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Personal Vows vs. Community

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Parshat Matot begins with the laws of Nedarim (a vow in which one forbids something upon oneself). The Code of Jewish Law (Yore Deah 203:3) quotes the Talmudic teaching (Nedarim 22a) that states that one who makes a vow is considered as if they built their own personal altar (which is forbidden), and that one who does not annul the vow (and fulfills the vow) is considered like one who has brought an offering on a forbidden private altar. Therefore, the Code of Jewish Law states that one should not maintain such vows and should legally annul vows.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) explains this teaching as follows: A person making a vow forbids upon themselves something that the Torah permits to all other Jews. This person is, therefore, separating themselves from the community and may be acting out of arrogance (or may appear to be doing so). Similarly, one who makes their own private altar and does not use the communal altar in Jerusalem’s Temple is separating themselves from the community. Doing so is tantamount to declaring that they are above everyone else and, thus, require their own personal altar.

One note of clarification is important in this context. If the members of a communal group are not keeping the laws of the Torah, one who keeps the laws of the Torah is being righteous and not arrogant. We are referring here to someone who takes upon themselves stringencies beyond the laws of the Torah being practiced by a righteous community.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Temple, this message is particularly relevant. Our egos and arrogance led to slandering others and baseless hatred, which resulted in the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. At this time, our mission is to remove our arrogance and rejoin our commitment to being part of the community of the Jewish People. Let us strengthen our commitment to attending synagogue services and serving God together with others. May our efforts lead to the unification of the Jewish People and a rebuilding of the Jewish People soon in our days!