Parashat Mattot-Masei 5770/ July 10, 2010
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Why were fathers permitted to annul their daughters’ vows, and husbands, their wives’ vows?
Prof. Yosef Fleischman
Department of Bible
Laws dealing with vows are to be found in several places in the Torah, but nowhere does it state unequivocally that a woman may make a vow.  The only clear rules concerning women’s vows are presented in this week's parasha, Numbers 30:4-16. These rules can be summarized as follows: 1) Any woman may make a vow at any time and place; 2) A woman’s vow has the same validity as that of a man; 3) Even when a woman is subject to a man’s authority, she need not receive his permission to make a vow, nor inform him of her will; 4) Under certain circumstances a father may annul his daughter’s vow and a husband, his wife’s vow.
Thus these laws establish, on the one hand, that a woman may make whatever sort of vows she pleases, yet, on the other hand, that this freedom is limited by the father’s or husband’s authority to annul her vow under certain clearly defined circumstances, as long as she is under their authority.
Breaking a vow interferes with the intimate-religious bond between the person making the vow and the Lord, and mars the serious and formal nature of the occasion. Why then did biblical law give a father the authority to annul the vows of an unmarried daughter, and a husband, the vows of his wife? Commentators and Bible scholars have offered various reasons, too numerous to detail here. We would like to suggest that granting the right to annul a woman’s vows gives the father or husband a measure of authority and control over the religious life of the dependent woman. Apparently the reason for this control is to prevent unbefitting behavior on the part of the woman within the walls of the home, and all the more so in public.
I shall attempt to substantiate this hypothesis on the basis of the primary characteristics of vows in the Bible and what we know of the religious acts of women in the Israelite faith.
Even though vows are always made to the Lord, making them
A person who makes a vow is generally in a dramatic
condition, desperately feeling the need for Heavenly assistance.
The vow is an attempt to extricate oneself
from dire straits, to save oneself from a dangerous situation.
Even though Scripture does not place
restrictions on the place or way in which vows are made, it does set strict
rules regarding their fulfillment. A vow
involving offering a sacrifice must be paid up at the
Notwithstanding the stern warnings against taking vows that one could not fulfill, intervention in the individual’s religious actions by way of restricting vows happened only with women. Why was this so? In order to explain the reason, we present several points regarding the religious activity of women in the biblical period. 
1. Women generally did not participate in intensive religious activity in the community, i.e., together with men, but were confined to the home, the space allotted to them in patriarchal society.
2. Their religious activity took place individually, be it on their own or with other women.
3. They were under no formal religious supervision, not even by the men who headed the household and to whose authority they were legally bound.
4. Their activity focused around spheres that were emotionally close to them or that matched their needs, such as birth rites, burial and mourning customs; other activities took place in areas that were not considered part of the formal religion – or were even outlawed by it – such as the use of magic or sexual contact forbidden by the official religion.
Given these characteristics of religious activity in the women’s world, we hypothesize that the authority given fathers or husbands to annul vows was intended to counterbalance the women’s tendency to make many vows, sometimes even rashly. Remember that the laws of vows allowed women a wide field of action, making vows whenever and wherever they wished, without any official supervision of their actions. The authority of fathers or husbands to annul women’s vows served to restrain and limit this autonomy.
We must further take into account the emotional state of a person who feels the need to make a vow. A woman who has resolved to make a vow is generally in a difficult emotional or physical state, or wishes to use a vow in order to lend expression to her piety, for a vow enables her to seek closeness to G-d. Since a vow is an act of personal initiative to draw closer to G-d, done in the time and place chosen by the individual without requiring supervision by the authorities, the vow could arouse certain difficulties. For example, because of her vow a woman might be busy with matters that appear important to her, such as praying or lingering in a place of prayer, and this might lead to her being negligent in performing her duties to herself, her husband and her household, thus disregarding general and personal hygiene, refraining from sexual relations, or putting off her chores at home and in the field. Furthermore, the vow which she wishes to make might be heretical, and lastly, repaying the vow might entail large financial expense.
As we have said, the laws of vows limited daughters’ and wives’ ritual freedom, but from the moment a woman made a vow and it became valid, she entered a sacred obligation to uphold her word and perform the vow she undertook. The limitation of her freedom found expression in the license given fathers and husbands to annul the vow (Num. 30:4-17), as long as they did so the moment they heard that the vow was made. Fathers and husbands did not have to justify their decision to annul a vow. It stands to reason that the Torah sought to enable them to annul a vow that appeared to them problematic, but in so doing the religious activities of women were subjected to a certain measure of supervision. The need to control women’s religious actions becomes clear when we note that a woman who has made a vow is able to conceal it, since daughters or wives do not need their father’s or husband’s permission to make a vow, nor are they obliged to inform them of vows they have made. This is especially true of a woman who has vowed to abstain from doing certain things, or who has undertaken to perform certain religious obligations that do not entail financial outlay by the father or husband. In such a case the vow might remain secret, or become known to the father or husband long after it is made, either by his hearing of it from others or by deducing it from the behavior of the person who made the vow. From the fact that the Torah does not prevent women from making vows and does not require them to obtain advance permission or give advance notification, we may conclude that the Torah wished to enable women to stand before G-d in any place whatsoever, just as men, and make their vows without intermediaries and without witnesses. Thus it appears that the authority given fathers and husbands to annul vows was intended not to deprive women of the right to make vows, but to provide supervision in circumstances that warranted it.
 Several biblical sources attest to women who made vows: Ex. 35:22; I Sam. 1:11; Deut. 23:19 (regarding a prostitute); Prov. 7:14; 31:2.
 Cf., for example, Julian Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem (Cambridge 1977), pp. 113-125, 181-182; Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve (New York 1988), esp. pp. 122-164; Phyllis Bird, “Israelite Religion and the Faith of Israel’s Daughters: Reflections on Gender and Religious Definition,” in David Jobling et al., eds., The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Norman K. Gottwald on His Sixty-fifth Birthday (Cleveland, Ohio 1991), pp. 97-108.