Power of the spoken word is important for God and humans


Throughout the Bible, the importance of the spoken word is given special emphasis. In the beginning when God created the world, God did so by speaking. On the first day of creation God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. Each and every consecutive day, God creates in the same manner, by using the power of God’s holy words.

In this week’s Parashah, Mattot/Mas’ei we again are reminded that not only God’s words have power, but the words of human beings as well. As beings created in the divine image, our words also have the power to create as well as destroy. The topic that God addresses in this Parashah is that of making vows and oaths. B’midbar, chapter thirty, verse three reads, “If a man makes a vow or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

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The distinction between a vow or “neder” and an oath “shvuah” is typically that a vow refers to a promise to do something (“I promise to donate a percentage of my earnings to tzedakah”) while an oath refers to a promise to refrain from doing something.(“I swear to never gamble again”). Whether a vow or an oath, each case deals with keeping a spoken and declared promise. The Bible takes vows and oaths so seriously that no consideration is given that someone might make such a pledge and then not honor it. Because it was something that was voluntary and taken on by an individual as a self-imposed obligation, the assumption is that because of its seriousness, a given individual would always follow through.

The rabbis of the Talmud also take vows seriously, so much so that, in general, they dissuade people from taking public pledges in the first place. They were very concerned that vows would not be fulfilled and therefore gave much lengthy discussion of how to legally be absolved from ones’ vows. The development of the text of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur is a part of this attempt to create a way to nullify vows. Clearly, the rabbis view words as sacred and holy and therefore do what they can to protect the holiness of the spoken word.

This week we are reminded again one way to be holy and follow in God’s ways is to be careful when we use our words and to make sure that if we make a promise, we fulfill that obligation. If everyone treated the power of the spoken word as seriously as our tradition warrants, than our community and our world would be a more enriching, peaceful, and blessed place.

Rabbi Brad Horwitz of the Central Agency for Jewish Education prepared this week’s Torah Portion.