Matot (Tribes)

Numbers 30:2 to 32:42

Torah tells us that a father or husband has control of his daughter or wife and can annul any vows she makes. But with a closer examination we can see how and why this law no longer applies in today’s world.


Wedding in Israel

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying; ‘This is what the Eternal has commanded:’”

“If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:2-3)

That’s it for vows made by men. But, for women, the law is different. But, before we look at the women’s laws, let’s pause and define what vows and oaths actually are…. and see how and why the practice of vows and oaths have changed.

Vow – This promise involves the prohibition of an object. … I vow not to eat cookies or cakes for the next month. Here the object is cookies and cakes.

Oath – This promise involves an action … I swear to not eat on Mondays next month. Here the act of not eating is forbidden.

For the sake of a person’s conscience, both vows and oaths are the same and can be used almost interchangeably. When we look at these promises from a Biblical perspective, they take on a greater significance. From the beginning of Torah, words had power. The Eternal created the world with words. Words that we utter can also have power… a power that, by God’s laws regarding vows and oaths, can’t be broken. (Definition of vows and oaths from In the Image of God – A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, Judith Antonelli, p. 383-4)

So, as in the Bible, the spoken word can have power. Even recently, traditional Jews still take the power of uttering or making vows very seriously. These traditional Jew will not make the slightest promise — “I’ll come to your party.” — without adding the disclaimer, blip neder, (translated – No vow intended.) (The Women’s Torah Commentary, Edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, p. 316-7)

Today, for most people, the concept of vows and oaths is a thing of the past…. But, “keeping one’s word” is still important. The person who “keeps his word” has a greater respect than one who doesn’t.

Tradition holds that a vow or oath can be revoked by the agreement of three people, not including one’s self, or a single “learned man.” This was the “out” for commitments that could be harmful.

Now, turning to the law of vows and oaths relating to women’s rights, Torah places many restrictions on the power of women to make vows.

A minor could not make a vow. That said, Torah understands a minor to be any male under thirteen and any female under twelve. A day after a boy’s thirteenth birthday, he becomes an adult with the power to make vows and oaths. With the female, it was different… From age twelve to twelve years and six months, she was naarah (an adolescent … or in the ancient world this meant “in puberty” – a period in which she would generally be betrothed.) At age twelve years, six months – plus one day – she became bogeret – an independent adult able to make vows without challenge.

The woman’s father could annul any vow his daughter made on the day he heard it…. And only on that day. After that day, the vow remained in effect. But it is important to note that the father could do this only between the time she became an naarah (twelve -considered an adolescent.) and the time she became bogeret (an adult)…. A period of only six months. After she became engaged… and then married… her husband “had the responsibility” for her and could annul her vows or oaths. So, between ages twelve years, and six months and until a women’s engagement, a women was a free and independent adult.

A widow or divorced women, like the bogeret, was also an independent woman not under any man’s control. Her vows and oaths were also binding.

If a women made a vow, and her father or husband annulled it (within the day) she was not forced to do the act that she vowed to prohibit. She could still perform the action of the vow … but if the vow was broken, it was not a sin — as with a broken vow.

How are these laws viewed in the contemporary world?

In Torah there are several types of laws…. First, there are laws that are in effect for all time, regardless of social change. Examples include work on the Sabbath, adultery, and dietary law…. Then, there are laws that have been ignored or no longer are in effect. Examples are the rapist had to pay fifty shekels and marry his victim and the disobedient son who is no longer stoned.

The question becomes which category does the male authority of a woman’s vow fall? In many cases, Torah states that a law is “for all time.” The laws regarding a women’s vow conclude with the statement “These are the statutes.” (Numbers 30:17) The rest of the phrase “for all time” is significantly absent. The general rule is that a father or husband has the power to annul his daughter’s or wife vows because “she is in his control.” Once a woman is bogeret (independent) … even for one hour… she can make and keep her vow without any control of a father….Until she became engaged or married. Then she was under the control of her husband and, again could have the vows annulled by a male.

Rabbis have seen that the institution of marriage has changed over the past century. A women no longer moves from her father’s home to her husband’s home. The husband and wife set up their own home. They live together in a partnership.

But, with twelve and thirteen year old girls… they are still in their father’s home and still considered under his authority. No one is suggesting that drinking or voting laws be lowered to twelve years and six months for girls. Today, the age of eighteen – or twenty-one is considered adulthood.

Once an adult, a women today is considered independent. She is not getting married for the protection of a husband. Marriage is for “love.” Marriage is a partnership…. With husband and wife sharing equally. Neither should be in command. Times have changed and so has the interpretation of the intent of the laws of vows and oaths. Women are independent and free to make vows, oaths… and decisions regarding their lives. And in reality, these laws should no longer be in effect. So, here we see an example of how and why the laws of Torah change … maybe not in the actual text of each week’s parsha, but in the real world and the interpretation of the law. Yes, Torah is a living document that can and does change to reflect the reality of the world in which it exists.

Earl Sabes

Photo courtesy of: PikiWiki – Israel Free Image Collection Project

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