Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Ellul 5760 - September 6, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Sponsored by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Produced and housed by

Opinion & Comment
The Value of a Word

by L. Jungerman

"You shall heed the issuance of your lips and you shall do . . . "

In Mishne Lamelech on the Rambam (chapter 10) a very interesting question is posed: We find mentioned in several places in the Torah vows made between different people to one another, even before the giving of the Torah which mandates that one must keep one's word. Both Avrohom and Yitzchok vowed faithfully to Avimelech. Eisov made a vow to Yaakov concerning the selling of his birthright. Eliezer made a vow to Avrohom that he would not take a wife for Yitzchok from the daughters of Canaan. The Mishne Lamelech wonders at the power which such vows have if the Torah had not yet been given and there was nothing to bind people, to obligate them to keep their words. We know that the ovos did keep the mitzvos even before the giving of the Torah, but what about Eisov? Why did Avimelech demand a vow of protection? And what was the significance of Pharaoh eliciting a vow from Yosef not to reveal to the people that he was fluent in one language more than he? Keeping one's promise is not one of the seven Noachide laws!

The same question arises with regard to the vow at Mt. Sinai described in Mishpotim which was the basis for the giving of the Torah. Also with regard to the later covenant that was made, as described in Nitzovim. Would we not think that so long as the Jews had not accepted the code of the Torah, they were not bound to honor their vows? And once they had received the Torah, it was, indeed, incumbent upon them by virtue of the commandment that "He shall not profane his word" and "You shall heed the issue of your lips," and if so, why is this warning more powerful than or supernal to the other warnings in the Torah? How can the vow add impact or validity to the warnings of the Torah at the time that the vow itself is no more than another warning?

We find an illuminating answer in the works of two leading acharonim: HaGaon R' Elozor Moshe Horowitz, zt'l, of Pinsk, in his responsa Ohel Moshe (138) and the Sochotchover Gaon in his responsa Avnei Nezer, "two prophets prophesying in the same vein."

Their joint premise is that it stands to reason that when someone gives his word to another person, he is expected to keep it. He becomes morally obligated. The Torah does not need to provide any further warning, for if a person gave a promise to another, and the other relies on his keeping it, he is naturally morally compelled to do so -- to be responsible for his promise. This was the nature of the vows made by Avrohom, Yitzchok, Eliezer and Yosef, and the vow made by Israel to Hashem. They promised -- and what one promises, one must keep, because that is a tacit agreement, this is expected. A word one gives has validity, it is not meaningless or worthless.

This was a primary axiom that preceded the giving of the Torah just like derech eretz kodma laTorah -- primary human decency, good sense, ethics, propriety, integrity, courtesy or whatever you choose to call it which is the foundation of all human social behavior.

Different is the dictum of the Torah which warns a person to guard the issue of his mouth, the utterance of his lips, and not to profane it by violating his own words. These commandments, however, were said with regard to a person who makes a personal commitment, a vow of something he will do or not, which involves himself alone: that he will eat something or refrain from eating it and so on. In these utterances, he does not in any way become beholden to another other person, not even to Hashem. For how can he know if Hashem is interested in that particular self-promise, be it to do or to desist? Nevertheless, the Torah does command that he keep his commitment and not profane his word, but forthwith execute whatever he says or verbally commits to do.

Chazal condemn those people who give money to another with the purpose of buying something from him and then regret having made the bargain and demand their money back. Even if halachically the exchange is not yet valid and can be cancelled, nevertheless, the buyer who rescinds is cursed!

Yes! The beis din declares to his face that "Whoever punished the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersal and the Egyptians at the sea shall impose His punishment upon one who does not keep his word." In one fell swoop this person is lumped together in the same category with dor hamabul, dor haflogo and with the Egyptians. He resembles them. They did injustices that negate rational, human common decency.

This very sin contributed to the destruction of Jerusalem. "Jerusalem was laid waste for the lack of men of faith within it" (Shabbos 119). The phrase "men of faith" denotes men who could be relied upon, who were trustworthy, people who kept their word absolutely. When it came to business matters, they upheld whatever promises they made, even if these promises had not been definitive or binding in any way. If a man merely said that he would transact something -- he stood by his word, he gave what he had promised (Bovo Metzia 49).

"The tongue is the pen of the heart," writes Chovos Halevovos. The manner in which one relates to a word that has been uttered directly reflects the faithfulness, integrity and trustworthiness of his heart!

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.