Talmidav Shel Aharon
27-5768: Mitzvah N-29
May 26, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 29 – This is a negative commandment: Do not swear in vain.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your G-d in vain.” (Ex. 20:7). A vain oath is divided into four categories: 1. If one swears to a change in something known: for example, if he swears about a man that he is a woman or about a stone that it is gold. 2. if he swears to no purpose; for example, he takes an oath about a stone that it is a stone. 3. If he takes an oath to fail to observe a mitzvah. 4. If he swears to do something which is impossible to fulfill; for example, that he will not sleep for three days in a row, or that he will taste no food for seven days in a row. Over every one of these oaths, if he swore it willfully, he should receive whiplashes; and if it was unwittingly, he is free of penalty. If someone says a benediction in vain [needlessly] or he utters the name of G-d to no purpose, he violates the injunction, “You shall not take the name f the Lord your G-d in vain.” It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
When it comes to using G-d’s name, there are two possible uses. One is to invoke holiness and the other is using it improperly for shock value. The purpose of a vain oath is either for its shock value or else we have to assume that this person is a fool. Let’s take a look at the four examples. In the first case, he does not have to swear at all. Anyone can see for themselves what the correct answer is. Why should he have to use G-d’s name to prove that a man is a woman or a stone is really gold? It is easy to prove him right or wrong without his taking an oath. An oath would only be necessary if there was no other way to know the status; For example, if the person in question was missing at sea or if the stone in question were lost.
In the second case he is taking an oath about something that is already known to everyone. A proper oath would be to testify about something that nobody else would know. The testimony is the only proof of that can be obtained. If everyone knows the information and it is accepted by the court as true, then what reason would he have to swear in G-d’s name? In the third case, he is taking an oath to disobey the law. He thus gets stuck in a dilemma, should he keep the law, he breaks his oath (and the law), if he keeps his oath he has broken the law. The mitzvah is more important and the oath is in vain. Finally, in the last case, the oath is in vain because it can never be fulfilled. It is one thing to promise to give ten percent to charity if one wins a million dollars. This is a legitimate oath. But if he promises to give a million dollars to charity and does not have that kind of money to give, then the oath is in vain. All of these oaths are vain oaths. They are not only a waste of time, breath and court resources, but there is no holiness that comes from them. It is only the shock value of making such an oath and this is the sin involved.
We see the same issues arise at the end of the teaching, when it is extended to blessings or curses. There are some who interpret this prohibition against blessings broadly, explaining that you can only say a blessing one time. Such people get themselves in trouble if they forget if they said the blessing or not or discover that they may or may not have said it correctly. I prefer to keep this interpretation narrow. It is not an issue to me if one forgets if the blessing was said to say it over. The intention of the blessing remains the same; to bring holiness into the moment of prayer. If one is teaching a blessing than it is also permitted to say the blessing over and over again to learn it properly. If one has said the blessing and then leads others in the same blessing, I still believe that holiness is still being brought into the world. If one is making fun of the blessings or is mindlessly repeating it over and over this would be a violation of this mitzvah. (This is why we don’t make popular music out of the words of a blessing).
Cursing through the use of G-d’s name, with its ability to shock and without any aspect of holiness, is always a sin.
I should also mention that these laws do not apply to every name of G-d. There are actually dozens of names for G-d that appear in sacred literature. There are only seven names whose use is regulated by this mitzvah, and only the Hebrew words make one liable. This includes the four letter name of G-d that is never pronounced as well as Elohim and Shaddai. These names, in Hebrew, must be not be destroyed but placed in a Geniza (a special place for sacred texts) and may not be used in vain.