It’s time to consider the revocation of our vows


Parashat Matos begins with the topic of hafarat nedarim (revocation of vows) by a father on behalf of his daughter, and by a husband for his wife. The general outlines of this mitzvah were formulated by the Rambam in this manner:

The 95th [positive] mitzvah that we are commanded is regarding the annulment of vows. This does not mean that we are obligated [per se] to annul vows, but rather that there are certain laws to be followed when so doing [wherein their fulfillment constitutes the mitzvah] …The annulment of vows done by a father [for his daughter] and a husband [for his wife] is explained in detail in the Torah.

It should be noted that we no longer engage in hafarat nedarim, since it is unclear exactly which nedarim may be revoked by the father or husband. Instead, we actively pursue the Torah Shel Ba’al Peh practice of hatarat nedarim that may be undertaken by either a recognized Torah scholar or a beit din. The Rambam speaks directly to the role of the talmid chacham in this Rabbinic act: “Furthermore, we know from the Oral Tradition that a Torah scholar can nullify anyone’s vow or oath.”

“Nowadays, when one seeks to nullify a neder, as is done on erev Rosh Hashana, he stands before a beis din, which performs hataras nedarim based on pesach [an opening, that is], his not realizing how problematic observing the neder would be, and charatah, his regret for ever having undertaken the neder,” wrote Rabbi Herschel Schachter. “The beis din then declares [three times], ‘It is permitted to you,’ and the neder is annulled.”

While the practice of hatarat nedarim, whether by a talmid chacham or a beit din, is clearly based upon pesach and charatah, the mishnah in Talmud Bavli Chagigah 10a, boldly declares: “The halakhot of the dissolution of vows, when one requests from a Sage to dissolve them, fly in the air and have nothing to support them, as these halakhot are not mentioned explicitly in the Torah. There is only a slight allusion to the dissolution of vows in the Torah, which is taught by the Sages as part of the oral tradition.”

The notion that the halakhot of hatarat nedarim “fly in the air and have nothing to support them,” since they have no direct textual support, is strong proof of the power invested in Chazal by the Torah Shel Ba’al Peh to legislate laws that respond to the practical needs of our people. As such, as Rav Schachter notes, the entire community joins as one during Kol Nidre and performs a public rendition of the dissolution of vows.

This Shabbat is eight days before we commemorate Tisha b’Av. With Hashem’s help, as we mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, may we engage in heartfelt teshuvah and may our aveiros “be uprooted from their source, as if they never occurred.” This thought is echoed in the words of Megillat Eichah:

Hashiveinu Hashem alecha v’nashuvah, chadash yameinu k’kedem—Cause us to return unto You Hashem and we will return, renew our days as of old.