Creative Vows

Parshas Matos

This parsha begins with an analysis of Nedarim and applicable laws. One who makes a vow proscribes for himself something generally permitted. “I vow,” he states,”that I will no longer eat doughnuts”. From that statement forward, doughnuts become a forbidden food for him, as indeed lobster and shrimp are forbidden. He has taken upon himself a constraint with all the force of a Torah commandment. That which was allowed, is now denied him. It is a new statute, even if binding only on him. The Gemara advises that one who makes an oath, and neglects it, is punished with the death of his minor children.


In the Earthly Courts, lashes are meted out to punish one who is lax in his vows. Why is the Heavenly consequence for forgetting a neder so severe? Whatever deprivation one pledged is “extra credit,” positively taken in order to grow, to improve. This was not something that he was obligated to do. Why then is he so severly punished? 


Man has a G-d-like ability to create. This is reflected in both the spiritual and the physical realms. The highest creative power a person has in the corporeal dimension, is not building skyscrapers, but to replicate oneself, to produce children. In the spiritual arena, one can actually create by changing something’s nature and status from permitted to prohibited.  If one abuses the power of development in the celestial domain, his power to create in the physical realm is curtailed.


High voltage lines come with a cautionary sign, for they can bring great destruction as well as extensive power. So too, our creativity is labelled “CAUTION: Grievous harm results from misuse.” We have been endowed with abundant capabilities. These abilities bring with them tremendous responsibility. 


A childless man once came to Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky (1899-1985, known as “the Steipler”) for a bracha.  Having spent many years being blessed by various rabbis, the man was no longer satisfied with a bracha alone.  He pressed the Steipler to promise him that he will have a child. Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel refused to accede to his request.  Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel returned to his learning, yet still the man remained.  Some time passed.  “What do you want of me?” asked the Steipler. ” Why don’t you leave?”
“A promise!” the man answered.
“No, I cannot promise!” insisted Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel. “I cannot give promises!”
The man would not give up, and was so distracting the Steipler, that the latter told him to leave at once. “Hashem should help you and you will soon have a child!” he concluded.

A year later, this man returned in a far different frame of mind, to ask Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel to participate as Sandek in his son’s bris.  This man’s father-in-law wondered why Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel was chosen for this honor, and he was not. The father replied that it was due to the Steipler’s promise that the baby was born.

When the grandfather asked about the miracle that followed this promise, the Steipler replied ” When the father refused to leave, I gave him a bracha of sorts and returned to my learning. Later on, I realized that the wording may have construed as an unconditional promise. My son Rabbi Chaim (1928 – ) suggested that I pray for him.  I stayed awake until morning, reciting the whole of Tehillim. There really was no miracle – the gates of prayer were open.”
The grandfather replied “There is an impressive miracle in this: that one Jew should stay up all night reciting Tehillim for another!”

Weekly Halacha

One should not use a toilet disinfectant which colors the water.


  1. Your explanation finally satisfied an uneasy feeling I always experienced about this matter, why such an extraordinarily severe ‘consequence’ for breaking a vow. I now understand it is a logical consequence! But is it just for this specific type of vow, i.e. forbidding something permitted? Thanks!

    • Vow is an English word which doesn’t capture the essence of a Neder. A Neder is an Issur Cheftzeh which means the item is transformed into a prohibited object. This is in contrast to a Shevuoh which is an Issur Gavra a obligation on the person. It thus follows that a Neder can only be forbidding something permitted. We do find a Neder to give charity but that has nothing to do with Parshas Matos style Nedarim.

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