The Hebrew נֶדֶר (neder), a vow, is used in the Bible for a promise made to God to perform some deed (e.g., Gen. 28: 20) as well as for a prohibition which a person imposes upon himself to abstain from something which is otherwise permitted. The former is contrasted in the Mishnah with the nedavah, the free will offering (Kin. 1:1) while the latter is differentiated from the shevu'ah, the oath. The distinction between these two appears to be largely technical, but it has far-reaching consequences in the practical sphere. In the vow the person prohibits the thing to himself by declaring, "I take upon myself"; in the oath he prohibits himself to the thing by saying, "I swear to do this, or not to do this." It is with the second category, of vow, that the Talmud largely concerns itself, and to which this entry is confined.
The enormous importance of the vow and its serious consequences are reflected in the fact that a whole tractate of the Talmud, consisting of 11 chapters in the Mishnah and 91 folios in the Gemara, is devoted to it (see
), excluding the
vow, to which a separate tractate is devoted. The biblical laws of vowing are to be found in Numbers 30: 1–16. No explicit provision is made there for absolution from vows (hattarat nedarim), the Bible permitting only the voiding of a vow (hafarat nedarim) in the case of an unmarried woman by her father, and a married woman by her husband, providing he did so "in the day that he heareth." Nevertheless, the rabbis evolved an elaborate machinery for the absolution of vows, although they frankly admitted that "the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them" (Ḥag. 1:8). The first vow mentioned in
the Bible is that of Jacob (Gen. 28:20) and it receives the indirect assent of God (Gen. 31:13). So with regard to the tragic vow of Jephthah (Judg. 11:30–40) there is no suggestion that it was wrong of him to make it, although the Midrash declares that he could have been absolved from it by Phinehas the high priest, and only the personal foolish pride of both prevented it being done (Gen. R. 60:3).
In Ecclesiastes, however, the first doubt, though a qualified one, is expressed about the advisability of making vows. "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it… better is it that thou shouldst not vow, than thou shouldst vow and not pay" (5:3–4). There is a difference of opinion in the Talmud (Ḥul. 2a) as to the implication of this verse. R. Judah states, "Better than both is he who vows and pays," and in the Mishnah (Dem. 2:3) confines this injunction not to be profuse in vows to the ḥaver, while R. Meir is of the opinion, "Better than both is he who does not vow at all." Both views find their expression in rabbinic literature. The Midrash (Lev. R. 37:1, which reverses the authors) states: "He who vows and pays receives the reward both for his vow and its fulfillment," and "he who vows and pays his vow will be vouchsafed to pay his vow in Jerusalem" (ibid. 37:4). The weight of opinion, however, especially in the Talmud, is in favor of completely refraining from vows. Samuel goes so far as to say, "Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked" (Ned. 22a), while R. Dimi calls him a sinner (Ned. 77b). It is even said that as a punishment for taking vows one's children die young (Shab. 32b).
It was as a result of this view that the elaborate procedure for the absolution of vows, which annulled them ab initio, was developed. The annulment depended on finding a "door of regret," the establishment of circumstances which the person taking the vow had not taken into consideration or known about at the time when he took the vow – had he done so he would not have take the vow. The annulment had to take place before a properly constituted bet din of three, and the formula of absolution is: "It is absolved to thee, it is absolved to thee" (Sanh. 68a). On the question of the application of the vow, it is emphasized that one follows the popularly accepted connotation of the word used, and not its literary or biblical meaning. The whole of the sixth chapter of Mishnah Nedarim and half of the seventh confine themselves to examples. For instance, a vow to abstain from milk does not include whey, "meat" excludes soup, "wine" only grape wine, and "clothes" excludes sackcloth or sheets.
Vowing has practically disappeared from Jewish practice. A curious exception is the accepted formula for making offerings when called up to the reading of the
, reading of). The donation is introduced by the words ba'avur she-nadar ("inasmuch as he has vowed") – which is the origin of the Yiddish word "shnodder" for an offering.
Despite the accepted formula which established a promise or an undertaking as a vow, the sanctity of the word was so highly regarded that the verse "that which is gone out of thy mouth thou shalt observe and do" (Deut. 23:24) was taken as a separate injunction, independent of the words which follow "according as thou hast vowed." Even more, it was interpreted as meaning that "the mere utterance of thy lips is equivalent to a vow," giving a simple statement of intention the force of a vow (Ned. 7a), as a result of which the custom developed of adding to any such statement the disclaimer beli neder ("without it being a vow"). The Shulḥan Arukh (YD 203:7) permits the taking of vows when its purpose is to rid oneself of bad habits.