Why Can Women's Vows Be Vetoed?
The Meaning of Neder (Vow)
Parashat Mattot begins with the rules for making vows (נדרים). A vow, “a stylized promise involving conditions, reciprocity, and consequences,” which “is a means of creating and reinforcing a relationship with the deity,” was a central and longstanding feature of personal religion in Israel.
Examples of נדרים (“Stylized Vows”) in the Bible
The stylization of vows is especially reflected in their “if… then…” pattern, found, for example, in the following stories:
Jacob at Bet-el (Gen 28:20-22)
וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה יְ-הוָה לִי לֵאלֹהִים. וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ.
Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—[then] YHWH shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.
War with Arad (Num 21:2)
וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל נֶ֛דֶר לַֽי-הֹוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם־נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֜ן אֶת־הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ בְּיָדִ֔י וְהַֽחֲרַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־עָרֵיהֶֽם:
Then Israel made a vow to YHWH and said, “If You deliver this people into our hand,[then] we will proscribe their towns.”
Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11:30-31)
וַיִּדַּ֙ר יִפְתָּ֥ח נֶ֛דֶר לַי-הוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם נָת֥וֹן תִּתֵּ֛ן אֶת בְּנֵ֥י עַמּ֖וֹן בְּיָדִֽי׃ וְהָיָ֣ה הַיּוֹצֵ֗א אֲשֶׁ֙ר יֵצֵ֜א מִדַּלְתֵ֤י בֵיתִי֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י בְּשׁוּבִ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם מִבְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן וְהָיָה֙ לַֽי-הוָ֔ה וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עוֹלָֽה׃
And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH saying: ‘If you will give the children of Ammon into my hand, [then] it will be: the one who goes out from the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, and it will be for YHWH, and I will offer it up as a sacrifice.
The third example is particularly telling. After Jephthah returns home from battle, his daughter greets him (Judg 11:34):
וַיָּבֹא יִפְתָּח הַמִּצְפָּה אֶל בֵּיתוֹ וְהִנֵּה בִתּוֹ יֹצֵאת לִקְרָאתוֹ בְתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלוֹת וְרַק הִיא יְחִידָה אֵין לוֹ מִמֶּנּוּ בֵּן אוֹ בַת.
When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter.
He then explains to her that he is bound by his vow (Judg 11:35):
וְאָנֹכִי פָּצִיתִי פִי אֶל יְ-הוָה וְלֹא אוּכַל לָשׁוּב׃
And I, I have opened my mouth to YHWH and I am not able to turn back.
Jephthah’s daughter’s response emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the vow—YHWH fulfilled his end of the deal, so Jephthah must fulfill his. This response reflects the cultural and social environment in which vows and oaths are considered to be uncompromisingly binding (Judg 11:36):
וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אָבִי פָּצִיתָה אֶת פִּיךָ אֶל יְ-הוָה עֲשֵׂה לִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָצָא מִפִּיךָ אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ יְ-הוָה נְקָמוֹת מֵאֹיְבֶיךָ מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן׃
And she said to him, ‘My father, you opened your mouth to YHWH. Do to me according to what went out from your mouth, since YHWH made vengeance for you upon your enemies, the children of Ammon.
A man who utters a vow or swears an oath is bound to it without exception, even when his own child’s life hangs in the balance. A similar idea is reflected in the story of Hannah.
In 1 Sam 1:11, Hannah vows to YHWH, pledging that if God grants her a son, she will devote him to God. Hannah’s husband Elkanah is not present when she makes this vow; in fact, she makes it so quietly that Eli the priest, who is present, thinks she is rambling drunk instead of fervently praying.
Hannah conceives and bears a son; sometime later, when Elkanah is about to return to the Tabernacle in Shiloh, Hannah informs her husband that she will not participate with the child in the annual sacrifice and votive offering until after the child is weaned, because once she brings him before YHWH, he must stay there forever. It is not clear if this is the first Elkanah hears of Hannah’s vow. Elkanah replies simply that she should do what she thinks is best, a popular phrase in the Bible, used, for example, by Abraham to Sarah about Hagar (Gen 16:6). This story shows that women could offer and fulfill vows in ancient Israel.
Women’s Vows Versus Men’s Vows in Numbers
If the stories of Jephthah and Hannah suggest parity between a man’s and a woman’s vow, the picture is quite different in the opening section of Parashat Mattot (Num 30:2-16). It begins with one verse about men’s vows, the rules of which are straightforward (v. 3), emphasizing the uncompromisingly binding nature of a vow or oath:
אִישׁ כִּֽי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַי-הוָ֗ה אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה.
A man who vows a vow to YHWH or swears an oath to bind a bond upon himself: he will not profane his word. For all that goes out from his mouth, he will do.
The verse shares the language used by Jephthah’s daughter: כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה. This phrase emphasizes that an oath or vow made to YHWH must be fulfilled, and cannot be broken – no matter the circumstances or consequences.
This simple picture, however, contrasts sharply with the rules for a woman’s vow, which take up the rest of the pericope (14 verses), explaining the circumstances under which women are and are not bound by the oaths and vows they utter. The passage explains that vows of dependent women—minors (vv. 4-9) or married women (11-16)—may be annulled by those upon whom they depend (fathers, husbands), while only independent women—widows and divorcées—must automatically fulfill their vows.
The summary verse of this unit makes it clear that this section is not about vows per se, but about women’s vows:
אֵ֣לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֤ה יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ לְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ בֵּֽין אָ֣ב לְבִתּ֔וֹ בִּנְעֻרֶ֖יהָ בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיהָ:
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.
This raises an important question about the relative position of women and men in ancient Israel: Why are women limited by fathers or husbands in the making of vows and oaths?
A Women Doesn’t Own Possessions
Baruch Levine understands Numbers 30 in economic terms:
It would appear that Numbers 30 was aimed at restricting the traditional right of women to make verbal commitments that involved cost and value.
In other words, a woman who lives in either her father’s house or her husband’s house and pledges something to YHWH is pledging something that is not really hers, which she in fact does not have the authority to dispense. Thus, the man responsible for this woman making the vow either has the duty to consent and then be liable to deliver on her vow, or to nullify the pledge on the day he hears of it, thus protecting her from punishment owed to a person who makes a vow but does not fulfill it.
Why Financial Dependence is Not a Sufficient Explanation
While Levine’s claim has some explanatory power, assuming that married women and women in their father’s household did not own their own property, it is not a sufficient explanation of this chapter’s laws. For one thing, Num 30 speaks repeatedly of vows with which she “imposes obligations on herself (לאסר אסר על נפשה)”; these refer to all vows, even those that need not involve property. In fact, v. 14 specifically refers to a woman’s pledge involving her own body, and self-denial:
כָּל נֵדֶר וְכָל שְׁבֻעַת אִסָּר לְעַנֹּת נָפֶשׁ אִישָׁהּ יְקִימֶנּוּ וְאִישָׁהּ יְפֵרֶנּוּ.
Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.
According to this, she cannot even vow to fast, for example, without her father or husband having the right to nullify that vow. This has nothing to do with the woman’s economic rights. Furthermore, if the main concern of this passage was economic, it should also contain a stipulation that the father could annul the vow of his minor son, who like the women described in this chapter, also lacked control over his economic resources. Thus, economic considerations alone cannot explain these laws.
Women with Financial Power
Furthermore, a limited number of texts outside of the Torah suggest that ancient Israelite women could own property. The example of Abigail (1Sam 25) illustrates that at least in some instances the woman of the house was able to procure and dispense economic goods on her own. The “woman of substance” in Proverbs 31 “considers a field and buys it” in v 16, and she tastes of “her commerce” in v 18. This evidence makes Levine’s assertion that the only consideration here is economic further problematic.
In fact, a careful reading of Numbers 30 suggests various layers of authority, responsibility, and power within a household.
The Position of the Widow
Any limits to a woman’s pledges were placed by those who were responsible for their behaviors as representatives of the household’s patriarch, and not as autonomous agents in their own right. This explains the unique position of the widow and divorcée (Num 30:10).
וְנֵדֶר אַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָסְרָה עַל נַפְשָׁהּ יָקוּם עָלֶיהָ׃
And the vow of a widow or a divorcée: all which she binds upon herself will stand upon her.
The verse doesn’t specify where the widow or divorcée lives; she may indeed live with her father, or with her oldest son (for example, Tamar is referred to as an almanah living in her father’s house in Gen 38:11). Indeed, Lev 22:13 indicates that a priest’s daughter who is widowed or divorced may return to live in her father’s house.
Unmarried (Young) Woman vs. Widow or Divorcée: A Question of Status not Support
The point is that, whether supported by her father or not, a widow or divorcée must fulfill her vows; her father cannot veto them. Only a maiden living with her father in her youth (בנעוריה; v. 4) is subject to his constraints. The fact that v. 4 goes out of its way to suggest that the law only applies to a woman living in her father’s house in her youth (בנעוריה) might indicate that women who remained unmarried but grew older in their fathers’ households were fully autonomous in terms of their vows and oaths. Additionally, once a woman has been married and then becomes single, she is no longer under the umbrella of her father’s household but is an independent unit, irrespective of whether she is dependent on her father’s finances (as many likely were).
Thus, we see that the status of an independent adult is not simply a matter of gender or economics, or even the combination of the two. Instead, it reflects conceptions of social hierarchy and norms of when a woman is considered a dependent unit (namely maidens in their father’s house and wives) and when independent (namely widows and divorcée, no matter where they live).
Nedarim as Public Obligation
An anomaly at the beginning of our pericope may be related to the reason behind why certain women’s vows are subject to veto. The laws of vows and oaths (Numbers 30) begin in v. 2 with a unique address by Moses specifically to the rashei hammattot (tribal leaders) as opposed to the more common bnei yisrael, “children of Israel.” Why?
Nahmanides (1194-1270) answers this question by suggesting that it was best to hide this rule from the common people, since it might make women more lax about vowing, and thus Moses told only the leaders and not the commoners. Alternatively, I suggest that it has to do with the complex social place of vows, which intersects public, private, and ritual spheres. On one hand, vows involve public matters, including payment or offering of sacrifice at the altar. On the other hand, the vow itself need not be a temple-based ritual act and its fulfillment at a temple does not require the involvement of a priest.
Rashei HaMattot: Public but not Priestly Officials
For the most part, public matters (including public religious matters) are addressed to the bnei yisrael as a whole, and religious matters involving the priests and sanctuary are addressed to the priests. While the making of a vow could be private, repayment of vows was public, involving some kind of public donation – sacrificial or votive – to God. For example, while Hannah’s vow took place in the context of private, personal prayer (above), her repayment of it is accompanied by sacrificial offerings involving the priests at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:24ff). Similarly, the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6, although described as a private undertaking for the individual who makes it, culminates in a public ritual at the Tent of Meeting (Num 6:13-16).
This repayment and public offering was likely performed by and/or with the male head of household—in the case of Hannah, Elkanah (1Sam 1:25). Perhaps this pericope envisions the tribal leaders as a kind of interface between the private lives of the clans and households on the one hand, and the public life of the larger community on the other.
The laws about vows and oaths reflect the complexity of gender relationships in ancient Israel, illustrating some of the problems of viewing Israel as a totally patriarchal society. Although it might be viewed as a male-favoring society, the Bible does not suggest that all men have power over all women. Although the laws of vows demonstrates that in the Priestly legislation, maidens in their fathers’ houses and married women were subservient to their fathers or husbands, it also shows that some women—widows and divorcées—could act as independent agents.
The story of Hannah, which is independent of the Priestly legislation may show a married woman acting independently of her husband. The Priestly legislation that explicitly mentions the ability of a woman to declare herself a nazirite (Num 6:2), also reflects women’s independence.
Finally, the fact that Parashat Mattot spends fourteen verses discussing women’s vows, shows that even women without independent status were given a way to obligate themselves in oaths and vows and thereby participate in this important ritual aspect of Israelite society. The legislation here neither bans the right of women to vow, nor declares all women’s vows null and void, but finds a way for women to participate in this important ritual, which allows women to attain a direct and personal relationship with God.
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Prof. Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego program in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Dolansky is the author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion (Pryor Pettengill Press, Eisenbrauns, 2008) and co-author with Richard E. Friedman of The Bible Now (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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