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Shabbat Parashat Masei 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Altering a Neder Made at a Time of Need

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Your recent article about hatarat nedarim reminded me about my related question. I was recently in a dangerous situation involving an Arab mob. At the time, I decided that if we would make it through safely, I would stop situation X. [Ed. Note – we decided not to share with the public the specific matter.] Baruch Hashem, no one sustained worse than minor injury, and I am happy to show my thanks to Hashem. However, X contains three elements – A and B are harmless, positive, and important to me. It is C about which I have had misgivings for some time. Had I had more time to think clearly, I would have committed to refraining just from C, but under pressure, X in general came to mind. I am willing to live up to any obligation, but may I do hatarat nedarim or otherwise switch the neder to something more practical or just refrain from C?  


Answer: We are glad you are well, b’chasdei Hashem. We praise your spiritual instincts under pressure and your attitude now, which are signs of a yerei’at shamayim. Although generally we frown upon making nedarim, an eit tzara (time of acute need) is likely different (see Tosafot, Chulin 2b).

The Rama (Yoreh Deah 228:45) rules that one may not do hatarat nedarim on an oath taken with the hope of extricating himself from an eit tzara (not all agree – see Shut Maharam Mintz 79). He accepts (see Shut HaRama 103) the explanation of Shut Binyamin Ze’ev (266) that it is based on the rule that one must not do hatarat nedarim on a neder he made to receive a favor from another person (Rama, ibid. 20, which is the main issue in our recent article (Korach 5776)). In other words, one cannot ask someone for a favor with a promise to “pay” by a neder commitment and then back out after getting what he wants, including or especially if the someone is Hashem. (One could have argued that, as opposed to one’s friend, Hashem can always take back what He gave. Some indeed say that, irrespective of permitted/forbidden, it is dangerous to “play games” with Hashem by undoing such oaths – R. Yehuda Hachasid, quoted by Yam Shel Shlomo, Gittin 4:40 and others).

The Rama (ibid.) and others do permit hatarat nedarim on nidrei eit tzara when necessary to facilitate a mitzva or when there is great need. However, for most people, X does not qualify as either.

The major factor for leniency is that you apparently did not verbalize a neder but just thought about it. In most cases, nedarim are effective only when verbalized, with tzedaka being an exception according to many (Rama, YD 258:13). A strong majority of poskim say that thoughts do not create a neder obligation for other mitzvot (see Aruch Hashulchan, YD 258:39; Kol Nidrei 59:1). In your case, refraining from A and B is not a mitzva.

There is an opinion (Nishal David, YD 17) that a neder by thought takes effect during an eit tzara, based on a pasuk (Daniel 10:12) that Hashem already responds to a plea when it is in one’s heart. However, the opinion that it is not halachically binding until verbalization (Yehuda Ya’aleh I:333, also based on p’sukim) is more convincing. Even according to the stringent opinion, the thought must be clear and final (Aruch Hashulchan, ibid.). Most discussions of eit tzara refer to drawn out situations, like illness. In contrast, you, while faced by a dangerous mob, thought fleetingly about X but, given a moment to gather your thoughts, would have specified C. Therefore, all should agree that thought alone is not binding regarding X.

While there is room to be lenient fully, it seems the proper Jewish thing is to keep what you really intended – eliminate C, which you believed is right and appropriate when asking mercy from Hashem. If A and B are positive parts of your life, keep them. Hatarat nedarim on them is worthwhile (the Rama, YD 228:45 says it works even when it should not be done; the Shach 228:108 argues). Adding tangible thanks to Hashem, like accepting (bli neder) a different, practical good thing or giving extra tzedaka (see Kol Nidrei 7:12), is also positive.

May your prayers always be answered.

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