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Torah Commentary
Matot (July 21, 2012)

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

THIS WEEK’S PARASHAH focuses on the importance of the spoken word. In English Common Law, and in most legal systems in the world, agreements that are not in writing and then signed by the parties are of little enforceable value.

Although the parashah concentrates on the legality of vows and oaths in Jewish law and life, the overall message that it conveys is a clear one: The spoken word binds a person to what is said and declared. This is part of the general pattern of the Torah to firmly enforce the value of truth and to warn us of the dangers of dishonesty and falsehood in personal relationships. As my great-grandfather used to say, “The real punishment of a con man is that he eventually cons himself.”

The financial markets these days are polluted with the filth of such falsehoods and cons. Ironically, most of them originate without criminal intent. But once falsehoods are involved, the deception closes on people, and it becomes impossible to remove one’s self from the clutches of this self-made web of falsehood.

However, Jewish Rabbinic responsa over the ages are filled with instances of enforceable oral commitments. It is not for nothing that the Rabbis warned us that wise men should be careful as to what they say. Saying is signing; it is committing, and it is binding.

There are two tractates in the Talmud — both of considerable size and complexity — that deal with this issue of the legal and spiritual consequences of the spoken word. N’darim, the tractate that deals with vows (there is no perfect translation of this Hebrew term in English), appears in seder Nashim, which is the order of the Mishnah that deals with marriage, divorce and domestic relations.

This placement comes to teach us the necessary commitment and honesty that is the basis of the relationship of marriage and family. The vows and commitments that a husband and wife make to each other are considered sacred in Jewish life and law. Only by realizing the seriousness of vows can one train one’s self in honest speech and true emotional commitment in family life.

The tractate Sh’vuot, which deals with oaths that are taken (again, there is no exact translation of this Hebrew word in English), is found in the order of N’zikin (damages, courts and commercial issues) in the Talmud. Honesty and integrity in the world of finance and commerce are dependent upon keeping one’s word. Breaking one’s word damages everyone involved.

Many people have been ruined by the inability to withstand the temptation of breaking one’s word for a simple, short-term financial gain. Because this temptation is universal and very persuasive, the Torah goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of keeping one’s word under all circumstances. It reconfirms to us the adage that “Life and death themselves are dependent upon the spoken word.”


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