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   by Jacob Solomon

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Moses spoke to the leaders of the tribes… This is the thing that G-d commands. If a man makes a vow to G-d, or swears an oath… he shall not violate his word. All that he says he must do (30:2-3)

The laws on oaths form the only section of the Torah that Moses is recorded to have presented to the 'heads of the tribes', rather that to the more usual 'Israelites' or 'congregation of the Israelites'. What is the relevance of the 'leaders of the tribes' specifically to the laws of oaths?

In addition, the Torah lays down that once a man makes a vow he must carry it out. Yet the Talmud, quoted by Rashi, qualifies that statement. It brings the tradition that the words: 'This is the thing that G-d commands' means that a man's oaths may not be annulled, as a woman's in specific circumstances. Yet a man's oaths may in practice by circumvented by a different procedure - 'hatara' 'release'. It is where an expert in the laws of vows may free a person from the obligations of his vows. He can do it if he is satisfied that had the person concerned known the consequences of his vows, he would have never made them in the first place. That gives a much easier perspective on the laws of vows for all people, than the very harsh 'he shall not violate his word'. Why then is 'hatara' not specifically mentioned in the Torah?

In response, it may be suggested that the Torah emphasizes the 'leaders of the tribes' to include the 'leaders of the tribes' and for that matter, communal leaders for all time. For the following reason.

Appropriate direction and guidance is vital for the survival and flourishing of society. Leaders have to earn the trust and confidence of the communities and peoples that they serve. Otherwise they will be voted out of office in the next elections, or forced out through rebellion and revolution. And whether people seek office by running for votes or overthrowing the existing regime, they have one thing in common. They strive for the support of the public. And they do it by making promises - such as by means of a manifesto. [Sadly, even Hitler yimach shemo ve-zichro pledged to the Germans that he would have them back in work, with a high standard of living. And he kept their support because he did deliver the goods.]

Although commandment about vows applies to all, it is directed specifically at leaders for that reason. They must be seen to keep their promises to the public, or not only will they lose credibility, but leadership. The forces underneath them - such as the courts of justice - will have their authority diminished, being viewed cynically and doubtfully by the public. That is extremely dangerous - as the Talmud puts it: 'Pray for the welfare of the ruling authorities - if they are not feared and respected, people will swallow each other alive' (Ethics 3:2). They get their status in the long run by earning the trust of the public by been seen to keep their promises…

And that explains why 'hatara' is not mentioned in the Torah, but is only in tradition. A leader must never make a vow thinking that he has a legal loophole if his promises prove harder to keep than he envisaged before taking office. Taking that approach might technically get him out of his obligations to the public, but it is a bad thing morally - it will not only weaken his leadership, but the prestige of that office for any genuine person who might follow…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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