Chapter 3, Mishna 17(d)
When Religion Means War
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Akiva said, jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to
immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence for the Torah.
Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for
abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence."
This will be our fourth and final class on this mishna. Up until now we've
discussed R. Akiva's first two statements. Of the remaining three, two --
the third and the fifth -- are closely related to themes we've discussed
in the past. I will basically refer the reader to our previous
discussions. We will then, for the remainder of this class, discuss the
final remaining theme.
R. Akiva's third statement is that tithes -- separating the appropriate
quantities of our crops (or our paychecks for us white-collar employees) --
will assure our financial success. Our inclination would be to see
charity as a necessary evil -- as a decreasing of our savings, but as
necessary because of G-d's commandment and our moral obligation to
mankind. Yet the Sages tell us otherwise. Giving charity will increase our
wealth rather than decrease it. As we all know too well, G-d ultimately
controls our life savings; He holds the purse strings. He has more than
enough messengers to deny us our wealth if it is undeserved: the fridge
will go, a kid will need braces, an infirm parent will require large
amounts of medical or home care, G-d forbid. "Saving" money has little
bearing on how much we will ultimately be left with. Investing it
(especially today -- if you actually have anything left to invest) is
basically a lost cause. (Not to belittle making the proper effort. But
realize that the best investment we can possibly make involves giving that
deserved 10% to those in need.)
(3:8) we noted that this phenomenon of charity generating wealth went
even further. The Prophet Malachi exhorted the people to "test" G-d in
this: give more charity and see the results. In this one area we have
every right to expect that G-d will deliver on His promises. In that
class, we discussed the ramifications of this -- why here alone does G-d
allow us to test Him, something we do not see in any other area of
Judaism. Any of my readers is welcome to take the Pepsi challenge and try
this out, but for the complete discussion, please follow the link above!
Our mishna's final statement is the importance of silence as a means of
acquiring wisdom. Our purpose in study should not be to make ourselves
heard or impress others with our acumen. It is to humbly absorb knowledge
ourselves. And for this there is no better means than silence. We
discussed this at greater length at the end of Chapter 1, please see our
We finally arrive at R. Akiva's second-to-last statement and the last we
will deal with -- that vows are a protective fence for abstinence. Vows,
their fulfillment and their annulment are lengthy and complex topics in
Jewish law. Simply speaking, we have the ability to bind upon ourselves
new obligations or restrictions beyond that which the Torah requires or
forbids. For example, a person may swear he will fast tomorrow, bring this
animal as a Temple offering, adhere to his diet, etc. and the act he
commits to will become a Torah obligation, or the item he forbids will
become as forbidden to him as pig. A do-it-yourself prohibition. And our
mishna appears to recommend such a practice as a means of ensuring we keep
ourselves in line.
In truth, however, the Torah generally frowns on oath-taking. Deuteronomy
23:23 writes: "If you refrain from taking an oath, you will not bear a
sin." Why take the risk of obligating yourself with a promise you may not
keep -- possibly for reasons beyond your control? The Talmud likewise
states, "Whoever takes a [voluntary] oath, even if he fulfills it, is
called sinful" (Nedarim 77b). There is no reason to take undue risks. We
learned earlier that one should "say little and do much". If you
want to perform great deeds, do them! And if you cannot, keep
quiet! But what is gained by making magnanimous promises which you might
not be able to fulfill when the time comes?
Further, in the case of restrictive oaths, the Torah does not really
recommend that we make our lives unduly difficult with additional
restrictions. The Talmud states it so well: "The Torah hasn't forbidden
enough already that you want to add to it?!" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim
9:1). Judaism places quite enough restrictions on us, thank you.
Attempting to be more pious than the Pope (the High Priest?) may simply be
If so, how are we to understand our mishna which seems to encourage oath-
taking? Our mishna is presumably discussing a person who wants to refrain
from inappropriate behavior, and who places upon himself vows towards that
end. To understand, we must define what type of improper behavior our
mishna refers to (for again, if it's permissible, why should we be
restricting ourselves?) and why at times one is permitted to go so far as
the risky approach of taking an oath.
In Numbers Chapter 6 (1-21) the Torah discusses the Nazir. A Nazir is a
man or woman who takes a special type of oath, forbidding upon himself a
number of activities -- drinking wine, cutting his hair, and coming into
contact with ritually unclean objects, such as a corpse. (The long-haired
Judge Samson was a type of Nazir. See Judges 13-16.) At first blush, we
would assume the Nazir is a person of superior holiness, one who separates
himself even from certain permissible pleasures and spiritual impurity.
The Torah does not require this behavior of all of us but offers
this "advanced track" to someone looking for higher levels of piety.
But it is not so simple. The Talmud (Ta'anis 11a) is far more ambivalent
about our oath-taking teetotaler. Numbers 6:11 writes that the Nazir must
at times bring certain Temple offerings, and he must do so "for he has
sinned against a soul." The Talmud asks, "Against whose soul did he sin?
[His own -- ] for he denied himself wine." Again, if the Torah does not
forbid wine, why should this fellow invent transgressions? On the other
hand, G-d did include the section of the Nazir in the Torah. Why
does G-d allow a person to take such vows if He does not care for
such abstinence in the first place?
The answer is that vows are considered drastic action. We should not
normally need them -- they are both risky and overly restrictive -- but
some people have no choice. Say a person cannot handle alcohol. He knows
he has a problem. Telling himself, cajoling himself, knowing how
detrimental liquor is to himself, his family, his career, and his life
just do no good. He is an addict; he is out of control. He is incapable of
trusting himself to make rational decisions. The normal avoidance and
moderation that is sufficient for the healthy individual is for him a
waste of time. He needs drastic action.
And so the Torah created the concept of vows. Such a person can
forbid liquor upon himself, making it in the eyes of the Torah the
equivalent of pig. He has created a new restriction -- he has gone beyond
the bounds of what even our Torah forbids -- but he had to. For he needed
a vow. He needed to trek that dangerous path towards improvement --
because it would just not happen any other way.
Perhaps this is part of the idea behind the Nazir as well. He too realizes
he is addicted to pleasure -- even to such permissible pleasures as wine
or the simple grooming of his hair. Such pleasures do not simply allow him
to enhance his enjoyment of life, as they should. They control him. He
lives for pleasure. He realizes it has to stop but is helpless to do
anything about it.
And so, the Torah created the Nazirite Vows. But the Torah went further.
It forbade the Nazir not only to drink wine, but to consume any product
remotely related to the vine: grape juice, grape skins, raisins, raisin
bran, even a grape Nehi. ;-) And the message is clear: If you want to get
yourself under control, go to the absolute opposite extreme. Don't go
anywhere near a bottle; don't consume anything even remotely reminiscent
of wine. Take drastic action: take an oath. You can't be "normal" about
this; you cannot drink in moderation. You are fighting a war.
As is often the case, the Torah deals with specifics, but the message for
us is far from specific. If we cannot control ourselves in certain ways,
if we have a weakness, a craving or addiction, we must go to the opposite
(Mishne Torah Hil' De'os 2:2) writes that one
who cannot control his anger must make himself into a doormat. He must
never argue, raise his voice, or talk back -- even when perfectly
justified. If he allows himself to get started, there's no telling what
kind of damage he will do to himself and to others, how quickly
relationships which took years to nurture will be destroyed. If, however,
he adopts the opposite practice, it will slowly become second nature to
him (for how we act eventually becomes who we are), and ultimately he will
attain that golden middle.
At the conclusion of the section of the Nazir, the Torah discusses the
procedure the Nazir must undergo at the completion of his period of
abstention. The Torah then concludes, "and afterwards, the Nazir may drink
wine" (v. 20). R. Moshe Alshich (of 16th Century Tzefas, Israel) asks in
his commentary: Why does the Torah still refer to him as "the Nazir"?
Didn't he just complete his vow? Isn't he now an ordinary individual? We
might even call it a contradiction in terms to write "the *Nazir* may
R. Alshich answers that ideally, even after the Nazir's oath is concluded,
he should remain a Nazir -- not literally, but in spirit. Now that he has
conquered his addiction, now that wine does not control him, he may
partake -- and in fact he should enjoy that which G-d has granted us in
this world. But it should still be in the spirit of the Nazir. He is not
enjoying this world because he lives for it or because it controls him. He
enjoys this world because G-d has given us a beautiful world. For a
healthy individual, there is no reason to add restrictions the Torah did
not forbid. The physical pleasures of life can be enjoyed and can increase
the recovered Nazir's appreciation of the G-d who has granted them. And in
that spirit, "shall he drink wine."
(As an important postscript, after sending out a previous version of this
class, a medical student wrote back to me saying that current medical
opinion is that the recovered alcoholic should *never* dabble with spirits
again -- for his old ways may readily return. I therefore quote the
Alshich's comment not as a practical statement of guidance for recovering
alcoholics but as an accurate statement of man's ideal relationship with
the pleasures of this world.)
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.