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Q&A: Revocation of Vows

July 13, 2015

Question: The Torah states that if a man make a neder or swears, he may not back out on his word. This means that when a person turns 13, whatever he says, he must keep his word. If a woman makes a neder or swears she too must keep word. HOWEVER, if she still lives at home with her father, before she is 12 and half years old, and her father finds out or hears her making this neder or promise, he can void the entire thing. My question to you is, why the father could do this to his grown up daughter but not to his grown up son. Let’s place both the girl and boy in ages of 12 and half to 18 (girl) & 13-18 (boy).

Answer: I would first like to clarify the relevant laws before attempting to offer an answer. This week’s parasha (Mattoth, Numbers 30) begins with some of the laws of n’darim. The idea that a man should keep his sacred vows appears elsewhere in the Torah, but this parasha is unique because it discusses the laws of hafarath n’darim, revocation or annulment of vows, and as the sages point out, it is also the basis of the laws of hattarath n’darim, a body of laws maintained entirely within the Oral Tradition, and therefore denied by the usual heretical sects, such as the Sadducees, Karaites, and Samaritans. You may remember hattarath n’darim from such annual customs related to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei, for instance).  The main halachic mechanism at work is this: the court has the power to release someone from his binding vow or promise or oath if it finds sufficient grounds. Hafarath n’darim is different. It is the right of the father to annul his daughter’s vows or of the husband to annul his wife’s. Once a man reaches the age of 13 or a woman the age of 12, their vows are binding on them just like any other adults’. For most children, their vows are not binding, but for children the full year before they reach majority, their vows could be binding, and it is the rabbis’ prerogative to investigate the matter to see if the child was mature enough to understand the seriousness and consequences of his actions. However, for a six-month block after her turning 12, a woman’s father has the right to annul her vows, just like a husband can revoke his wife’s vows. If I understand you correctly, you wish to know why there is this double standard, why the father can sometimes override his daughter’s decisions but not those of his son.

I would like to point out that Rabbi Judah the Prince made the tractate of N’darim part of the talmudic order of Nashim, Women. That is, the ability to revoke n’darim is intricately related to relations between the sexes.

I would like to ask, “why is it that the Torah allows men to have the ability to control the vows of others?” The idea that men should exert some form of control over female relatives was only called into question recently in history. Most societies, including Jewish ones, assumed it, so it would be difficult to find a discussion of your question, especially the way it is framed, in the classic literature.

I think the answer lies in the Talmud’s discussion in K’thubboth, 46. The mishna lists the father’s rights with regards to his daughter, and the gemara discusses how some of those rights pass to the husband upon her marriage. The rights discussed are mostly monetary in nature, but annulment of vows is included. The Talmud also discusses the husband’s right to annul, saying that it should be limited to “matters of affliction between him and her.” The way I understand it, the halacha recognizes that the husband has the right to revoke his wife’s vows because he has a lot responsibilities toward her, to take care of her, and she has certain obligations toward him. Because a lot of her property is his, and because she has certain obligations toward him, she could potentially cause him a loss that is unfair. This is similar to the rule that a man can not be held liable for the damages his slave or wife causes to the property and persons of others. If the husband or master would be held liable for their damages, they could potentially take out their anger against them by acting destructively toward others. The ability to annul vows is an institution that protects the husband’s rights and property, and because a father has more obligations toward his just bath-mitzva daughter than he has toward his bar-mitzva son, the Torah also afforded him a mechanism to protect him from the potential liabilities he could incur from his daughter’s pronouncements.

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From → halacha, original, parasha

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