The Mishna (Nedarim 2:2) in today’s daf (Nedarim 16a) contrasts שבועות (oaths) with נדרים (vows) and states that if someone were to vow ‘Konam – a sukkah that I make’, or ‘Konam – a lulav that I take’, or ‘[Konam] – tefillin that I put on’, then this vow would be effective and would prohibit that person from their sukkah, their lulav or their tefillin. In contrast, if someone were to make an oath not to dwell in a sukkah, or take a lulav, or wear tefillin, then this oath would not be effective. This is because ‘one cannot effect an oath to transgress a mitzvah’ (שאין נשבעין לעבור על המצות).
In order to help explain the difference between שבועות (oaths) and נדרים (vows), we must introduce the terms חפצא (object) and גברא (person) and note how נדרים (vows) are statements we make about our relationship with objects (חפצא), whereas שבועות (oaths) are statements we make about our own selves or other people (גברא). Moreover, we should also recall what we were previously taught (Nedarim 8a) that every Jew is considered to be bound by an oath that the Jewish people made at Mount Sinai to observe the Torah (מושבע ועומד מהר סיני).
Given all this, when our Mishna speaks of ‘Konam – a sukkah that I make’, or ‘Konam – a lulav that I take’, or ‘[Konam] – tefillin that I put on’, then it is evaluating whether a Jew can transform that particular object which is intended to be used to fulfil a mitzvah into a prohibited object through the means of a vow – to which the answer is yes. Whereas if someone were to make an oath forbidding themselves to fulfil the mitzvah of sukkah, lulav and tefillin, then they cannot affect an oath to transgress a mitzvah to which they are already committed.
What this tells us is that, as individuals (גברא), we are born with commitments to the mitzvot (nb. those who convert to Judaism commit themselves to this Sinaitic oath). And though we may not always fulfil those commitments, the commitment to the mitzvot made by the collective spiritual presence of the Jewish people (i.e. Knesset Yisrael) at Mount Sinai is a perpetual feature of our individual Jewish spiritual personality.
However, what this also tells us is that every item (חפצא) that we possess is not automatically presumed to have any particular spiritual loyalties. Items are not bound by a historic vow for them to be used exclusively for mitzvot. However, what is clear – as expressed by various rabbinic teachings relating to the creation story – is that God wishes that we use what we have in a way that helps others and serves God.
Given this, whenever we purchase something new, it is appropriate for us to meditate on how we can sanctify this item (חפצא), and this is why I often stress the importance of reciting the Shehecheyanu (שהחיינו) bracha because I believe that by doing so, it helps us focus on how we can use what we have to help others and serve God (nb. while most authorities consider שהחיינו to be a ברכת הודאה – ‘a blessing of praise’, there are some who consider it to be a ברכת המצוות – ‘a blessing on mitzvot’, because whenever we purchase a new item, we should think about all the mitzvot that we hope to perform with that object).