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He Shall not Profane his Word

Jul 21, 2011

"If a man takes a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself he shall not profane his word" (Bamidbar 30:3). The prohibition mentioned in the pasuk applies to one who takes a vow ("neder") as well as one who takes an oath ("shvua"). Chazal distinguish between the two: "In a vow - the articles in question are forbidden to the person ... (while) an oath requires the person to abstain from the object" (Nedarim 2b).  In other words, the article mentioned in the vow becomes a forbidden object to the person taking the vow (or anyone else included in this vow).  This object has now been consecrated, similar to an object belonging to the Beit Hamikdash, therefore if one were to say "this loaf of bread is a 'konam' (vow) unto me", the loaf of bread would attain a sanctity that would preclude his deriving benefit from it. When it comes to an oath, on the other hand, no change is made to the object itself, rather the change is in the subject - the person who takes the oath.  He has caused something to become off limits to him.  For example, if one were to take an oath: "tomorrow I will not travel to Bnei Brak", the person would be prohibited from traveling to Bnei Brak, but the city does not undergo any transformation.

In view of the above distinction, how does "he shall not profane his word" apply to an oath, after all there is nothing holy that can be profaned?  The following dispute found in the Rishonim can help answer our question.  There is a debate as to whether to be considered a "shvuat bitui" the oath must contain Hashem's Name (see Ran on Nedarim 2b).  According to the view that Hashem's Name is required, we can understand why violation of the terms of an oath is considered "profaning his word".  After all, he used the Name of the A-lmighty to add credibility to his statement, yet by not fulfilling the terms of his oath he has shown that swearing in Hashem's Name has little meaning to him.

The other view among the Rishonim is that a statement such as "I swear that I will not go to Bnei Brak" attains the status of an oath even without mentioning Hashem's Name.  If so, if there is nothing holy included in the statement, how does the prohibition of "he shall not profane his word" apply?  The way I understand it, this opinion does not indicate that an oath has no sanctity because Hashem's Name is not used, on the contrary!  Hashem's Name is not required because it is implied whether or not explicitly mentioned.  The reason is that a Jew is forbidden to swear by any name other than that of Hashem, whether it be Moshe Rabenu, or "lehavdil" Mohammed's grandfather.  By the very definition of an oath, a Jew swears in the Name of Hashem, and violation of the terms of the oath constitutes a desecration of Hashem's Name. 

Although we do find in the Gemara oaths in the name of the Beit Hamikdash or its service, it has been explained that these oaths are taken in the Name of the One for Whom the Beit Hamikdash was built, or for Whom this service is being performed, not in the name of the Mikdash or service itself.  An oath not containing the Name of Hashem is still an oath in His Name.  (It would therefore appear to me that should a heretic, G-d forbid, swear, his oath would have no meaning.  One cannot apply the concept of an oath to one who denies Hashem's existence.  Even if he were to swear in the name of the flag or the national anthem, it does not have the status of an oath).  We see, therefore, that even according to the opinion that an oath does not require Hashem's Name, violation of an oath is a desecration of the Name of Heaven, for Hashem's Name is implicit in every oath even if not explicitly mentioned.

We are still left with a slight difficulty.  The Mishna (Nedarim 20b) lists four categories of vows that the Sages tell us do not take effect (one need not even seek out a "chacham" to find a "petach" - an opening permitting one to violate the terms of the vow).  One of these categories is "nidrei havai" - vows of exaggeration.  For example, if one were to say "this object is 'konam' to me if the number of people traveling this route does not equal the number of people who left Egypt!" (Nedarim 24b).  There clearly were not six hundred thousand people traveling on that road at that moment (unless of course there was a left wing demonstration in which case the press reports the number of protestors at six hundred thousand).  It would therefore appear quite reasonable to assume that the object in question is now forbidden to him. The Mishna, however, tells us otherwise.  The reason for this ruling is that people often talk in superlatives - in colloquial speech people refer to a large gathering as "the multitudes of the Exodus from Egypt!"  The veracity of such a statement would not be questioned even if there were far less numbers of people there.  One who benefits from the object of the vow, has not "profaned his word".

The difficulty lies in the following passage from the Rambam: "from where do we know that even with regard to these four vows ... although one taking the vow has not violated 'he shall not profane his word', it is forbidden to take such a vow when one has no intent of fulfilling it? The source is: 'he shall not desecrate his word' - meaning he shall not make his words profane" (Hilchot Nedarim 4:4, based on Tosefta Nedarim 4:4).  In this halacha, the Rambam is informing us that although violation of such a vow is not a Torah prohibition, one may not take such a vow if he has no intention of fulfilling it.  Why not?  If the colloquial description of a large gathering permits a slight exaggeration, what could be wrong with such a statement - there were a large number of people traveling that route and thus the 'konam' does not take effect?

The answer lies in the Rambam's last few words: "he shall not profane his word - he shall not make his words profane" (see Rashi Bamidbar 30:3).  Man must value each and every word he utters.  It may be acceptable to refer to a large crowd as being equivalent in number to those who left Egypt, yet when taking a vow one must be more precise, as a father once said to his son "Have I not told you a million times not to exaggerate!".  This may be an acceptable way for a father to speak to his son, it is not acceptable when it comes to a vow.

Lack of precision in one's speech amounts to a desecration of the power of speech.  Speech is a very powerful and precious gift that Hashem has given us.  It is incredible what speech can accomplish even without any actions, as we see from the words of the prophet: "and I have placed My words in your mouth ... to implant the heavens and to set a foundation for the earth, and to say unto Zion 'you are My people!'" (Yeshayahu 51:16).  How can it be that speech alone can implant the heavens, set a foundation for the earth, and even hasten the redemption?  Man was created in the image of G-d.  Just as Hashem created the world using speech: "G-d said, 'let there be light' ... G-d said, 'let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters'" (Bereishit 1:3,6), so too man, who was created in His image, can create worlds with his speech.  If his speech is comprised of words of Torah he creates worlds of holiness, and if his speech is made up of foolishness he creates worlds of nothingness. There is not a single word that man utters that does not have some effect, there is no such thing as "just talking". This is even more pronounced when anything we say can be recorded and preserved for eternity.  In addition, the telephone has provided us with a medium with which our words can reach the four corners of the earth.  With this in mind we can further appreciate the power of speech and that there is no word that is insignificant.

Chazal tell us: "if the righteous wanted they could create a world, for it is stated: 'for only your sins have separated between yourselves and your G-d' (Yeshayahu 59:2)" (Sanhedrin 65b).  The only thing that distinguishes man from G-d are man's sins.  Given that the righteous are free of any sin, they are therefore like Hashem Himself and similarly have the ability to create worlds.  The Gemara there records cases of an Amora who created human beings, and one who created fine choice animals every Erev Shabbat for his Shabbat meals.  The Maharal, as we know created his "golem" and the Gr"a was known to have begun work on a "golem" in his childhood only to have the Heavens intercede and prevent him from finishing his work due to his youth (see R' Chaim Volozhin's introduction to "Sifra d'Tzniuta").  Man is generally not aware of the tremendous power his speech has.  It may be true that sins can damage and lower man's stature, but even after all that when he learns Torah he has the ability "to implant the Heavens and to set a foundation for the earth".

Chazal (see Yerushalmi Brachot 1:2) quote R' Shimon bar Yochai as having said that had he been present at the time of "Matan Torah", he would have asked that each person be given two mouths.  His rationale was that there are times when one's mouth must be used to discuss mundane matters and to eat with, would it not therefore be better for man to have a mouth to be used only for speaking words of Torah.  I would have asked for two mouths too, one for eating meat foods and one for dairy.  R' Shimon bar Yochai, however, was on a different level and he felt that the same mouth that is used for speaking Torah should not be used for worldly matters.  At a later stage (perhaps as a result of his having to flee the Romans and go into hiding for many years due to loshon hara that was spoken about him - see Shabbat 33b), he retracted his request and admitted that man is better off with only one mouth.  He reasoned that if the world cannot continue to survive due to the loshon hara coming out of one mouth, imagine how much more loshon hara would be spoken if we each had two mouths?!  The Creator was therefore right in giving us only one mouth.  Today's modern technology has invented many more mouths - telephones and other means of communication that have given man the ability to spread his loshon hara to the four corners of the earth in an instant - what a deplorable situation!

Thank G-d Hashem has limited the power of those who speak loshon hara.  Chazal tell us thatloshon hara kills three people - the one who speaks it, the one who accepts it, and the one of whom it is spoken (see Erchin 15b).  We can easily understand how it kills the person who is the subject of the loshon hara, we have as a source Doeg the Edomite speaks ill of Achimelech and as a result of this Shaul smites Nov Ir HaKohanim (See Shmuel I 22:9-19).  As we just mentioned, however, the Gemara tells us that loshon hara not only kills the subject but the speaker and the listener as well.  One can compare a person who speaks loshon hara to today's suicide bombers, lehavdil, for they too kill themselves along with their victims.  There is one major difference, however.  The suicide bomber is convinced that his action will land him a place in paradise, whereas you can be sure that a person speaking loshon hara cannot hope that it will help him obtain a place in Gan Eden - he is doing nothing more than committing suicide.  We see that speech can be a very negative force as well, greater than we can hope to understand, for we can only comprehend how loshon hara causes damage to its subject but not to its speaker.

Chazal tell us: "as a result of the incident involving Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Yerushalayim was destroyed" (Gittin 55b).  The mailman who delivered the invitation made a minor mistake - he invited Bar Kamtza instead of Kamtza and the result was the great destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and all the tragedies that subsequently ensued.  Is he really to blame for all this, a messenger who either did not understand the instructions or forgot whom he was supposed to invite to the feast? Chazal obviously do not place the responsibility on his shoulders.  Our Sages tell us that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed due to the way the host publicly embarrassed Bar Kamtza.  This not only brought about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, but for the past two thousand years we have been persecuted by other nations with thousands of our people being killed during the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, and any other opportunity right up to the suicide bombers of today, all due to one man publicly embarrassing his fellow Jew.  Although Bar Kamtza's reaction - informing the authorities, is a clear indication that he was not among the righteous of the generation, there was no justification for the way he was treated.  Hashem punished the Jewish people for the lack of respect accorded Bar Kamtza and it was through this man who was an object of derision that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and the Jewish nation went into exile.  Chazal sum up the incident: "come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy One, Blessed is He, assisted Bar Kamtza in his plot to take revenge for the shame to which he had been subjected, and He destroyed His Temple and He burned His Sanctuary" (Gittin 57a).  These two people, the host for having publicly embarrassed Bar Kamtza, and Bar Kamtza himself for the loshon hara he had spoken, were together responsible for this massive destruction, and for the thousands upon thousands of Jews killed and all the suffering since that time.  Bar Kamtza took revenge upon the host as well as the Sages who were present and offered no protest.  But what a terrible revenge Bar Kamtza exacted against himself in the Next World! how heavily such a terrible act counts against him!  One's mouth is not "hefker", it must be used cautiously for not only can it cause terrible damage to others, but the speaker himself is harmed to no end.

The Gemara tells us that when Rav Dimi arrived from Eretz Yisrael, Abaye asked him: "About what are they careful in the West (Eretz Yisrael)" (Baba Metzia 58b) - what Mitzvah do they especially adhere to?  The response was "they take extra special care not to embarrass others in public".  Why, specifically in Eretz Yisrael are they so cautious, is this prohibition a Mitzvah that is dependent on the Land?  Certainly not, it applies equally in Chutz la'aretz.  Perhaps it was because the people of Eretz Yisrael were actually witnesses to the great catastrophe that can result from publicly embarrassing a fellow Jew (the destruction of Yehuda, the thousands who were killed outright as well as the many more who have been killed since).

We have seen what tragic results improper speech can produce.  Given that "a measure of good is greater than a measure of retribution" (Sanhedrin 100b) we can only imagine what wonderful results proper speech can produce.  The Gemara (Erchin 15b) derives from the pasuk "a soothing tongue is a tree of life" (Mishle 15:4), that a "tikkun" for the sin of loshon hara(there is a dispute cited in the Gemara whether this applies before or after the loshon hara is spoken) is "the tree of life" - involvement in Torah which is "A tree of life to those who grasp it" (Mishlei 3:18).  One's tongue must become accustomed to speaking words of Torah,chiddushim, the kushya posed by R' Akiva Eiger and the answers offered by R' Baruch Ber. One who speaks in such a fashion creates worlds, while we saw that speaking loshon hara - even one item by Bar Kamtza, can destroy worlds.  Because "a measure of good is greater than a measure of retribution" the ability to create is greater than the ability to destroy. When one speaks words of Torah, tzdaka, and chesed, he has corrected far more than what Bar Kamtza managed to destroy.  If Bar Kamtza has destroyed a world of two thousand years, speech of Torah and chesed has the power to create a world for thousands upon thousands of years.

The Torah commands us: "with righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15), and Chazal add "judge every man in a favorable, meritorious light" (Pirke Avot 1:6).  If a person is not totally evil, but is either very righteous or even mediocre, we are obligated to judge his actions favorably even if on the surface they may not appear so. (The Rishonim tell us that a wicked person must be judged unfavorably).  There are two possible reasons we are commanded to judge our fellow Jew in a favorable light.  Firstly, as mentioned before, by speaking favorably of another we have created worlds of favor and merit for ourselves.  How have we given ourselves so much merit?  By judging another in a positive light down below, Hashem will treat us "measure for measure" (Shabbat 105b) and judge the Jewish people in a favorable light in the Heavenly courts above.  Hashem with His infinite mouth, so to speak, has the ability to speak far more favorably for us than we can for anyone else.  Secondly, quite often the truth is on the other person's side.  We often think that we are "doing him a favor" by viewing his actions in a positive light, when in fact that is absolute truth.  We can take this one step further and add that a person may think that his neighbor is guilty of wrongdoing when in reality the accuser is the guilty one, as the following story illustrates.  A woman was waiting at the airport for her flight (let us judge her favorably and assume she had a valid reason for flying to Chutz la'aretz and was not simply taking a vacation there!).  She went to the newsstand and purchased a package of wafers to eat while she was waiting.  As she was eating her wafers she suddenly heard her name being called over the loudspeaker instructing her to come to the counter to straighten out some paper work.  Upon returning to her seat she noticed a man sitting there eating her wafers.  In her heart she was very angry but she decided to do her best to avoid publicly embarrassing him.  What did she do? She sat herself down right next to him and proceeded to eat the wafers from her package - the same one the man was helping himself to. Together, they managed to finish the entire package of wafers. Hours later, while on the plane she opened her handbag only to discover packet of wafers! She suddenly realized that in her haste to go the counter she must have placed the wafers in her bag.  It was now clear that it was not he who was eating from her wafers, but she was eating his! She had thought he was stealing from her, when in fact she was stealing from him. She could only imagine what that must have been going through that man's mind when a strange woman sits herself down right next to him and takes one of his wafers after another. Perhaps he judged her favorably and assumed that she had spent her very last penny on the flight and had nothing left to eat.  In a similar vein, a woman once needed a baby sitter.  She asked her daughter if she would call a friend of hers and see if she was available.  The daughter phoned her friend and asked her if she could be at her house at two o'clock.  Upon hearing a positive response, the daughter thanked her and hung up the phone.  The next day came and her friend did not arrive at the appointed time.  How could such a person possibly be judged favorably?  The mother finally decided to call the babysitter's mother to find out why her daughter had failed to arrive.  The babysitter's mother responded: "so you're the one who called my daughter to babysit.  You asked her if she was available to babysit but you hung up without leaving your name and address!"  How many times do we think that someone is guilty of wrongdoing when we ourselves are the guilty ones!  Even if we are not guilty, it does not necessarily imply that the one we accuse is, and it is for this reason that every person must be judged favorably.

After the chet haegel, Hashem wished to destroy the entire Jewish nation.  What does Moshe say to Hashem? "Why, Hashem, should Your anger flare up against Your people" (Shmot 32:11), suddenly that terrible decree was rescinded: "Hashem reconsidered regarding the evil that He declared He would do to His people" (ibid. 14).  All this was going on while the people were still dancing in front of this calf.  There was still much more "work" for Moshe to do - the Tablets had need to be broken, three thousand men were to be killed, Moshe had to return to the Heavens for forty days and then another forty days.  The first order of business though is to implore Hashem to judge His nation favorably.  This alone was sufficient to totally alter the course history and to save the Jewish people who had been destined for destruction.  Only after that did Moshe rectify what needed correcting.  We see this idea of first judging favorably in other areas as well.  Following the sin of the spies, Moshe asked Hashem not to destroy the Jewish nation "and Hashem said 'I have forgiven because of your words'" (Bamidbar 14:20).  The people were still punished - they had to wander in the desert for forty years, the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed on that very day because: "You wept in vain, I will establish it for you as a time of weeping for all generations" (Taanit 28b).  First and foremost, however, Moshe's words in the people's favor managed to save the entire nation from destruction.

We have mentioned our obligation to judge others favorably, and the worlds of favorable judgment and merit that are created by this.   This, however, is not always appropriate. There are two adages in Chazal regarding how we must judge others.  The first of which we have mentioned: "judge every man in a favorable, meritorious light". The second is "do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself ('limkomo') in his place, his situation" (Pirke Avot 2:5).  (My father z"l used to say that many times the word "limkomo" should be interpreted literally - in his place.  One cannot compare someone who spent his life learning in a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim with one who was raised in Moscow in the academy of Comrade Stalin, may his name be obliterated.  Can we expect such a person to know what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is "lechatchila" and what is "bedieved"?  It is therefore inappropriate to compare him to one who Baruch Hashem had the opportunity to learn in a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim). I would like to add another way in which we should judge others - not to judge them at all!  Someone recently approached me describing a particular person's behavior, and asked me how he could possibly judge him in a favorable light.  I answered him that indeed I do not know how to judge him favorably, but why judge him at all?  Why must you get involved? What business is it of yours?  So what!  So he did whatever he did, either he was right or not, it should not be of your concern!  If they are suggesting a shidduch then you must check matters further - is he an appropriate "chatan" for my daughter, would I want him as a father-in-law?  Perhaps if he was being considered for a position in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh we must decide whether he is fitting for the job. If you have little to do with him, why must you judge his actions?  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are coming up in approximately two months, at that time the Judge of the Land will sit in judgment and evaluate this person's actions, but for you it is better not to get involved, do not judge your fellow man at all!  It is only when there is no alternative but to be the judge, that we must follow the Torah's directive of "with righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Vayikra 19:15), and "do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself in his place, his situation" It is only then that we must judge another in a favorable light and by judging someone in a positive light below, we can create worlds of favorable judgment above.

People in search of a bracha generally turn to a Rebbe or Talmid Chacham.  I would like to suggest a way one can receive a bracha from none other than Hashem Himself.  Firstly, here in Eretz Yisrael we have the opportunity to listen to Birkat Kohanim daily (in Chutz la'aretz Birkat Kohanim is not practiced every day of the year).  Birkat Kohanim is actually a bracha from Hashem Himself (see Rashi Bamidbar 6:27).  What does one do who feels the need for Hashem's bracha in the afternoon or evening (when there is no Birkat Kohanim)?  All he need do is bless another Jew, as Hashem promised Avraham Avinu: "I will bless those who bless you" (Bereishit 12:3).  This means that Hashem confers a blessing upon one who blesses his fellow Jew.  If we sincerely wish for our neighbors a "good morning" or "good evening", Hashem will bless us as well.  If these are simply greetings lacking any deep meaning behind them, perhaps Hashem Who is full of chesed will bless us anyway, but when the greeting is a sincere bracha, we are promised a blessing from above.  I do not know how much my bracha is worth, but there is no limit to the value of Hashem's bracha.

I once heard the following from my Rebbe HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt"l.  He pointed out that people do not take the Torah's curses "arrur" seriously enough.  They will say "it is only an "arrur" it is not explicitly prohibited.  Do we have a right not to take this seriously? Noach, mere flesh and blood, declared "cursed be Canaan" (Bereishit 9:25) and to this day, despite the passage of four thousand years since that curse, Cham's descendants are among the most denigrated of all peoples - there is no one who aspires to be like them.  If the "arrur" of a human being can have a four thousand year effect for generation after generation, imagine how effective Hashem's "arrur" can be.  We must not take lightly the curses mentioned in the Torah.

If Hashem's "arrur" is so effective, then since "a measure of good is greater than a measure of retribution" (Sanhedrin 100b), imagine how effective His "baruch" can be.  Why spend so much money traveling to see a Rebbe or a Talmid Chacham, when by proper usage of our mouths, Hashem will shower us with blessings.  All we need do is wish our fellow Jew "good health" or "may you live until one hundred and twenty".  What incredible power our speech has!

The power of prayer is awesome as well.  The Gemara tells us "Elisha did what he did with his prayer" (Megilla 27a) - all the miracles he performed such as reviving the dead all came about through his tefillot.  We are not on Elisha's level and we cannot expect to revive the dead, but we do see how much our tefillot can accomplish.  What a tremendous feeling it is to be able to stand before Hashem in prayer and beseech Him and even bless Him.  The Creator actually asks us to bless Him!  People ask the Rebbe or Chacham to give them a bracha, but for the Rebbe to ask us for a bracha?  Who am I that the Rebbe will want my bracha? Hashem asks us to bless Him one hundred times daily!  Three times daily we stand before Him and recite nineteen brachot (seven on Shabbat), knowing that our bracha is effective, we may not see immediate results but it certainly counts.  Clearly, the more kavana my tefillot have, the more effective they are - nothing that comes out from our mouths goes to waste.

This idea is not limited to tefilla but can be extended to our Torah and chesed as well.  We are "ladder set earthward and its top reached heavenward, and behold! angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it" (Bereishit 28:12).  My actions can effect the movement of the angels of Heaven.  Not only my actions, but my words as well.  How many Mitzvot can we accomplish with our speech - how many acts of chesed involve merely a kind word.  A good word can bring joy to a groom, as Chazal tell us: "the reward that comes from attending a wedding is for the words" (Brachot 6b).  Our reward for rejoicing with the groom is not so much for our partaking of his wedding meal (not to belittle the importance of that), but from bringing him joy with a nice word.  Singing and dancing at the wedding brings joy as well, but the main reward comes from what we say to him.

This applies to bringing comfort to a mourner as well.  We need not cause a mourner to laugh, but we must be there to comfort him during these difficult times.  Words can bring peace between man and wife and between man and his fellow man.  Entire worlds can be acquired through speech.  The Gemara cites cases of people who merited a place in the Next World by simply bringing joy to the depressed, and creating an atmosphere of peace between two rival parties (see Taanit 22a).  About Aharon HaKohen it was said that he "loves peace and pursues peace" (Pirke Avot 1:12) - he accomplished an incredible amount with his speech. We can extend this idea to the Mitzvah of tzdaka as well: "Anyone who gives even a penny to a pauper is blessed with six blessings, and one who comforts a pauper with words, is blessed with eleven blessings" (Baba Batra 9b).  The Gemara bases this idea on the pasuk "and offer your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul (Rashi i

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