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Women’s Vows


Gaby Barzilai

Bible Department


Like any other commandment in the Torah, also the commandment allowing a father or husband to annul vows made by his wife (or daughter) on the day that he hears of it (Numbers 30:4-17) has changed and developed over time in the context of the Oral Law.  Some of this development goes back to Jewish sources from the Second Temple period, discovered in caves northwest of the Dead Sea , in the vicinity of Khirbet Qumran .

We shall focus on a reference to this commandment actually found in a text which is not essentially halakhic, rather philosophical-didactic.  This work, discovered in Qumran and called Musar la-Mevin (Ethics for the Understanding Person), contains a lengthy passage dealing with relations between man and wife which mentions the husband’s right to annul his wife’s vows:

Walk together with the helpmeet of thy flesh according to the statute that a man should leave his father and his mother and should cleave to his wife…Thee has He set in authority over her, and she shall obey thy voice… And let her not make numerous vows and votive offerings; turn her spirit to thy good pleasure. And every oath binding on her, that she would vow a vow, thou shalt annul it by/according to the mere utterance of thy mouth, and at thy good pleasure restrain her from performing the rash utterance of her lips. Forgive (it) her for thine own sake. [1]

Even though the text is fragmented in several places and not every sentence can be understood, it is clear that the first part of the passage deals with the close bond between a man and his wife, and is an interpretive paraphrase of the verse:  “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  Contrary, however to the spirit of equality that can be seen in the scriptural verse, the Dead Sea scroll emphasizes time and again the husband’s control over his wife.  Even though this idea is not consonant with the notion of the status of women today, it is not the least bit surprising in the context of a work from the Second Temple period.

At the end of the passage the author moves on to discuss the authority of husbands to annul their wives’ vows, apparently citing this law as an example taken from the Bible of a husband’s domination over his wife.  When the author presents the law, however, he diverges from the plain sense of the biblical text in several points. For example, in Musar la-Mevin a husband’s right to annul his wife’s vows on the day he hears them (Num. 30:4-9) becomes a categorical directive, asserting:  “and all oaths imposing a prohibition, making a vow, he annuls” so as “not to add vows and donations.”  The phrase in the Bible, “and the Lord will forgive her” (Num. 30:9), in Musar la-Mevin becomes an instruction to the husband:  “Forgive her [  ] for your sake do not make man[y vows].”  These changes reflect the author’s negative attitude towards a wife’s vows and indicate an inclination towards annulling these vows altogether.  The same approach is found in another work discovered at Qumran The Damascus Covenant (16, 10-12).

Perhaps the attitude that a wife’s vows are not to be carried out should be viewed in the context of the nature of vows made by women in the First and Second Temple periods.  One could argue that vows were the principal manner in which women could express their worship of G-d, since the formal mode of worshipping the Lord in the Temple was barred them. [2]   It is conceivable that the proliferation of women’s vows led to tension between them and their husbands, on whom the cost of paying the vows fell, and this led to the development of a halakhic trend towards annulling women’s vows altogether.  A similar attitude can be seen in Philo, a Jewish philosopher and commentator from the end of the Second Temple period.  Philo held that by law the Torah denied women the right to have control over their vows, since often women made vows frivolously, without fully understanding their significance (On the laws in detail, 3.24-25). [3]

Examining the halakhah on this subject as it appears in the works of the Sages, we find a significant difference from the approach taken by Musar la-Mevin.  The halakhic midrashim, the Mishnah and the Talmuds all hold that a husband does not have the right to annul his wife’s vows unless he has special cause to do so. [4]   The recurrent phrase in these sources, “he may not annul,” indicates that the Sages took the vows made by women very seriously, not as something that could be annulled lightly.  Only reasons pertaining to the wife’s obligations towards her husband could justify annulling her vows, and therefore a husband could only annul his wife’s vow if it concerned “self-denial” or things which were “between him and her”:

Why is it said:  “every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial”?  Because it says, “he annuls the vow which was in force.”  I understand from here that there is no distinction between vows involving self-denial and vows which do not involve self-denial; therefore it is written “Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband” --only with respect to vows that involve self-denial…

Whence do we learn this regarding vows between him and her?  We learn it from the words, “Those are the laws that the Lord enjoined upon Moses between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter.”  I detect no distinction between those that involve self-denial and those that do not involve self-denial? Therefore it says:  “every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial” (Sifre on Numbers, 155 [Horowitz ed., p. 206]).

This, however, is not the sole approach found in the literature of the Sages.  Other sources, bearing greater similarity to the halakhic tradition in the Qumran scrolls, come out against proliferation of vows in principle, both by women and by men.

It is taught by Rav Dimi, brother of Rav Safra:  Anyone who makes a vow, even if he carries it out, is called a sinner.  Rav Zevid said:  What biblical passage proves this?  “If you refrain from vowing, you incur no guilt” (Deut. 23:23 ); this means if you do not refrain, then there is a sin (Nedarim 77b).

According to these sources, the very vow itself is viewed negatively, since obligations to Heaven are absolute and a person can never know if he or she will be able to carry out their vow.  In order to avoid the grave risk of having to annul a vow, it is preferable to refrain from making vows altogether.  This is an accepted view in the writings of the Sages, even though other views are occasionally presented (Hullin 2a):

After all, it is written:  “whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing,” and it is written:  “It is better no to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill” (Eccles. 5:4).  It is taught:  best of all is not to vow at all, these being the words of Rabbi Meir.  But Rabbi Judah says:  best of all is the one makes a vow and pays it up.

Rabbi Judah takes exception to the absolute rejection of vowing expressed by Rabbi Meir.  He seeks to emphasize that a vow is not intrinsically negative, but that punctilious fulfillment of vows is of the utmost importance.

Both of the approaches found in the writings of the Sages have a single guiding principle, namely the great importance that the Sages attached to vows and oaths.  There are two sides to this coin:  on the one hand, if  vows are so important and problematic, it is preferable not to make them at all; on the other hand, if a man or a woman makes a vow, it should not be broken except in the most exceptional and well-justified circumstances.

The formal similarity which we found between a few homilies of the Sages and the ancient halakhah as it is reflected in the Qumran scrolls, does not attest to continuity of ideas or halakhah.  The authors of the Qumran source annulled the vows of women deliberately out of disregard for women, whereas the Sages annulled vows in general, out of the enormous regard they had for the vow itself.

[1] The text was published by John Strugnell and Daniel Harrington in vol. 34 of the series:  Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD).  Two copies exist:  2 4Q416, iv-20 iii 11, and a b10 4Q418, 3-10.  See Strugnell, J. and Harrington, D. J., Qumran Cave 4 XXIV:  Sapiential Texts, Part 2:  4Qinstruction: 4Q415 ff (DJD XXXIV), Oxford 1999, pp. 110-124, 236.

[2] K. Van Der Toorn, “Female Prostitution in Payment of Vows in Ancient Israel,” JBL 108 (1989), pp. 193-205.  Van Der Toorn’s supporting evidence comes from the ancient Near East, from contemporary anthropological studies, and from the Bible.  The biblical sources supporting his view include:  Ex. 38:8, I Sam. 1:10-11, 2:22, and Prov. 31:2. 

[3] See the translation in Hebrew by Hava Shor, S. Daniel Nataf (ed.), Kitvei Philon ha- Alexandroni, vol. 3, Jerusalem 2000, p. 27.

[4] Sifre on Numbers, 155; Nedarim 11.1-2; Nedarim 79b, 83b; JT Nedarim 11.1.