October 31, 2022

Nedarim 2

If we had to summarise the first Mishna of Massechet Nedarim (2a), it would be that if you sincerely wish to make a vow to God, then whether you use normative vow-making words, or you use of alternative expressions (כינויים) to the words most commonly used when making a vow, your vow is valid. The question I would like to ask is – why?

From the perspective of God, as God knows our inner thoughts, then surely if someone intends to make a vow it should make little difference which particular words they invoke while doing so.

Similarly, from the perspective of the individual making the vow, if you intend to make a vow it shouldn’t really matter what specific words you use – since you know your inner intentions.

And from the perspective of others overhearing an individual making a vow, surely the vow should only be valid if the precise and normative vow-making words have been uttered, whereas if someone uses alternative words (כינויים), perhaps this should render their vow invalid?

To answer these questions we must realize that vow-making is not something to take lightly. On the contrary! Jewish law takes vows very seriously. But in order to know if a vow has been made, we cannot merely rely on sincere thoughts and intentions. Instead, to know that a vow has been made, certain words must have been said.

Still, our yearning to make personal and spiritual commitments cannot be entirely straightjacketed. Given this, whether someone invokes precise and normative vow-making expressions, or whether they invoke alternative words (כינויים), they have still made a vow.

In conclusion, while intention matters greatly in religion, we use words to express our intentions – which is why, if someone uses either the most commonly associated words for vow-making or other alternative words (כינויים) for vow-making, then what has been said is a vow. 

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