One of the most solemn times of the year is on Erev Yom Kippur when the shul is filled with people and the Chazzan begins the Kol Nidrei service. During this tefillah, we annul all the various forms of oaths and vows that we have made over the past year. However, what is the difference between an oath and a vow? Do not both involve utterances that cause a person keep their word? Why is the content of our masechet simply included as part of Masechet Nedarim or visa versa?
The Torah in Sefer Bamidbar (30:3) states: “When a man vows a vow (neder) unto Hashem, or swears an oath (Shevuah) to bind upon his soul, he shall not break his word; according to all that came out of his mouth, he shall do.”
The Ramban, in his commentary on this pasuk, addresses the question of the difference between a “neder” and a “shevuah”. He explains (based on the Gemara in Nedarim 2b) that the difference between them is found in the relationship of the person making the oath or vow and the subject of the oath or vow.
Whereas a shevuah is an issur gavra, where a person prohibits himself from a particular action, in the case of a neder, a person prohibits an object (cheftza) onto himself. For example, when making a neder not to have hana’ah (benefit) from a piece of bread, the piece of bread is a davar ha’assur and is assur to you. However, if one makes a shevuah not to eat a piece of bread the whole day, the bread itself does not become a cheftzah shel issur. Rather, you have imposed on yourself certain restrictions – namely not to eat bread. Therefore, a person is unable to make a neder on a davar she’ein bo mamash (something which has no substance), e.g. on an action. Therefore, if one were to take a neder not to speak, eat or sleep, these would not be valid since they do not relate to a cheftza. Only a shevuah can relate to a person and his actions.
Kehati, in his introduction to the first mishnah in Masechet Shevuot, explains that there are four kinds of oaths dealt with in the Torah.
Declaratory oaths - e.g. that he will or will not eat31;
Vain oaths - e.g. swearing that a stone is gold32;
Oaths of testimony - e.g. witnesses in a monetary matter who were asked by the claimant to testify in court, and swear that they have no knowledge of the matter33;
Oaths of deposit, e.g., denying on oath being in possession of another person’s money or property34.
Aside from these four types, where a person swears voluntarily, there are oaths which the court imposes called the “oath of the judges”. Masechet Shevuot deals with all aspects of these kinds of oath.
31 As it is written: “Or if a person swears, pronouncing with his lips to do evil or to do good” (Vayikra. 5:4).
32 As it is written: “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your G-d in vain” (Shmot. 20:7)
33 As it is written: “And if a person sins and hears the voice of adjuration, and is a witness, whether he has seen or known of it, if he does not utter it, he shall bear his iniquity” (Vayikra 5:1)
34 As it is written: “If a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord, and denies [possessing] his neighbor's deposit, or [having received] a loan, or a robbery, or having wronged his neighbor, or has found that which was lost and denied it or swore falsely...” (Vayikra 5:21-22)
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