Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 18 July 2020 / 26 Tammuz 5780

Value of a Vow

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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A vow has the power to create new obligations and prohibitions. For example, a vow designating an animal for a holy purpose creates a prohibition against using it for the mundane. In the case of a personal vow, a new obligation - a personal mitzvah - is created with binding force. Consequently, there are many laws regarding validity, fulfillment and annulment of vows. But one may wonder: Why the vow? Would it not be simpler to merely bring the animal as a sacrifice without the vow, or perform or refrain from the designated act without the commitment?

Our Sages disagree as to whether it is preferable to vow to bring an offering before bringing it, or to bring the offering without the preceding vow. However, the root of the disagreement is not about whether there is value to the vow per se. The only factor that makes a vow suspect is that something may get in the way of its fulfillment. If one could be sure of its execution, then all would agree that a vow is preferable.

Why is this so?

Rav Hirsch points out that, unlike any other mitzvah, the laws regarding vows take effect even before the age of maturity - one year before a boy turns thirteen and one year before a girl turns twelve - provided that they understand that they have made this vow to Hashem. There is a deep psychological basis for this law. In the case of other mitzvahs, the obligation comes only at the age of maturity, when the child’s intelligence is sufficient to warrant the imposition of responsibility. However, there is great significance to the resolutions a youth makes approaching the age of maturity. These are resolutions, uttered secretly, known only to G-d, but they are often decisive for a lifetime. Such vows are statements of purpose and of goals, the ripening of which will happen with maturity. The verbal commitment of a youth is received with loving seriousness, as long as the youth knows it is to G-d that he vows, because it is a commitment that is to ripen into a relationship that will then yield more fruit.

Commitment, then, has spiritual value independent of fulfillment. We need look no further than the Israel’s acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai to see this truth: G-d presented us with the opportunity to first commit — “We will do, and we will hear” — and only then, to put into practice. Both stages have relationship value. This is also why when someone intends to do a mitzvah, but is prevented from doing so, he is still rewarded. The “reward” — the increased relationship with Hashem — has already taken root.

Our human interactions are no different. When actions are preceded by thought, planning and verbal commitment, they are laden with deeper relationship meaning. There is much value to a vow.

§ Source: Based on the Hirsch Commentary, Bamidbar 30:4

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