Talmidav Shel Aharon
28-5768: Mitzvah N-31
July 15, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 31 – This is a negative commandment: do not swear an oath of expression over a falsehood.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “and you shall not swear by my name falsely.” (Lev. 19:12). This is called an oath of expression. A person is punishable for this if he takes a [false] oath over things that are possible to do, whether in the future or the past. For example, “That I ate” or “I threw a stone into the sea.”or that so and so spoke to so and so” “that I did not eat” or “I did not throw a stone into the sea” or “so and so did not talk to so and so”. And in the future: for example, “ That I shall eat,” or “I shall not eat” or “I will throw a pebble or stone into the sea” or “I will not throw.” If a person swore to one of these statements, he would violate this prohibition. It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
In keeping with the theme of the importance of words, we have the rules about more standard oaths. When one would offer an oath, it would include the Name of G-d and would be spoken in the presence of the court or witnesses. The value of this oath was to testify about something when another witness was not present or about an intention that no one else can know. The examples here are the mundane activities of life. We don’t go around looking for witnesses every time we want to do something. We go to lunch, talk to those around us and take little notice of it until it becomes important. When someone else gets into trouble, we want to help if we can.
The reminder here is that we are forbidden to speak a falsehood even about the most mundane activity. G-d’s name is involved and we have to be meticulous about how we use that name. If we know that we are being asked to swear to something, even in the future, we have to make sure that we only speak what is true. Maybe you meant to eat but for some reason you didn’t eat that meal that day. Maybe you always see two people together for lunch but you are not sure that on the particular day in question, they were in their usual seat. Just because you always go on a picnic in the park during the summer, does not mean that you can swear that you will be in the park this coming weekend since weather and a host of family issues could prevent this from happening.
Do we really remember what we had for lunch last Tuesday? Even if we always eat at the same sandwich shop, are we sure that last Tuesday was the exception, or perhaps this coming Tuesday will be different. You could get sick, the office could close early, the diner could burn down. This mitzvah teaches us to watch our words and make sure that we don’t swear to something that, later, could prove to be wrong or false. This would damage our reputation and would damage G-d’s reputation as well. We need to keep our daily dairy current and refer back to it before we invoke it before we take any oaths.
The later Rabbis did not like oaths for this reason. It is too easy to make a false oath like these and they would undermine the entire legal system. Better to avoid as many oaths as possible.