Numbers 30:2 to 36:13
In a discussion of vows – promises to God to perform a specific act, give a gift, or make a sacrifice – Torah states that a father or husband has control over the vows of a daughter or wife.
Last week we read about how the daughters of Zelophehad were given the right to inherit land because their family had no sons to receive their father’s holdings. This was a major victory for women on many levels. First, they were now allowed to hold land if a family had no male heirs. Second, they were allowed to speak for themselves and be heard by the community’s leadership.
This week’s double portion, the first topic covered is vows. Most of the text deals with vows made by women. We learn that women had far less power than men to make vows. But, unlike many pagan societies at the time, they did have some limited powers.
The text tells that minor boys and girls cannot make vows until they are adults. They are under the control of their fathers. A male becomes an adult at the age of thirteen. A female becomes an adult at the age of twelve. However, until the girl reaches twelve and one-half she was considered a naarah – a period of adolescence during which she would be betrothed. At the age of twelve and one-half she became a bogeret – adult women. (Judith Antonelli, In the Image of God, p.385). As a result, the father had the power to annul a vow for only the six months before adulthood. If a girl was betrothed during this six month period, both her husband and father had to annul the vow to reverse it. If only one announced the vow is annulled, the vow will still stand.
After a woman becomes an adult (twelve and one-half) a husband can annul a vow.
However, the father and the husband must act with one day upon hearing of a vow to annul it. After this period the vow stands.
If a father or husband acts to annul an adult women’s vow after this single day, the father or husband will bear the guilt of the vow. (Num. 30:16)
While it seems that an adult woman is under the control of her father or husband, in fact she does have some control.
First, after one day, the vow of the woman stands. Second, if a woman makes a vow and it is not heard by her father or husband, it will stand. However, if the father or husband learns of this vow, they still has one day from the time they learn of the vow to annul it. This gives the women some limited control… and this is better than none.
As stated above, an article in The Bedside Torah points out that while a male can annul the vow of a woman; he must act within a one day period … after that the vow stands. The article notes that a man’s silence affirms the vow. He is in effect affirming this vow with silence.
Today, this same non-action or silence when learning of, or witnessing a criminal or unethical act is the same as approving this improper action. When a person remains silent after seeing or learning of a crime, under the law, they are guilty. Their inaction has the effect of approving the crime.
The same can be said about people who witness racial or ethnic bigotry, mistreatment of women, and discrimination in the workplace or the real estate market, or racial inequality in the educational systems. All have the effect of approving the action. Actually, Torah commands us to care for the needy… feed the hungry … educate all the children …and pursue peace. (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah, pp. 277-8)
Both with the biblical vows and modern day injustice, silence has the effect of affirmation of the wrong.
With these thoughts, we end our study of the Book of Numbers …. And, as usual, at the end of each book of Torah we say … Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazak: From strength to strength we strengthen each other. May we continue to find strength and friendship in our study of Torah.