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Nedarim, Shevuos, Alah

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1 Nedarim, Shevuos, Alah on Fri Jul 05, 2013 2:48 pm

While this is actually on this week's parsha, I'm hoping it's relevant for people learning Nedarim as well. (There are some formatting issues.) Comments are welcome:

Neder, Shevuah, and Alah

1) Neder vs. Shevuah
במדבר ל(ג-ה)   אִישׁ כִּי־יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לה' אוֹ־הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל־נַפְשׁוֹכו'. וְאִשָּׁה כִּי־תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לה' וְאָסְרָה אִסָּרכו'. וְשָׁמַע אָבִיהָ אֶת־נִדְרָהּ וֶאֱסָרָהּ אֲשֶׁר אָסְרָה עַל־נַפְשָׁהּ וְהֶחֱרִישׁ לָהּ אָבִיהָ וְקָמוּ כָּל־נְדָרֶיהָ וְכָל־אִסָּר אֲשֶׁר־אָסְרָה עַל־נַפְשָׁהּ יָקוּם.
(Bamidbar 30(3-5)) When a person makes a vow to Hashem, or swears an oath to forbid something to himself... Or a woman who makes a vow to Hashem, or swears to forbid... If her father hears of the vow, or the oath to forbid on herself, and is silent to her, and [thereby] establishes her vows, or her oaths to forbid on herself...
And so on through the section. Pretty much every sentence mentions this pair: a vow, and an oath to forbid.
A reader could be forgiven for thinking that these two must be pretty similar things, variations on a theme. But that is not true. They are almost completely unrelated topics.
I hope the reader will in turn forgive me for giving some of the very basic background on the subject; it’s just that I’ve seen people get very confused.

A neder (English “vow”) is generally a promise of a gift to Hashem. It is used literally dozens of times in the Torah, usually about korbonos. A person takes something that is his, and turns it over to become holy, הקדש.
In this parsha the Torah introduces an interesting variation: A person can forbid himself (or sometimes others) the use of a thing, איסור הנאה, without actually giving it to hekdesh. It is still called here a נדר לה, and according to the gemara in Nedarim is actually often done by saying that the object is “קרבן” to him. It is ideally a tool for a person to control his desires: see the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Nedarim and Hilchos Nazir.

A shevuah (English “oath”): That is a way of making words stronger, of forcing them to be true. This is something that people have needed to do since time immemorial, either to convince others or to control their own will to do something else. There are dozens of shevuos in Torah and in Tanach for many purposes, inside and out of court.
The standard language of a shevuah is חי ה, though there are many variations. See Sefer Hachinukh mitzvah 30, who explains that there is no truth greater than the truth of Hashem, and no way for a person to make his words true than by linking them to his belief in that truth.
This is why the Rambam includes in ספר המצות, in the section on יסודי התורה, fundamentals of faith, to swear in the name of Hashem (עשה ז), and not to swear in the name of any other gods (ל"ת י"ד). And this is why we say in עלינו, “To you shall every knee bend, and every tongue swear.” It is a matter of showing the greatness of Hashem in the eyes of all.

The interesting thing about the beginning of Parshas Matos is that these two very different concepts - which can apply in areas that have nothing to do with one another - find a region of overlap. A person has two different ways to control his problematic desire for cheesecake. He can make a neder, thereby making cheesecake like הקדש, off-limits to himself. Or he can say, “I don’t eat cheesecake: I swear” - making an oath to bind himself to fulfilling his words. While the prohibition of לא יחל דברו, not profaning his word, applies to pretty much any neder or shevuah, the Torah chooses this type of example as its illustration.

2) Generalized shevuah
Even though the Torah has a standard form of shevuah, as explained by the Sefer Hachinukh, the basic elements of an oath can be more general. It needs two things: (a) words that need to be true, and (b) something that will force them to be true. A penalty clause. In the standard shevuah, the truth is forced by connection to the person’s own belief in Hashem. But let us see other ways in Tanach and Chazal by which people enforce their own statements:
רות א(יז) כֹּה יַֽעֲשֶֹה ה‘ לִי וְכֹה יֹסִיף כִּי הַמָּוֶת יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵֽךְ
Ruth 1(17) “Thus may Hashem do to me, and more - if even death will divide us.” (a curse)
בראשית מב(לז)   וַיֹּאמֶר רְאוּבֵן אֶל־אָבִיו לֵאמֹר אֶת־שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית אִם־לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ כו
B’reishis 42(37) “Reuven said to his father, Kill my two sons - if I don’t bring him back to you.”
שם מג(ט) אִם־לֹא הֲבִֽיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים
and B’reishis 43(9) “[Yehudah said] If I don’t bring him to you and before you - I will have sinned to my father all my days.” (threat of excommunication; see the Ramban on both these verses, and Makkos 11b.)
יהנה סם המות באחד מבניה של אותה אשה אם נהניתי מדינרך כלום (גיטין לה)
Gittin 35a “May one of my sons die of poison - if I have had any benefit from one dinar of yours.” (a curse)
קונם שאיני נהנה לך אם אי אתה נוטל לבנך כור של חיטין כו‘ (נדרים כד)
Nedarim 24a “Neder that I will have no הנאה from you - if you do not give your son a kor of wheat.” Here the kor of wheat is the statement he wants to be true, and the neder (that presumably the other does not want) is the penalty clause. Here he is trying to enforce his word even against the other person’s free choice - which would be a שבועת שוא for a regular shevuah.
נדרים נז• במשנה ז“ל שאת נהנית לי עד הפסח אם הולכת את לבית אביך עד החג עכ“ל
Nedarim 57a “Neder that you will have no הנאה from me until Pesach, if you go to your father’s house before Sukkos.” A threat to control his wife...
There are other similar examples in various mishnayos.
See Rabbeinu Yonah on Avos 3(13), נדרים סייג לפרישות, who recommends a similar kind of indirect oath, that if I fail at my goal, I will pay some kind of (small) penalty; it is a training tool with less disastrous consequences of failure than a regular shevuah.
וכמה שנים תמה הייתי על דברי גדולי האחרונים (ע' גינת וורדים ורע"א) על הרמב“ם בפיה“מ למס‘ נדרים ספ“א, בא“ד ודע שאם אמר לכשאדבר עמך או אלך עמך, או מכיו"ב מדברים שאין בהם ממש, הרי עלי קרבן, הרי הוא מחויב קרבן כשידבר עמו. ולא נאמר על זה נדרים אין חלין אלא עד דבר שיש בהם ממש, שזה הולך בדרך השבועה. אבל הנדרים שרמז עליהם הוא שיאסר עצם הפעולה או שיעשה איזה דבר שיהיה כמו קרבן, זהו שלא יחול אלא על דבר שיש בו ממש כו‘ אבל כו‘ הרי עלי קרבן כו‘ לפי שהוא מין ממיני השבועה כו‘ ע“ש כל דבריו. והקשו עליו הרבה, איך להיות שזו שבועה, ועוד שסתר עצמו וחזר מזה בהלכות שלו וכו.
אבל לכאורה כוונתו מבואר כנ“ל, שרצה האדם לאמת דבריו שלא ידבר עמו או שלא ילך עמו, ע“י קנס של קרבן אם יעבור, ולכן קרא הרמב“ם בשם שבועה היינו שבועה כללית אע“ג שאינה שבועת התורה ממש, וממילא אין ענין לדברים שאין בהם ממש, שנדר שלו להביא קרבן וודאי יש בו ממש, ותו לא מידי.
במדבר ה(כ-כא) וְאַתְּ כִּי שָֹטִית תַּחַת אִישֵׁךְ כו‘ וְהִשְׁבִּיעַ הַכֹּהֵן אֶֽת־הָֽאִשָּׁה בִּשְׁבֻעַת הָֽאָלָה וְאָמַר הַכֹּהֵן לָֽאִשָּׁה יִתֵּן ה‘ אוֹתָךְ לְאָלָה וְלִשְׁבֻעָה בְּתוֹךְ עַמֵּךְ בְּתֵת ה‘ אֶת־יְרֵכֵךְ נֹפֶלֶת וְאֶת־בִּטְנֵךְ צָבָֽה.
Bamidbar 5(20-21) “And if you have turned aside from your husband... The cohen makes her swear an oath of a curse, and says to the woman, Hashem should make you a curse and an oath in your people, by making your thigh fall and your belly swell...”
For the Sotah, it is not enough to strengthen her words with a regular oath, or curse. To return the trust of her husband, the Torah needs to strengthen her words enormously, with a miraculous punishment of death in pain and humiliation if she lies.

By the way, it is not clear to me whether strengthening one’s word by a monetary penalty counts as a type of generalized oath. For example,
ב“מ קד• אם אוביר ולא אעביד אשלם במיטבא
Bava Metzia 104a “If I do not work your land - I will pay you full damages.”
One good case is in this week’s parsha, the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven. Moshe Rabbeinu says to them
במדבר לב(כד) וְהַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיכֶם תַּֽעֲשֹֽוּ
Bamidbar 32(24) “Do that which came out of your mouths.”
This is the same wording “היוצא מפיו” which is used for a neder or a shevuah in our parsha. It doesn’t sound like a simple monetary choice: If you do this, we’ll give you the land you want. If you do that, you’ll have to take land you don’t want with the rest of us: whichever. Rather, it sounds as if they made a promise, and they are expected to live up to it - and of course there is a penalty clause to help them decide properly.

3) Alah

דברים כז(כו) אָרוּר אֲשֶׁר לֹֽא־יָקִים אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּאת כו‘. ופירש“י כאן כלל את כל התורה כולה, וקבלוה עליהם באלה ובשבועה.
Devarim 27(26) “Cursed is he who does not establish the words of this Torah...” (Rashi - here is included the entire Torah - and they accepted it on themselves with alah and shevuah.)
כט(ט-כ) אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כו‘ לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית ה‘ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְאָֽלָתוֹ כו‘ וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָֽנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָֽאָלָה הַזֹּֽאת. וְהָיָה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הָֽאָלָה הַזֹּאת כו‘ וְרָבְצָה בּוֹ כָּל־הָאָלָה הַכְּתוּבָה בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה כו‘ וְהִבְדִּילוֹ ה‘ לְרָעָה מִכֹּל שִׁבְטֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל כְּכֹל אָלוֹת הַבְּרִית כו
29(9-11) “You are standing here today... to pass into a covenant of Hashem, and his alah... Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this alah... And when that man hears the words of this alah... Every alah written in this book will land on him... Hashem will single him out for bad, from all the tribes of Israel, with all the alos of this covenant...”
ל(ז)   וְנָתַן ה‘ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵת כָּל־הָֽאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶיךָ כו
30(7) “Hashem will place all these alos on your enemies...”

Onkelos normally translates אָלָה as “מלטטיא”, which is a word for curse. But from its uses, we can see that אלה doesn’t just mean a curse - it means a curse to strengthen an oath. This is the penalty clause. (The word אלה actually means “club” in Shabbos perek 6 mishnah 4.) And therefore sometimes Onkelos translates the word as מומתא, which is his standard word for shevuah. For instance, Avraham said to his servant
בראשית  כד(ח) וְאִם־לֹא תֹאבֶה הָֽאִשָּׁה לָלֶכֶת אַֽחֲרֶיךָ וְנִקִּיתָ מִשְּׁבֻֽעָתִי כו.
Breishis 24(8) “If the woman does not want to come after you, you are free of my oath.”
But when Eliezer reports the conversation to Rivka’s family, he says
(מא) וְאִם־לֹא יִתְּנוּ לָךְ וְהָיִיתָ נָקִי מֵאָֽלָתִֽי.
(41) If they will not give her over to you, you shall be free from my alah.”
Onkelos translates both the same, as מומתא. (And see Shevuos 35b on the subject.)

Of course, a person can accept several types of “club” at once, and in fact often in Tanach we see someone accepting a curse on himself, when it is clear to us that he means to accept the regular shevuah of the Torah - for example the language of כה יעשה ה‘ וכה יוסיף that is found so often.

In a later section I hope to discuss ברית, covenant, and how it fits in with these categories.

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