Can a Husband Annul His Wife's Nazirite Vow?
Annulling a Woman’s Vows and Obligations
Numbers 30 concerns vows. It is, as every Torah reader knows, extraordinarily repetitious. The repetitiousness is a symptom of the writer’s desire to cover every eventuality, and thus reflects a certain anxiety about the status of women found elsewhere in Numbers, such as in the stories about foreign women (chs. 25 and 31) and Zelophechad’s daughters (chs. 27 [vv. 1-5] and 36).
The first law is simple: a man must keep a vow or obligation:
במדבר ל:ג אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַי-הוָה אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה.
Num 30:3 If a man makes a vow to YHWH 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.
The case of men vowing is straightforward, and covered in a single verse—but what about women? They too can make a vow (neder), but the text adds a dizzying array of provisions in the 14 verses that follow, limiting this ability:
- The patriarchal authority figure can annul it, but only on the day that he hears it, not thereafter (vv. 4-6).
- If a woman passes from the domain of the father to that of a husband, and the vow is intact since her father did not annul it, the husband may still annul it, but only when he first hears of it (vv. 7-9).
- If she is widowed or divorced, her vow cannot be annulled (v. 10).
- If she makes a vow while married, her husband can annul the vow, but only when he first hears of it (vv. 11-15).
- If the husband or father compel her to break the vow after the first day, they bear her guilt (v. 16).
At issue here is the woman’s autonomy, including her subjectivity. The text attempts to balance her right to make a vow on her own initiative with the right of her patriarch to control her decisions.
Another issue is age; the text says twice that this applies בנעוריה “in her youth,” which the rabbis interpret strictly as referring only to the period of na’arut, since a minor’s vows do not count, and an unmarried adult woman’s vows cannot be annulled by her father.Nevertheless, in the biblical text, the word בנעוריה “in her youth,” applies to a daughter living in her father’s house before she is wed, with no limitation with regard to age. Once she has married, both the Torah and the rabbis are in agreement that her husband has veto power despite her being a full adult.
There are many questions the text does not ask. Does the mother have the power to veto the vow? If the father dies, does the eldest brother or whoever else becomes head of the household assume his responsibility? Does a widow or divorcée who remarries lose her autonomy with regard to vows? For all its veneer of accounting for all possibilities, the text leaves much open.
What Are Vows?
The distinctive feature of the vow (neder) is a promise to give something to YHWH; it is most commonly a sacrifice, but it may be a dedication of oneself, as in the nazirite vow, or of some person or thing. A full list is given in Leviticus 27.
In biblical narrative, vows are always conditional, taking the form of “If you do this, then I will give that.” For example, Jacob promises a tenth of all that he has if YHWH brings him back home safely (Gen 28: 20-22). In our chapter the vow (neder) is paired with “obligation” (issar), when one commits oneself, literally “binds oneself,” to practise a certain kind of self-denial, such as fasting. The obligation (issar) is rendered binding by an “oath” (shevu‘ah), a form of words which invoke the deity as witness or guarantor.
Vows give us some insight into popular piety in ancient Israel. They are frequently mentioned in Psalms; ironically, the “strange woman” in Proverbs (7:14) seduces the young man with the promise that he can share her votive offering. One can easily imagine circumstances in which a woman as well as a man might wish to make a vow, for example, with the hope of having a child, like Hannah (1 Sam 1:11), or for recovery from sickness. A vow would make a claim to a special relationship with YHWH by non-privileged groups, such as women and lay people.
Binding an Obligation on One’s Nefesh
The seriousness of the vow or obligation is emphasized by the repeated reference to how it is bound to the person’s nefesh, a term with a variety of meanings, but primarily signifying the personhood and vitality of a human or animal. Thus, for example:
במדבר ל:ה וְשָׁמַע אָבִיהָ אֶת נִדְרָהּ וֶאֱסָרָהּ אֲשֶׁר אָסְרָה עַל נַפְשָׁהּ וְהֶחֱרִישׁ לָהּ אָבִיהָ וְקָמוּ כָּל נְדָרֶיהָ וְכָל אִסָּר אֲשֶׁר אָסְרָה עַל נַפְשָׁהּ יָקוּם.
Num 30:5 and her father learns of her vow or her obligation which she bound upon her nefesh and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every obligation with which she binds her nefesh shall stand.
The same phrase with slight variations is found in vv. 3 (about the man), 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. In v. 14, however, a different expression appears:
במדבר ל:יד כָּל נֵדֶר וְכָל שְׁבֻעַת אִסָּר לְעַנֹּת נָפֶשׁ אִישָׁהּ יְקִימֶנּוּ וְאִישָׁהּ יְפֵרֶנּוּ.
Num 30:14 Every vow and every oath of obligation to afflict the nefesh may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.
This expression “afflict the nefesh” is most commonly used to refer to the self-afflictions on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29, 31; 23:27, 29, 32; Num 29:7). To bind or afflict one’s nefesh means an imposition or constraint on one’s self. Thus, the verse clarifies that the kind of obligation (issar) the text is envisioning is a prohibition, as noted already by R. Judah ibn Balaam (11th cent. Spain) on our chapter:
התחיל לדבר על הנדרים בכלל, עד שסיים, אח”כ פרט ואמר “כל נדר וכל שבועת אסר לענות נפש”, והוא כאכילת המגדנים זולת אחדים וכצום התמידי וכעזיבה וכיוצא בהם, וזהו מן המדה “דבר הלמד מסופו”.
[The text] begins by discussing vows in general until it comes to the end, where it specifies and says, “Every vow and every oath of obligation to afflict the nefesh,” such as [a vow not] to eat choice foods with some exceptions, or to fast continuously, or giving assistance, and such things. This follows the hermeneutical rule “a matter learned from the end of a passage” (i.e., that the end of the passage clarifies its intent.)
Mishnah Nedarim (11:1) debates what exactly counts as afflicting the nefesh. Whereas the anonymous position suggests it applies to mundane activities such as putting on jewelry or bathing, Rabbi Yossi suggests it is only serious self-abnegation, such as refusing to eat any produce, ostensibly because this would affect her health.
Moreover, based on the concluding verse (17), that adds the phrase “between a man and his wife,” the Talmud adds that vows that a husband may also annul vows that interfere with marital relations, such as abstaining from make up or sex, even if these do not meet R. Yossi’s standard of “unhealthy” vows. Therefore, according to rabbinic interpretation, any vow that does not afflict her nefesh or her marriage cannot be annulled by her husband. They are her business alone.
This, however, is not the plain meaning of the biblical text. Instead, it is clear from the text that the phrase לענות נפש, “to afflict the soul”, only qualifies “obligation” (issar) but not “vow”. Milgrom translates appropriately, “Every vow and every obligation of self-denial…” The point of the verse is that if one binds oneself to a certain action or abstention, one is assuming responsibility, especially if it is given sacrosanct status by an oath (shevu‘ah).
As Jacques Berlinerblau has argued, vows were means of claiming power by marginalized groups. A conditional vow, in particular, offers YHWH an exchange, and may be an attempt to force his hand. Cross-culturally, ascetism is correlated with spiritual power. A woman who takes the initiative to make a vow or to abstain from something thereby puts herself outside patriarchal control. A small indication of this is the insistence that she express herself with the “utterance of her lips” (vv. 7, 9 cf. v.13). Like every verbal articulation, it indicates the presence of a subject.
Women and the Nazirite Vow
Numbers 6 describes the nazirite vow (נדר נזיר), which binds a person:
- To avoid wine or any grape products (vv. 3-4),
- To leave their hair uncut until the end of the vow, after which it must all be shaved (vv. 5, 18),
- To avoid impurity, even by burying one’s closest relatives (vv. 6)
The nazirite is holy to YHWH (vv. 5, 8), and in certain respects the restrictions imposed on nazirites render them analogous to priests:
Wine – Priests are prohibited to drink while performing holy service in the Tabernacle (Lev 10:9); nazirites are always prohibited to drink since they are “holy to YHWH” at all times.
Impurity – Both nazirites and priests are forbidden to become impure for the dead (Lev 21:1). However, nazirites are forbidden from becoming impure even for close relatives, an exception granted to the priesthood (Lev 21:2-3), thus, the nazirite is equivalent to the High Priest (Lev 21:11).
However, in contrast to nazirites, priests are forbidden to leave their hair untrimmed in the sanctuary (Lev 10:6). In ancient Israel, as cross-culturally, trimmed hair is associated with civilization and order, and wild hair with counter-cultural marginality. Moreover, unlike priests, nazirites may be either male or female (Num. 6:2).
In this sense, Numbers 6 could be an attempt, in a Second Temple context, to accommodate the institution of the nazirite into the growing Priestly text and the priestly order. We have no idea what the function of nazirite was in ancient Israel. Amos 2:11-12 suggests that they had a charisma equivalent to that of prophets.
עמוס ב:יא וָאָקִים מִבְּנֵיכֶם לִנְבִיאִים וּמִבַּחוּרֵיכֶם לִנְזִרִים הַאַף אֵין זֹאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְ-הוָה. ב:יב וַתַּשְׁקוּ אֶת הַנְּזִרִים יָיִן וְעַל הַנְּבִיאִים צִוִּיתֶם לֵאמֹר לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ.
Amos 2:11 And I raised up prophets from among your sons and nazirites from among your young men. Is that not so, O people of Israel? — says YHWH. 2:12 But you made the nazirites drink wine and ordered the prophets not to prophesy.
Their existence testifies to a much more diverse religious landscape than the texts have transmitted to us. Susan Niditch suggests that the law of the nazirite “both democratizes and domesticates holy status,” by allowing even women to have sacred status, without threatening priestly hierarchy.
Numbers 30 Versus Numbers 6?
How are we to understand the relationship between chapters 6 and 30 of Numbers, both of which are from the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch? I suggest reading chapter 30 as a revision of chapter 6, attempting to take the power of the nazirite vow out of a woman’s hands. But why isn’t the nazirite vow mentioned explicitly in Numbers 30, and why didn’t the editor revise chapter 6 directly?
The reason may be that a husband or father forbidding a vow reflects a subtle rivalry between himself and God. Such a rivalry would be especially serious with the nazirite vow, in which the woman would be dedicating herself to be holy to YHWH and her father or husband stopping her from making this relationship official.
Perhaps the Torah does not want to make this conflict explicit, and yet, granting a father or husband carte blanche to annul any vow he hears does give him power even over a vow as sacred as the nazirite vow. Thus, reading Numbers 6 in light of Numbers 30 means that a woman can become a nazirite only on condition that the patriarch at least tacitly approves.Patriarchy is maintained, even in its breach.
Boundaries in Numbers
This limitation on a woman’s vows fits with the overall theme of Numbers, that of boundaries. Numbers is preoccupied with boundaries: the organization of the camp by tribe (chs. 1-2); dividing between priests, Levites, and regular Israelites (Num 3-4, 8); removing people with skin disease from the camp (5:1-4), the enclosure of the Tabernacle in God’s cloud and fire (9:15-23); and the boundaries of the Promised Land (ch. 34).
Chapter 30 expresses this theme of boundaries on a family level:
במדבר ל:יז אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה בֵּין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּוֹ בֵּין אָב לְבִתּוֹ בִּנְעֻרֶיהָ בֵּית אָבִיהָ.
Num 30:17 Those are the laws that YHWH enjoined upon Moses between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter while in her father’s household by reason of her youth.
The word chukim (חקים) here clearly prescribes limits: they are instituted between a man and his wife, between a father and daughter. There is a point beyond which male authority cannot go (once the vow is tacitly accepted) and there is a point beyond which a woman’s vow cannot go (if her father or husband object upon hearing it).
Controlling Female Subversiveness
Why did the author of Numbers 30 feel the need to remove control of vows from daughters living with their fathers and married women? Claudia Camp argues that Numbers is concerned with the ambiguous status of women in an exclusively male priestly lineage: “they are, by birth, of the ‘right’ lineage and yet, by gender, ‘not-Us’.” The female nazirite is the antithesis of its carefully constructed symbolic world. Her wild hair associates her with that other figure of female subversiveness, the sotah, whose sexuality is the object of male suspicion and desire, and brings her to the very heart of the sanctuary.
The figures of the nazirite and the sotah, coupled together at the beginning of Numbers, articulate the fundamental tensions of the book, namely:
- That between the wilderness and the order represented by the utopian vision of the ideal society in the Promised Land, and by the geometrically organized camp, concentrically arranged around the sanctuary.
- Between the nomadic Tabernacle and its refiguration in the Jerusalem Temple, hence between Sinai and Zion.
- Between the exclusive ethnic identity assumed by the text and the inevitability of intermarriage, of which one sign is the survival of the virgin Midianite daughters in Num 31.
- Between the narrative of the journey through the wilderness, with its series of traumas and rebellions, and the timelessness of Torah, represented on the literary plane by the immense aporia between Exod 20 and Num 10.
The entire P/H document, including the legal passages dispersed throughout the book of Numbers, projects a vision of an ideal world, in the Promised Land, in the future, where nothing essentially changes, and in which society is concentrically arranged around the Tabernacle in its midst. The narratives repeatedly show the impossibility of achieving the vision, because of time, contingency, and human folly and volatility. We are metaphorically as well as literally in the wilderness, which Avivah Zornberg rightly calls “bewilderment.”
Acting Wondrously to Make a Vow
Making a vow means entering a particular ritual state, marked in the case of the Nazirite and elsewhere by the strange word פלא, “to act wondrously”: איש או אשה כי יפלא לנדר נדר, “a man or a woman who acts wondrously to make a vow” (6.2). The Nazirite vow, in particular, is the result of an extraordinary impulse, and has grave social consequences, for example, in not being able to partake in the rites for the dead of even close kindred, or participate in communal celebrations.
The Danger of Vows
Yet there is something dangerous about making vows. The text (v. 3) stresses, לא יחל דברו, “he shall not desecrate his word.” If the father or husband annuls the vow, י-הוה יסלח לה, “YHWH will forgive her” (vv. 6, 9, 13). If he forces her to break it subsequently, ונשא את עונה, “he will bear her guilt” (v. 16).
Why is it so dangerous? It is clearly related to its being undertaken with an “oath” (shevu‘ah), whose significance is described in Leviticus:
ויקרא יט:יב וְלֹא תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה.
Lev 19:12 And you shall not swear falsely in my name and desecrate the name of your God; I am YHWH.
The root ח.ל.ל may also mean to “wound” or to “render void.” Someone who swears falsely wounds or nullifies God’s name and thus presence. A vow that is unfulfilled creates a void where God’s name should be.
Vows, moreover, have unpredictable consequences; hence the motif of hasty and dangerous vows which we find in Judges 11 and 1 Samuel 14, where Jephthah and Saul respectively endanger their respective children’s lives by their vows. The vow creates a bond, like the covenant, and the price one might pay can end up being all one has. A poorly thought out vow can even bring about the destruction of an entire city or tribe, as occurs in Judges to the city of Jabesh Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin (Judg. 20-21).
Why is it Here?
Why does the discussion of vows appear where it does in Numbers, immediately after the list of festival offerings? Ramban (Nahmanides 1194-1270), followed by Jacob Milgrom, thinks that the text is here because of the principle of catchword. The previous chapter ends as follows:
במדבר כט:לט אֵלֶּה תַּעֲשׂוּ לַי-הוָה בְּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם לְבַד מִנִּדְרֵיכֶם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶם לְעֹלֹתֵיכֶם וּלְמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם וּלְנִסְכֵּיכֶם וּלְשַׁלְמֵיכֶם.
Num 29:39 All these you shall offer to YHWH at the stated times, in addition to your votive (neder) and freewill offerings (nedava), be they burnt offerings, grain offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.
As noted by Ramban, in his gloss on Numbers 30:3, this leads in to our section about vows:
ובאה הפרשה הזאת בכאן מפני שהזכיר נדרי גבוה לבד מנדריכם ונדבותיכם לעולותיכם ולמנחותיכם ולנסכיכם ולשלמיכם (במדבר כ”ט:ל”ט)
This passage appears here because vows to heaven were just mentioned previously, “in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, grain offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being” (Num 29:39).
However, since Numbers 29 is about festival sacrifices, not about votive offerings, and these offerings are mentioned frequently throughout the Torah, the point is not convincing. The real question is why the redactor wanted to insert a chapter on vows here, which in some ways modifies the position in Num 6, twenty-four chapters earlier.
To some extent the insertion reinforces the ring-composition that we find throughout Numbers. For example, there are two censuses (Num 1-4; Num 26) and two texts about jealousy (Num 5; Num 25). Nevertheless, the last chapters of Numbers are something of a miscellany, and one should not perhaps press the question too far.
Our chapter, nonetheless, does conform to a pattern whereby an earlier text is revised by a later one, especially with regards the status of women. The classic instance is the case of the daughters of Zelophechad, whose right to inherit their father’s property, established in Num 27:1-11, is adjusted in Num 36, so as to accommodate the concern of the tribal elders that their land holdings should pass out of the tribe.
Chapter 30’s modification of chapter 6 works similarly. Here the principle of the vow, which can potentially grant the woman a sacred status equivalent to a high priest, is maintained, while accommodating the concern of a society dominated by male authority figures by making the vow subject to a limited patriarchal veto.
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July 11, 2018
January 19, 2020
Professor Francis Landy is Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. He holds a D.Phil in Comparative Literature from the University of Sussex and is the author of Beauty and the Enigma and Other Essays in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield), Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs (Sheffield Phoenix), and Hosea: a Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix).
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