Num. 30:2 – 36:13
Rabbi Gary Pokras
“This is the thing that the LORD has charged: should a person take a vow or make an oath to the LORD, as a binding pledge, they shall not profane their word. According to all that issues from their mouth they shall do.” [Num. 30:3]
Merriam-Webster defines the word “vow” as a solemn promise. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, however, provide a narrower definition, understanding a vow as a solemn promise invoking God’s name, or made directly to God. To break a vow, therefore, is considered a terrible sacrilege, and as a result, the sages discouraged vows in the strongest possible terms.
Why is Judaism so vow-averse? Once a vow is made, it must be followed for the rest of one’s life. Yet we humans are notoriously inconsistent and certainly imperfect. We make mistakes, we forget things, and even an accidental lapse could lead us to break a vow. Breaking a promise is rarely a good thing. Breaking a promise to God is worse. When we break a vow to God it is equivalent to saying: “You are longer my God, You are not important enough to me for me to keep my promises to You.” In this way it is akin to idolatry, which is why it is considered such a great sacrilege.
As if this were not enough, there is a second objection: even if we all could keep our vows forever, how could we anticipate the changes that life will bring? We are not prophets. We cannot see the future. Yet, we know that today’s reality is different from yesterday’s reality. Circumstances change. What may have held true once may not hold true now. How can I be confident that the conditions which lead me to want to take a vow now will hold true forty years from now? To invoke God in making such a promise, is the height of arrogance.
People can, and should, make binding long-term promises to each other, such as marriage. I have been blessed to officiate at many weddings. Some of these have stood the test of time. Others have not. We do the best we can to keep our promises to each other, and we know that we sometimes make mistakes. For this reason, it should be no surprise that in a traditional Jewish wedding, there are no vows.
Judaism encourages us to keep God out of our promises so that we can continue to keep God in our hearts and in our souls.