When a man makes a vow or oath, he dare not violate his word, for this
would be a violation of the Torah itself. The promise and commitment of a
human being, although independently arrived at, carries the weight of Torah
By what power can man place a prohibition on certain objects? For example:
a man determines that eating baked goods is an indulgence that leads him to
sin, and vows never to enter a bakery, or eat their wares. How can he
transform items that the Torah itself has permitted?
In our shiur this week, we will answer this question, explaining why a good
man must be as good as his word.
What is the difference between a Neder and a Shavua?
The Talmud explains that while Nedarim impose prohibitions on a particular
object, a Shavua is an obligation that man imposes upon himself - an 'Issur
Cheftza' vs. an 'Issur Gavra'.
The Ramban, quoting the Sifri, discusses this idea in a cryptic passage:
"What is the difference between Nedarim and Shavuos? - Nedarim is to vow by
the life of the king, while Shavuos is as if one swears by the king
himself." (Ramban, Bamidbar 30:3)
In disputing the view of Rashi, the Ramban posits that while an ordinary
oath cannot impact upon Torah requirements, a Neder overrides certain Torah
obligations. For example, one may vow never to build a Sukkah, or wear
Tefillin, and this Neder subsequently binds him.
"....and the secret is that Shavua is a language of 'Sheva' - seven, for
the 'home is built with seven hewn pillars', while a Neder is with
'Tevunah' - 'the origin of His works, preceding all His acts.' We find,
therefore, that a Neder can take effect even upon a Mitzva, as well as
common matters...." (Ramban, ibid.)
Seven is always synonymous with the natural cycle, and the oath of man
relates to the revealed world, one created in seven days. In that world,
Hashem has revealed right and wrong, and the individual preference of one
particular person cannot supersede G-d's command.
A Neder, however, reflects a deeper dimension, where man has the ability to
relate to G-d in his own unique way, notwithstanding the Torah given to all
of Israel. On this level, each person has his own contribution to make in
the realization of the Divine plan, and man sanctifies the object of his
Nedarim with his own word.
Let us explain.
Man's word is more than a means of communication. It is the expression of
an inner self, the vehicle by which his true identity emerges to the surface.
The average individual says much, but does little, and his words are often
empty pledges, uttered only to assuage the demands of his conscience. Once
the promise is made, he can now safely ignore his commitments,
rationalizing that he has already given his word. He will never admit that
subconsciously, his promise has no substance or staying power.
This is "Nidrei Reshaim" (Nedarim 9a) - a promise that will never come to
From the Torah's perspective, this is the sign of a wicked man, one who
distances himself from G-d, whose own sign and seal is Emes - absolute
truth. In contrast, the righteous man speaks little but does a lot, for he
never takes himself lightly. He understands that his words express his
essence, and he hopes to attach himself to the eternally unchanging Rock of
Ages, imitating His ways.
For this reason, a vow can be revoked only in special circumstances, such
as evidence that the promise undertaken was subject to another's authority,
or was otherwise unreflective of one's personal will. In both these cases,
this pledge cannot be binding, for it lacks the total commitment of
unyielding truth that is the hallmark of a valid Neder.
The perfect dedication of a Neder matches G-d's immutable word, and hence
every vow has a status similar to Torah law. While an ordinary Shavua
obligates man only to the extent that his words do not conflict with the
Torah, a Neder takes this concept one step further, granting independent
authority and a heavenly imprimatur to man's verbal expressions.
"What is the difference between Nedarim and Shavuos? - Nedarim is to vow by
the life of the king, while Shavuos is as if one swears by the king himself."
The 'king himself' is a reference to the body of the king, his physical
presence. A Shavua - related to 'Sheva' - reflects the seven stages of
creation, the means by which G-d the King finds expression in the revealed
world. Therefore, a Shavua is an 'Issur Gavra' - an obligation imposed upon
man, who is committed to act accordingly.
The laws of the Torah are likewise a revelation of G-d's will, giving
direction to mortal man, and defining the proper path, while prohibiting
the forbidden fruit. A Shavua does not go beyond this boundary, for it is
part of G-d's revealed world, the body of the king. This is the man who
succeeds in aligning himself with the truth of His word, both good and
evil, truth and falsehood, and he plays his part in faithfully carrying out
the king's command.
A Neder is someting more.
The Neder is the 'life of the king' - the inner spirit of man. As opposed
to the body of the king, which is an allusion to the physical actions in
the world of creation, a Neder touches a different dimension, one that lies
above our own. Chazal explain that the word Neder refers to 'Nun Dar' - a
place where the presence of G-d unites as one with creation. This is the
fiftieth gate which is concealed and unknown, the origin of all life.
In simpler terms: the Neder is a function of man's spirit and intellect,
and it is on this level that man has the ability to sanctify every object
in creation. As opposed to a Shavua, a Neder is an 'Issur Cheftza' - and
man's vow has the capability of transforming simple objects into Hekdesh.
Kedushah is brought to earth when man unifies his physical being with his
inner spirit. The material world - in and of itself - possesses no
sanctity, but becomes elevated only when man infuses his deeds with the
proper intent and inspiration. This is the unique capability of Nedarim -
the possibility of granting the status of Torah to even the mundane objects
of our own world.
As opposed to a Shavua, which merely insures that man will behave as he
must, every Neder is an expression of man at his best - reflecting the
height of his power - a Tzelem Elokim whose words equate with those of his
The goal and purpose of creation is the ultimate unification of G-d and His
world, where the singularity of One G-d is paralleled with the perfect
symmetry of a world that matches this total unity, faithfully expressing
The will of G-d is the 'life of the king', and when this will becomes
manifest in the world, the entire existence acquires life, purpose, and
direction. This is the trait of Malchus - and the man who successfully
translates his thought and pledge into actions, forever consistent in word
and deed, becomes a full partner in revealing the eternal kingdom, with
every object of his expression a vehicle of sanctity - a 'Cheftza' of
While the Mitzvos of the Torah relate to the physical world, providing a
path that defines both right, wrong, and every alternative in between, the
Neder is an element of a world of perfect unity, where G-d's will is the
only reality. Hence, the Neder is effective even when conflicting with the
Torah itself, for in the world of G-d there can be no conflict.
This is a world where the intent of G-d is destined to be revealed, for
whatever G-d says will be - "Hu Amar - VaYehi - He said - and it came to
be" (morning prayers)
The man who learns this lesson well appreciates the value of his speech and
the significance of his promise, and he strives to validate his life with
the word of G-d that echoes for eternity.