regret it. We should look for a way to get them off the hook with us without embarrassment or humiliation. This does not mean that we should look the other way when a merchant tries the “bait and switch” scam. It applies to those whom we know personally and who may, at some future time, need to be understanding with us as we were with them.
According to these Mitzvot, a merchant or businessperson who follows the sage advice to “promise little and deliver much” will not only be successful in their occupation but will be fulfilling the words of Torah as well. On the other hand, once we gain a reputation with others, (including, or maybe especially our children), that we do not fulfill our words, we can expect back much the same as we have delivered, we will be labeled as “untrustworthy” and we will have to do a tremendous amount of work to regain our good name.
This applies at all times and in every situation. It applies to our marriage, to our children, to our business, to our recreational activities and to our charitable works. We are wise to follow the advice of Pirke Avot, where the sage, Shammai says, “Say little and do much!”
Marjut Herzog asks: There are people who stand on the same corner for months, years even, asking for money. If one drives by every day should one give daily? Rabbi Konigsburg replies: While it is a Mitzvah to give Tzedakah, we always have a choice as to whom we will give. If you want to give to the same people every day, than you may. If you only want to give to them once a week or once a month, you can do that as well. If you do not feel that they are worthy of your contribution, either because they are not really needy or because they do well enough on that corner without your support, you can direct your contributions to the places where you fell it will do the most good. If you think there is no one in your family who is in need, you can give to someone in the community, if you feel that the community has supported the needy, you may direct your monies to other, more distant charities. You can give a proportion of your contributions to each category according to how you feel about their needs and your abilities.