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Aspaqlaria: Parshas Matos 5755

This week's parashah opens with a discussion of oaths and vows. The Torah writes, "A man, when he makes a neder LaShem [oath to HaShem], or gives a shivu'ah [vow] to prohibit something al nafsho [on his living soul]." (30:3)

It is a fundamental principle of Torah study that not a single word is wasted. So, while this pasuk appears repetitious, it isn't. There must be some subtle distinction between a neder to Hashem and a shivu'ah on one's nefesh.

The Gemara (Nedarim 2b) describes a neder as "when he prohibits an object to himself." It changes the state of the object, or in Talmudic jargon, the cheftzah. A shivu'ah, however, is "when he prohibits himself from an object" (ibid). Here, it is the gavrah, the individual, who is affected.

For example, if a person were to say, "This thing shall be a korban for me," it would be a neder. With his words, he is sanctifying the object, and thereby prohibiting it to everyone. On the other hand, if he were to say, "I will not eat this thing," he made a shivu'ah. He changed himself, by giving himself a new prohibition. To the rest of the world, the animal may be eaten.

The Or Hachaim on our pasuk makes a second distinction. A neder involves sanctifying something. It focuses on enforcing the desire to do something good. A shivu'ah is about prohibiting that which is wrong. To continue this thought, David Hamelech advises "sur meira, va'asei tov -- avoid evil, and do good". A shivu'ah is a means for avoiding evil, a neder, for doing good.

In this series of articles we've been discussing various mitzvos, and understanding them in light of a particular model of the human condition. We've shown that Chazal have often thought of man as being composed of three parts: the physical, animalistic being, the spiritual being, and a mind, a self-aware free will, whose task it is to choose between these two forces.

In recent weeks, we've focused on the relationship between the physical man, who perceives himself as a mere animal, a victim of fate, and the thinking man, who strives to put purpose into existence, to create his own destiny. The determination of which is in control, whether man uses the physical world as a tool, or uses his mind to pursue physical ends, is the distinction between tum'ah and taharah.

To quote again the Ramchal:

Taharah is the correction of the heart and thoughts... Its essence is that man shouldn't leave room for the inclination in his actions. Rather all his actions should be on the side of wisdom and awe [for the Almighty], and not on the side of sin and desire. This is even in those things which are of the body and physical.

- Mesilas Yesharim Ch. 16

We can use this dichotomy to understand the distinction between neder and shivu'ah as well.

The first type of oath is called a neder LaShem. R. SR Hirsch comments on our pasuk that the root of the word neder (nun-dalet-reish) is related to that of nazir (nun-zayin-reish), one who avoids certain physical temptations in order to seek spirituality. The Object of the phrase is LaShem, to Hashem. The neder LaShem is the taking of something physical and putting it in a new context, making it an instrument of service to Hashem.

This is the mind in control, the creative being changing the environment around him. A neder is on the cheftzah because it is the assertion of the higher self's control over his environs. It is a means for asei tov, for constructive pursuit of goodness.

However, sometimes we aren't ready to build. Sometimes we just need to recoup, to fortify our borders against evil. For this, we have the shivu'ah.

The root of the word shivu'ah is sheva, seven. To R. SR Hirsch, this is because the seventh represents that which is holy in the world around us. Shabbos, the seventh day, brings sanctity to the week; shemittah, the seventh year, sanctifies the land. In his discussion on symbolism (Collected Writings vol. III) he associates this number with the mental being, which is why the Menorah, shining with the light of Torah, has seven branches.

The Mekuballim point out that many words exist in Hebrew for "soul". The Zohar shows that each one refers to a different part, or aspect of the soul. In particular "nefesh" refers to the animalistic drives, the soul as the keeper of life. This is why it says in Parshas Re'ei "ki hadam hu hanefesh - because the blood is of the nefesh". We do not drink the circulatory blood of animals animals because it represents the drives of all living beings, the urges we share with the animals.

So, when our pasuk writes about "shivu'ah to place a prohibition on his nefesh" the pasuk is describing something particular. Here, all activity is within the nefesh, to reign it in, to place it under control of the seventh, the intellect.

This distinction is akin to the symbolism we gave for two of the ingredients of the para adumah, in our column on P. Chukas. The red cow itself represents the animal side of man. It is unworked and unyoked, yet is supposed to be a beast of burden. The tola'as shani is white wool died red. This is the intellect, which through the forces of habit acquired the redness of the physical being. To achieve taharah, we need to accomplish both goals: to use the physical world as a tool, instead of being used by the physical around us, and we need to reorder our priorities, to do teshuvah, to restore the white wool to its original state.

These two kinds of oaths also address these two needs. The neder is a way to take an animal and make it kodesh. The intellect is in control of the physical world, and uses it as a tool to do good. The shivu'ah creates a new prohibition for oneself. The nefesh, the physical creature, is in control, we are not in a position to be a creator. Instead we do teshuvah, vow to avoid the temptation when it next faces us.

© 1995 The AishDas Society