Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
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
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. 
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
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
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
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.  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
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. ); 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
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
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.,
K. Van Der Toorn, “Female
Prostitution in Payment of Vows in Ancient
 See the translation in Hebrew by Hava Shor, S. Daniel Nataf (ed.), Kitvei Philon ha- Alexandroni, vol. 3, Jerusalem 2000, p. 27.
 Sifre on Numbers, 155; Nedarim 11.1-2; Nedarim 79b, 83b; JT Nedarim 11.1.