Men, Women and Vows

How many mitzvot and prohibitions can someone have? In addition to all the 613 regular mitzvot and all their details, anyone can commit themselves to doing something or prohibiting themselves from something, as we learn from the passage regarding oaths, at the beginning of Matot: “A man, when he vows a vow to God or swears an oath to prohibit a prohibition upon his soul, he shall not break his word, what came out of his mouth he shall do.” For example: someone who takes an oath never to eat apples, is forbidden to eat apples as a Torah prohibition! Someone who vows to eat an apple and doesn’t eat one, has transgressed a Torah prohibition. And someone who vows to bring a sacrifice or to donate a particular amount to charity, is obligated from the Torah to keep his vow.

Man, or Woman?

What is the root of a vow? Let’s take a closer look at the opening words of the passage relating to vows: “A man, when he vows a vow… and a woman who vows…” In the Torah there are two different words for a person of the male gender— they are “man” (אִישׁ) and “person” (אָדָם). The word “man” refers to an individual’s unique personality. By contrast, “person” is a more general term that refers to humans in general – which is why the term contains no distinction between men and women; both of them are referred to by the term, “person,” as we find in the verse that describes the creation of Adam and Eve, “Male and female He created them… and He called their name ‘Adam’ (אָדָם).”[1] By contrast, a “man” (אִישׁ) is a “woman’s” (אִשָׁה) marriage partner, i.e., a differentiated personality in which there is a clear division between him and her.

Let’s take an even more precise reading of the first time that man and woman are mentioned in the Torah: God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, then He constructed the rib that was taken from Adam into a woman and He brought her to Adam. “And Adam said, this time is a bone of my bones… she is called ‘woman’ because she was taken from ‘man.’ Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his woman (i.e., ‘wife’) and they shall be one flesh.” During the process of forming the woman, the man is still referred to as “Adam” (i.e., “a person”) and only after he sees the woman does he call her by that name, thus revealing his own identity as a man.

This means that one’s initial consciousness is of being “a person” without any division between male and female. Indeed, the sages teach that man was created “two-faced,” i.e., with both male and female attributes. Then the process of “sawing” them apart took place, when the woman was formed from Adam’s rib, for the purpose of creating a face-to-face relationship between man and woman. So, when Adam identified her as a woman, he similarly identified himself as a man. Then the complete significance of the marriage process was revealed, in which the “man” leaves his parents and clings to his “woman” (i.e., wife).

The name “person” relates to the intellectual faculties of the mind, while the name “man” relates to the emotive powers of the heart, which become excited and passionate, like fire (אֵשׁ)—the two letters of which are dominant in both “man” (אִישׁ) and “woman” (אִשָׁה). Relatively speaking, a man identifies more with the world of the intellect, while a woman identifies more with the world of emotions. This is why at first, Adam recognized himself neither as a man nor as a woman, and only when he saw a woman in front of him did he feel his emotions well up inside him, “This time she is a bone of my bones,” where “time” (פַּעַם) relates to a heartbeat (פְּעִימָה), thus revealing himself as a man with emotions.

Men and Women and Vows

Now, let’s get back to vows. Just as woman was initially “taken” from a man, so too, a woman’s vows are derived from a man’s vows. First of all, “A man, when he vows a vow,” and then later, “and a woman, when she vows.” Vows and oaths express a relatively “male” attribute of dissatisfaction with reality and an attempt to rectify it by taking action in the form of a harsh, aggressive statement, “I forbid myself to do x,” or “I have an obligation to do y,” with a tendency to fight-to-win, as in the sages’ statement that, “It is a man’s way to conquer, but not a woman’s way to conquer.” A man speaks harshly, and a woman does so gently. This is why when a woman makes a vow, copying a man, as it were, either her father or her husband has the ability to annul her vows, preventing her from making binding decisions without his consent.

In the home environment, one can understand quite simply how vows might cause tension and problems in family harmony. Indeed, Jewish law states that a husband can annul vows of “self-affliction” or “between him and her,” as vows in these departments can damage proper management of family life. More profoundly, the problem begins with a woman’s natural tendency to make vows and to act in a harsh and unrelenting character (like the “strong gender”), thus damaging her soft, beautiful femininity. This feminine tendency to vow is liable to boomerang on her when it comes to the crunch when she needs to stand up to real difficulties and temptations, that demand an effort that rises beyond her own gentle nature.

By annuling his wife’s vow, her husband balances this tendency and helps his wife to return to her essential feminine nature. This in turn reinstates the correct structure of the home, in which there is both a man and a woman, each with their own character, allowing them to join together “face-to-face” and to be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, the Talmud teaches us that the results of unnecessary vows can be fatal to the wife or to the couples’ children, God forbid. This illustrates the fact that vows and oaths can be an obstruction to the couple’s function in bringing children into the world. In fact, the sages teach us that the principal oath that a woman takes is when she is about to give birth, “At the moment when she crouches to give birth, she jumps and swears that she will never again have relations with her husband.” This is the reason why a woman must bring an offering after childbirth. However, this is not a regular type of oath, but a natural tendency that the Almighty heals, annuling her oath to allow for mankind to continue to be fruitful and multiply.

If, despite all this, a woman still sees a genuine need to take decisive action, or to enforce certain additional restrictions, she should do so “without a vow” (בְּלִי נֵדֶר) and without obligation (as Jewish law teaches us that even men should do), while tuning into reality without excessive resistance. When a woman acts gently, according to her nature, without proclaiming a vow, she will find the inner power to overcome the temptations and will reveal her inner strength that can stand up to any trial and tribulation. [2]

Male and Female Vows

A vow is something personal, while we have the public path of Torah observance, which everyone is required to keep. This is the objective issue of Jewish law in general, which was given to everyone equally: everyone is required to keep Shabbat and kosher, every man is obligated to don tefillin and every woman to light Shabbat candles. The Shulchan Aruch in general is oriented equally to every Jew (although there are different levels between required law and voluntary embellishments or stringencies). Usually, this is enough without having to express your or my unique personality.

Sometimes, however, a person – or, more precisely, a man – feels a sudden need to express a subjective, personal issue. He feels “obligated” to do a particular deed, or that he really “must not” do something. At times like these, he finds it necessary to make a vow or an oath. The general Torah belongs to everyone and usually it is relevant everywhere, at every moment, but the philosophy of vows is an absolutely personal tendency, relating to what I feel here and now.

This is how we can understand the unusual beginning of this passage in the Torah, “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes”–unlike the regular way a Torah passage begins, in which God speaks to Moses, or Moses speaks to the Jews. In Hebrew, there are two words for “tribe,” both of which also refer to a wooden stick: “staff” (שֶׁבֶט) and “cane” (מַטֶה). In this case, a “staff” is a flexible branch, which can also be used as a whip, and a “cane” is a hard, dry branch, which can either be leant on for support, or used to strike with. Allegorically speaking, these two can also be seen as two different psychological tendencies. As long as we follow the soft and flexible tendency of the soul, vows and oaths are unnecessary. The need for vows appears when we have a well-formed, strict psychological tendency, like a staff which is clearly directed in a particular direction.

So far, it would seem that vows are more of a woman’s issue than a man’s! Whether for better or for worse, a man’s character is more stable. He is less inclined to express his special personality and is less conscious of it, which is why he suffices with the general, objective Torah and is less inclined to make vows and oaths. However, a woman is aware of her subjective personality, which demands expression and sometimes bursts out in a vow or an oath.

In terms of the Torah’s inner dimension, a vow is associated specifically with the sefirah of understanding. Whereas wisdom expresses an objective, stable essence, understanding is where reality begins; and while wisdom is compared to a man (often referred to as “father”), understanding is a woman (“mother”). Indeed, “Greater understanding was given to woman than to man.” Similarly, the sefirah of understanding relates more closely to the heart, as in the Kabbalistic expression, “Understanding is the heart and in it the heart understands.” This is why women are more likely to be “vowers” than men.

Interincluding Man and Woman

Having seen two different aspects of whether vows relate more to a man or to a woman, we can now correlate the two ideas with the understanding that there is “interinclusion” between man and woman. Indeed, Kabbalah and Chasidut teach us that within the soul of a man there is a feminine facet, “the woman in a man,” and a woman has a male facet, “the man in a woman” (scientifically speaking, this idea is expressed physically in the male gene, which contains both an x and a y chromosome).

Thus, the man in and of himself (the “man in a man”) has a harsh, domineering personality, but this is not enough to motivate him to make a vow, since he does not usually feel a need to “prove himself.” He just does what he says, gives an order and sees it through to the end, without even announcing his obligation, like the attribute of wisdom that has no need for external expression. The need to vow rarely arises, but if it does, it is usually in the face of opposition or temptation. What is it that motivates a man to take a vow? It is the attribute of feminine understanding that he also has. The arousal of his warm heart and his personal self-awareness that reacts to changes in his environment. In short: his vow expresses his essentially male aptitude (relating to the aspect of wisdom) but it is aroused in practice only by power of the feminine aspect of “the woman in a man” (relating to the aspect of understanding in wisdom).

Regarding a woman: from her “pure-bred” feminine side, she has no inclination to take vows, rather she accepts reality as is and adapts herself to it, succeeding in coping by power of her “extra understanding,” without having to create artificial restrictions. While the male is inclined to conquer and win in active combat, a woman knows how to acknowledge and lovingly accept life’s turbulences (and this is the difference between the sefirah of victory and the sefirah of acknowledgment, “he is in victory and she is in acknowledgment”). What is it that motivates a woman to make a vow? It’s the aspect of “the man in a woman”! This aspect is not prepared to surrender and does not give in, it wants to be victorious over any deficiency via “military” action. This is why, for example, a woman is commanded to keep less mitzvot than a man and she is exempt from positive time-bound commandments. For this reason, she might have a tendency to “fill in the gaps” by accepting upon herself extra restrictions and good habits.

Vows further relate specifically to teshuvah (return to God by repenting for one’s deeds and performing the Torah’s commandments), since someone who returns to God and wishes to detach themselves from those bad habits that they have become used to, must sometimes restrict themself by means of a vow. Return to God is a type of arousal that in general is related to the feminine (as is explained in the Torah’s inner dimension how teshuvah is related to either one of the feminine sefirot).

So, we have learnt that vows relate to the interinclusion of man in woman, from the aspect of “man in a woman” and “woman in a man.” This is alluded to at the end of the passage relating to vows that we are currently meditating on: “These are the statutes that God commanded Moses, between a man and his wife.” “Statute” (חֹק) relates to the word “engraved” (חָקוּק) meaning that this has to do with what is between a man and a woman, i.e., the woman engraved on the man and the man engraved on the woman. This is particularly appropriate, since a statute relates to something that is super-rational, i.e., the aspect of an individual that they are less conscious of.

The Rectification of the Tribes in the Holy Land

To conclude, let’s return to the concept of “the heads of the tribes” which lends the Torah portion of Matot its name. Beyond the annulment of vows by a woman’s father or her husband, which is mentioned explicitly in the Torah, there is also the ability of a sage to find an “opening” that uproots the vow from its source, as if it had never been made to begin with. [3] However, “Permitting vows hovers in the air and it has no support [from the verses].” Nonetheless, the special commandment to “the heads of the tribes” alludes to the fact that the heads of the people, the sages, have been given the special authority to permit a vow. [4]

Following the Torah portion of Matot is the portion of Masei (and in many years the two portions are read together), at the end of which the word “tribes” (מַטוֹת) is repeated many times. There it refers to the heads of the tribe of Menasheh who came to claim that if Tzelafchad’s daughters, who inherited their father’s estate, should marry men from another tribe, then the estate would be detracted from the tribe’s portion and added to the portion of the tribe who they marry. This is why God commanded Moses that any woman who inherits land, should marry someone from the men of her own tribe. However, the sages teach us that this commandment was valid only for the first generation who entered the land. [5]

The term “cane” (מַטֶה) also relates to a “tendency” (נְטִיָה) (an issue that we related to above), in this case, a strict, well-defined tendency. In the first generation, the various tendencies of the tribes were definitively rigid (which was not desirable). Under these circumstances, the commandment was that the tribes should not merge their inheritances. However, entry into the land softened the rigid tribal tendencies, allowing the various tribes to intermarry, so much so that the day on which the tribes were allowed to intermarry, the fifteenth of Av, was set as one of the most joyous days in the Jewish calendar.

This is also the secret of permitting vows: a vow anchors a personal tendency, preventing a connection between friends, between spouses, or even between tribes. However, Moses reveals to the heads of the tribes the secret of how to release someone from their vow. As mentioned above, vows are associated with the sefirah of understanding, which is structured and defined, but the sage represents the sefirah of wisdom, which is the essential ethereal root which can release life’s complications and tangles. Permitting superfluous vows is the desired state of reality in the Land of Israel, of which the sages state, “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise,” [6] making us wise enough to be sages who permit vows and release us from them. Then the entire state of reality becomes “without a vow” [בְּלִי נֵדֶר).  [7)



[1] Genesis 5:2.

[2] ברוריה, אשת רבי מאיר, היא דוגמא לאשה חכמה ותקיפה בדעתה, שאף הובאו בשמה הלכות. אך היא לגלגה על הקביעה ש”נשים דעתן קלה”, ולבסוף כמעט נכשלה בהתפתות לדבר עברה (פירוש רש”י בעבודה זרה יח, ב, “מעשה דברוריא”). הטעות שלה היתה בנסיון לאמץ את האופי הגברי המנצח, במקום ללכת עם האופי הנשי ולהבין שהדעת הקלה של האשה היא גם היתרון שלה – יכולת ההודאה וההתמסרות, האמונה והתפלה, הנענית מאת ה’ (כמו שיוסבר בהמשך על ההבדל בין ספירת הנצח לספירת ההוד). ניתן לדרוש שבזכות “דעתן קלה” לשבח, זוכה האשה לגלות את היתרון שלה על האיש, כמו שנאמר לאברהם אבינו על שרה אמנו “שמע בקֹלה“.

[3] Ketubot 74b.

[4] Chagigah 10a.

[5] Ta’anit 30b; Baba Batra 121a.

[6] Baba Batra 158b. “Permitting vows hovers in the air,” i.e., in the air of the Land of Israel which makes one wise.

[7] “Without a vow” (בְּלִי נֵדֶר) equals “the Land” (הָאָרֶץ).