In Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus says the following about the Pharisees’ approach to vows and oaths:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it” (NRSV).
For Matthew’s Jesus, the Pharisees sought legal technicalities to avoid keeping their vows.
How’s this mesh with rabbinic Judaism, particularly the Mishnah (second century C.E.) and the Tosefta (third century C.E.)? Do these sources say that swearing by certain things can render the vows non-binding?
The answer is “yes.” Let’s take a look at some passages. I’m using Herbert Danby’s translation of the Mishnah, and Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Tosefta.
M. Nedarim 1:3: “If he said, ‘May what I eat of thine be ‘not hullin‘ [or] ‘not valid as food’, [or] ‘not clean’, [or] ‘unclean’ or ‘Remnant and Refuse’, it is forbidden to him. [If he said, ‘May it be to me] ‘as the lamb’, [or] ‘as the [Temple-]sheds’, [or] ‘as the wood [for burning on the Altar]’, [or] ‘as the Fire-offerings’, [or] ‘as the Altar’, [or] ‘as Jerusalem’, or if he vowed by any of the utensils of the Altar, although he did not utter [the word] Korban, an offering, it is a vow as binding as if he had uttered the word Korban. R. Judah says: If he said, [‘May it be] Jerusalem!’ he has said not.”
Here, if a person vows to consider something as sacred as certain holy objects (e.g., a lamb, temple-sheds, wood on the altar, offerings, the altar itself, Jerusalem, or altar utensils), then he has to keep the vow. In 1:4, we see that this also applies when someone compares the vow’s object to a whole offering, a meal offering, a sin offering, a thank offering, or a peace offering (though Rabbi Judah dissents). But, according to Rabbi Judah, if he doesn’t use the comparative “as” and just says “May it be Jerusalem,” then the vow is not binding.
And so this doesn’t exactly overlap with what Jesus says in Matthew 23. Here, the Mishnah treats the altar and the gift on it as sacred, whereas Jesus’ description of the Pharisees was that they viewed the gift as more sacred than the altar. But we see from Rabbi Judah that there could be diversity within the rabbinic community.
Plus, there is not exactly consistency in this tractate, or, more accurately, I cannot see the underlying principle behind these rules. From 1:3, one might conclude that, if a person likens the vow’s object to something bad (e.g., Refuse, unclean) or as something sacred, then his vow stands: he cannot eat it. But, according to 2:1, a vow is not binding if the vow’s object is likened to swine’s flesh, an idol, or carrion, on the “something bad” side, or as Aaron’s dough-offering or heave-offering, on the “something sacred” side.
In Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus seems to assume that a vow should be valid based on the degree of sanctity of what it is sworn by. That’s why he thinks that the Pharisees are absurd: the altar is more important than the gift, so the Pharisees are wrong when they say that swearing by the altar renders a vow null-and-void, while swearing by the gift makes it binding.
But do the Pharisees have a hierarchy of holiness in their determination of which vows are binding? Maybe. In 2:4, we read: “[If he said,] ‘May it be to me as a devoted thing!’ and meant ‘as a thing devoted to Heaven’, it is binding; and if he meant ‘as a thing devoted to the priests’, it is not binding…[If he said,] ‘May it be to me as Tithe!’ and meant ‘as Tithe of Cattle’, the vow is binding, and if he meant ‘as Tithe of the threshing-floor’, it is not binding. [If he said,] ‘May it be to me as Terumah!’ and meant ‘as the Terumah of the Temple-chamber’, it is binding; and if he meant ‘as that of the threshing-floor’, it is not binding…”
Is the author presuming that heaven is more important than the priests, that a tithe of cattle is more important than a tithe of corn, and that terumah of the temple chamber is more important than that of the threshing floor? Or are the rabbis just arbitrarily picking objects and making some binding of vows, and some not?
One interesting detail is this: in 2:4, if the person making the vow does not specify to what type of tithe or terumah he’s likening the vow’s object, then his vow is binding. But Rabbi Judah makes some exceptions: if a person is a native of Galilee and does not specify, then his vow is not binding, for he’s not aware of the terumah of the temple chamber or the things devoted to the priests. Is Rabbi Judah saying that it’s common sense that these things are more sacred–to anyone who knows about them?
Many Christian commentators say that Jesus was presenting the Pharisees as dishonest: they make vows that they have no intention of keeping. But the Tosefta actually addresses this issue. In Tosefta Nedarim 4:6, we read: “Even though there are vows which we have said are not binding, how do we know that one should not make such a vow with the plan of annulling it? Scripture says, He shall not profane his word (Num. 30:2)…even a sage does not annul his vow for himself.”
But don’t the Mishnah’s rules open the door to dishonesty? Why do such exceptions to vows even exist? I can understand the Mishnah’s rules that vows made without full knowledge can be nullified, since that takes into consideration that humans can be impulsive. But nullifying a vow because a person swore by one object as opposed to another? Why can’t people’s “yes” be “yes” and their “no” be “no” (Matthew 5:37)?
But there may be a rationale behind such rules that I am missing. And that’s why I’m a student: I want to uncover such mysteries.