Parshat Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)

Rabbi David Stav 

The first part of this week’s Torah portion deals with vows. According to Torah law, if a man makes a vow, i.e. forbids himself from enjoying a particular object, or contributes that object as an endowment or charity, that man must keep his vow. If not, he will be transgressing a prohibition from the Torah: “…he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do” [Num. 30:3].

Our rabbis received a tradition that holds that there is a way to nullify a vow through a hacham – an “elder” – or a religious court. This is also why Moshe called all of the tribal chieftains, who are called “the heads of the matot (the staves), since they will be the ones who will have to handle vows brought before them. The guiding principle for the elder asked to nullify a vow is that he should look for a loophole, so that he could claim that the person who vowed did not assess all of the possible implications of the vow, or because he now regrets the vow.

There is, however, another way to nullify a vow, called hafara, which is applied owing to the authority the nullifier holds over the vower. The right of an elder to annul a vow is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, but the authority of hafara is certainly mentioned and expounded upon in our parasha. This authority is given with regard to vows made by women in specific circumstances. The Torah distinguishes between three cases:

  • a girl who makes a vow before reaching the age of 12 and a half, in which case the vow is nullified by her father

  • a married woman who makes a vow, in which case her husband may perform hafara and nullify her vow on the day he hears it (if the avowed action involves suffering for the woman or is detrimental to the couple’s marital relationship)

  • a widow or a divorcee, whose vow may not be nullified, because she is an independent woman who is not under the auspices of any authority figure

Our rabbis asked why the halacha gives a husband the authority to nullify a vow made by his wife, and explained that “a woman who makes a vow is doing so with her husband’s knowledge”. In other words, in a normal relationship, it is safe to assume that a woman will not commit herself to vows that would disrupt the normal course of her marriage and her family life, and in any case, any vow she takes upon herself must be made with her husband’s permission.

An aside: the only right accorded to a husband in the Torah is the right to nullify his wife’s vow. Interestingly, a breach of a vow is grounds for divorce, for either the husband or the wife, since according to rabbinic tradition, this sin could lead to the death of the couple’s children. This all serves to illustrate the importance of vows in a marriage.

Many questions arise from this parasha: Why was the right of hafara granted only to the husband vis-a-vis his wife, and not vice-versa? Why can a father nullify his daughter’s vows, but not his son’s?

I was particularly drawn to another comment related to a type of woman not mention in the parasha – the adult woman. The Torah tells about how a father can nullify his daughter’s vow when she is child, and that a husband can nullify his wife’s vows. The same goes for a widow and a divorcee. What happens, though, with a 15 year-old girl? The halacha makes it clear that she is completely independent, so if she makes a vow, her father can’t nullify it. However, the Torah does not even hint to such a situation.

Historically speaking, we can safely assume that at the time the Torah was given, girls had tended to marry upon reaching physical maturity, which is why the Torah had not addressed these cases. In the previous generation, some saw to view this parasha as proof that, according to the Torah, there were no adult women outside of a set framework, that is, under the auspices of either her father or her husband, so she couldn’t possibly be an adult without any authority over her.

There were even those that took this one step further, arguing that because of this situation, no framework that doesn’t involve a father or a husband should exist (this would include settings like the army or national service). This line of thinking could not possibly anchor its arguments on this parasha, since nowhere does the halacha state that an adult woman cannot be a part of an independent setting. We see the opposite in many sources.

What we can say is that this parasha illustrates the difficulty of learning Torah when it comes to translating these verses to modern life. During the time of the Torah, it was unacceptable for a 12-year-old girl to be unmarried, while today it is inconceivable.

Our rabbis stated in the Talmud (over 1,500 years ago) that a “man may not marry off his daughter when she is a minor”. Any text in the Written Law that isn’t buttressed by the rabbis throughout the ages who can translate and make those verses relevant for their generation would render the Torah an antique document with no real relevance for us.

Therefore, trigger-happy journalists need to carefully check any quote from the Torah, to understand the context in which they were written. Rabbis dealing with a topic should use that same degree of caution and be aware that issues discussed within the beit midrash must be explained to the public in a way that can be understood by those not familiar with the vocabulary and cultural context of the beit midrash.

Consequently, we need to choose our words carefully, and be sure that they can be seen and heard everywhere. To echo the words of the parasha: “… he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.”

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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