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Annulment of Vows

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“I swear that this time I will lose weight”
“I am going to pray every day…”
We make promises all the time. We swear that we are going to do something, and then hope that we will be in a position to fulfill the vow.

But did you know that according to Torah, words have binding force and may not be taken lightly? The Jewish legal view on oaths and vows is based on the verse, “He shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that he has uttered” (Numbers 30:3).

When you swear to do something, you’ve made a serious commitment. Words, from a Torah perspective, are absolutely binding. (It is for this reason that many people, after promising to do something, will append the caveat “bli neder” – without intending to vow, to prevent themselves from vowing falsely.)

According to the Torah, vows and oaths, however, can be retroactively nullified, by a “court” of knowledgeable people.

It was considered particularly important by the sages that, as the High Holidays approach, people ensure that they have not violated their previous year’s vows. They therefore created a formal nullification of vows that all are urged to perform before Rosh Hashanah. Known as “Hatarat Nedarim,” the traditional “annulment of vows” takes place in front of a Jewish court of at least 3 knowledgeable men. In addition to nullifying past vows made “in error,” the Hatarat Nedarim also declares that any such statements made in the coming year should be considered null and void.

(Of course, the nullification only covers those vows that are allowed to be nullified – not vows such as those regarding owing someone money – and vows that are made by one individual to another.)

This Treat was originally posted on September 29, 2008

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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