By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari
At the very opening of this parshah all the laws of oaths and vows are
presented. Such oaths sanctify objects, possessions and acts. It is
difficult to understand how a human being has the ability through speech
to make something holy and thereby change its character and its nature.
This would seem to be something that only HaShem can do. Rabbi Jonah
teaches that one who guards their tongue transforms it into a vessel like
those used in the Temple service. Therefore, in the same way that these
vessels sanctified the offering put into them, so too the words that come
out of our mouths are holy and can sanctify an article or an object. The
ability given to the Jews to sanctify the months and thereby determine the
exact dates of the Holy Days was deduced similarly in the midrash from the
Temple vessels. Just as the vessel becomes holy because the priest
received into it a holy object, so too Israel who are holy, are able to
sanctify the months of the year.
We may wonder why of all the parts of the body, only the mouth has this
ability of sanctification. We read in Isaiah (43: 21)," This people I have
created for Myself; they will recite My praises". This is the whole
purpose of the creation of Mankind, but especially of Israel, His People.
In fulfillment of this purpose, the mouth becomes the means of kedusha. If
this is indeed the whole purpose of Mankind and especially of Israel, then
it is difficult to understand the statement by Rabbi Jonah, that it is
necessary to guard the tongue in order to be able to achieve it. The
teaching of Shimon Bar Yochai in the Yerushalmi, however, makes this very
clear. "If I would have been present at the giving of the Torah at Mount
Sinai I would have told G-d that Man should be created with two mouths;
One mouth for teaching Torah, prayer and wise speech, and another mouth
for slander, gossip and evil speech. However, I realize the Divine Wisdom
inherent in the Creation, since human beings would have spoken evil speech
and slander with both mouths." (Talmud, Berachot, Chapter1, halakha 2).
This should be seen in connection with the words of Rashi explaining that
a Temple vessel that had became impure, needs ritual immersion and
anointment with oil, since they had lost their purity (Avodah Zara52b). So
too, creation of two mouths would have caused the loss of purity of both
of them. That is why Rabbi Jonah taught that it is only by guarding the
mouth and the speech that it is possible to make them a holy vessel.
Without this, the mouth would become like a holy vessel that had lost its
sanctity and become impure.
The sages explained the verse in Tehillim (55:21), "and he stretched out
his hand against those who were at peace with him, he desecrated his
covenant," to refer to one who is guilty of sexual immorality, thereby
desecrating His Covenant. Joseph, who was able to preserve and maintain
this Covenant by his moral behavior, bequeathed this ability to the whole
House of Israel, so that they too are able to keep the covenant of sexual
morality. This is the answer to the Sadducee who asked Rabbi Kahane,
(Sanhedrin 37 a), "Is it possible that there is a flame within flax and
nothing is burnt?[Is it possible that given human sexuality, people are
able to refrain from sinning with regard to Niddah?]. When Pinchas at
Shittim, being zealous for the covenant of sexual morality, reinstated
this moral ability inherent in Israel, they rejected immorality
completely. The people rejected idolatry as well as sexual immorality and
therefore they were able to restore also the purity of their mouths and
thereby their speech; this enables them to make vows that confer holiness.
This is in keeping with the teaching of Rabbi Jonah that such purity can
only be achieved when the mouth is guarded.
Therefore, the laws of vows and oaths are brought after the story of
There are, however, two types of vows, one that consecrates something to
Heaven, thereby changing its status universally and another that makes the
object or action holy or obligatory only on the person making the vow. The
first type of the oath or vow is like actually giving something to the
Temple, thereby making it holy. Here, that holiness does not flow from the
speech of the individual but rather from the sanctity of the Temple
receiving the article or the object. However, in the case of the vow that
changes the status of the action or the article, only in respect to the
person making the oath or the vow, the sanctity that applies is a
consequence only of the speech of that person. It seems difficult to
understand how the second type of oath can exist. After all, something is
either sacred, in which case it applies to everybody or it is not sacred
for anybody. We can only understand how this is possible, if we realize
that in this respect there is a difference between Israel and the Nations
of the World. While both of them have the ability to take an oath creating
sanctity that will apply to everybody, only a Jew has the ability to make
something that is permitted to everybody else, but forbidden to that
individual. This flows from the difference in their sanctity. All Mankind
has a sanctity that flows from being part of the humanity created by God,
while in Israel, each individual has an additional and special
relationship; a relationship that flows from the Covenant between God and
Israel. By this relationship, each Jewish individual becomes a world or an
entity on their own, even as our sages in the Talmud taught, "One who
saves a single soul [life] in Israel, that is as though they saved a whole
world" (Sanhedrin, 37a). [There is an alternative version (Yerushalmi,
Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, Mishnah 9) without reference to Israel, making it
more universal. This is an expression of an ancient discussion as to the
universalism or particularism of Judaism]. It is this characteristic of
being a world in itself that gives every Jew the ability to create a
holiness that would apply only to that individual, as distinct from
Shem Mi Shmuel, 5670.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.