Before Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Akiva, he was Akiva, the uneducated, unimpressive, middle aged farmhand working for a wealthy man named Ben Kalba Sabua. But even then, Akiva had an air about him that impressed Kalba Sabua’s daughter. She was drawn to him, and was convinced that Akiva was meant for more than farm work. She proposed marriage to Akiva, on the condition that he leave the farm, and go and study. Akiva accepted, and went off to study for twelve years.
At some point, Ben Kalba Sabua found out what his daughter had done. He was enraged that she should bind her life to such a lowly individual, with no prospects. He assumed that their financial planning for the future relied on his own riches. In response, Ben Kalba Sabua vowed that she would never benefit from any of his wealth, and kicked her out of his house. Eventually, Ben Kalba Sabua came to regret his oath, as he watched his daughter live in destitution, but there was nothing he could do, he was bound by the vow that he had sworn.
Who among us hasn’t been in this position? At some point, we have all strongly disagreed with the romantic choices of people we care about. This person isn’t good enough for you, that person treats you poorly. This boyfriend is only interested in himself, that girlfriend has no prospects.
We have all be upset and disappointed by the choices that the people that we care about have made. And we want to help. We want to be able to share our experience, our perspective, so that people we care about don’t have make the same mistakes that we have. And then sometimes, when they choose not to listen to our – calm, and always reasonable advice - we say something in the heat of the moment that we don’t necessarily mean. We say it, and we immediately regret saying it.
But now that it has been said, we can’t back down. Maybe it’s a matter of pride, maybe it’s a matter of maintaining authority, maybe it’s something else. But we don’t back down, and we are stuck living with our intemperate words. And the problem becomes even more complicated when we bring in the perspective of the Torah.
The Torah is clear about the power of a vow that a person makes. In the book of Numbers, we read:
3If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.
אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַה' אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה
These verses are consistent and clear. When a person makes a vow, there is no wiggle room. There is no way to back out, there is no way to change your mind. If you are going to make a vow, you had better be prepared to follow through with it, no matter what happens later.
But this isn’t the case for all vows, according to the Torah. The verse was very careful in its language. It discusses a vow made by a man, and in this case, this is not meant to also include vows made by women. The Torah spends the rest of the chapter, the next 17 verses, discussing the ways in which vows made by a woman can be annulled.
Now, let me make this clear. This entire passage is unquestionably patriarchal. It reflects the reality of the time, in which a woman was under the jurisdiction of her father, and then her husband. And just because this reality was codified in the Torah does not mean that we are obligated to aspire to it in our lives. Today, we should have the same control over our daughters as we have over our sons. In marriage, no one partner should ever have such absolute control over the legal authority of the other – regardless of gender.
But even as we reject the gender dynamic explicit in these laws, there is something that we can learn from them. The Torah does not completely remove a woman’s autonomy. It could have easily said “any vow made by a minor woman in her father’s household is not a vow, it has no weight. And any vow made by a woman without the consent of her husband is not a vow, it has no weight.” But that is not what the Torah says. It assumes that these vows have weight, but gives an opportunity to the father or the husband to cancel them.
The world of the Bible is different from the world we live in today. These men were responsible for the lives of their daughters and their wives. They had a stake in their wellbeing, and in their success. They had a compelling interest that nothing interfere with that success, whether that interference came from the outside world or from the women themselves. It is because these men were stakeholders in the lives of their family that they were given this authority.
The Bible creates a small amount of wiggle room. Women could be freed from vows that they make, but only women, and only on the day that they make the vow. That still leaves a great deal of room for disaster in society.
This story of Akiva illustrates both the strength of vows and also the danger that they pose. Rabbi Meir stated that it is better not to vow at all, than to make a vow and fulfill it. Samuel goes even further, and says that even a person who fulfills a vow is considered to be wicked. The rabbis pushed hard to stop people from making vows. But they knew that discouraging people from making vows would not be sufficient, they had to come up with another solution.
The rabbis reasoned that if I made a vow by accident, if I didn’t realize what I was saying, or the legal weight of my words, I could have that vow annulled. Or, if I made a vow, knowing that it was a vow, but without a complete understanding of the facts of a situation, I could have that vow annulled. If circumstances changed, and I wouldn’t have made the vow if I had known that the circumstances would change, I could even have that vow annulled. They also included the possibility that I made the vow with an unsettled mind, so that I was not fully rational at the moment of the vow, that vow could also be annulled.
Using this reasoning, the rabbis established courts and procedures which were designed to free us from vows that we regret. In many communities, there is a common practice to convene these courts on Rosh Hashanah, to annul both past and future vows. These rituals are precursors to the central moment in last night’s service. Last night we convened a religious court. We declared, as a community, that all of our vows both in the past year and in the coming year are null and void. That we know that we are not going to be able to fulfill all of our hopes over the coming year, and we are providing ourselves with the freedom to be optimistic about our abilities without fearing the repercussions if we fail.
Because of this, the story of Rabbi Akiva and his family does not end where we left it. His wife does not spend her life destitute and suffering. Her father does not spend the rest of his life regretting the pain that he was inflicting on his daughter. Years after Akiva left to go and study, he returned home. At this point he was a great and famous teacher.
Ben Kalba Sabua, not realizing that this was the ignorant farmhand who had married his daughter, came to pay his respects. He asked Akiva – still unaware of their connection – if he could find a way to invalidate the vow so that he could support his daughter. Akiva asked him, “If you had known that the farmhand would have become a great Torah scholar, would you have made the vow?” Ben Kaba Sabua said that if he had known that the farmhand would learn even a single law, he would not have made such a vow. Akiva revealed his identity, and annulled the vow that his father-in-law had made.
Akiva had a clear interest in annulling this vow. He was personally disadvantaged by not being able to benefit from the vast wealth that his father in law had accumulated. He was able to reconcile his wife and her father, helping to create a more harmonious family and home life for everyone. Akiva was personally involved, and had a stake in the outcome. Much like the fathers and husbands in the text of the Torah, it is in Akiva’s interests to annul this vow.
But what about cases when we are not personally involved in the situation? Another famous case of a father making an intemperate vow that affects his daughter is the story of Yiftach in the book of Judges. Yiftach was a military general and political leaer who led the Israelites in war against the Ammonites. He swore that if God granted him victory, he would sacrifice whatever first came out of the house to greet him upon his return. He did not expect that he would be greeted by his daughter, but he was bound by his vow, and was forced to sacrifice her.
Not surprisingly, the rabbis condemn the actions of Yiftach. Not only the fact that he sacrificed his daughter, but also the fact that he made the vow at all. He should have foreseen the possibility that his vague vow might end poorly and either made a more specific vow, or not vowed at all. Even if he could not have imagined that his daughter would have been the first creature to greet him, he should have known that it would have been a problem if a cat or a dog or a donkey had come out – all animals that are not appropriate to sacrifice.
The rabbis do not reserve their condemnation only for Yiftach. They also condemn Pinchas, the high priest at the time. But Pinchas does not appear in the book of Judges at all. He was not involved in the war, he was not involved in the life of Yiftach, he was not involved in the sacrifice. Nonetheless, the rabbis hold him responsible for this tragedy.
They argue that because Pinchas had the knowledge, ability, and authority to annul this vow, he had a responsibility to do so. He was a member of the community of Israel, and therefore had a stake in the wellbeing of every single member. As a stakeholder in that community, he should have made the effort to help Yiftach and his daughter find a way out of the foolish vow.
Returning to the passage in the book of Numbers, the Torah sets out a clear statute of limitations on the annulment of vows in these scenarios. A person is not able to decide, months or years after the fact, that he really don’t like the decisions made by his daughter or wife. If he wants to change things, he has to speak up, and he has to do it in a timely fashion.
More than that, the Torah is telling us that our actions have consequences. When we do nothing, that is an action. Doing nothing, in the case of the vows described in the Torah is the same as actively affirming the vow. And like Pinchas, we can be held responsible.
This message from the Torah does not only apply in our personal lives. It must also govern the way we interact with our communities and the world. If we think of ourselves as stakeholders, with a right to have our opinions valued and listened to, then we have a responsibility to express them. If we see our government making a decision that we think is wrong or misguided, then we need to find a way to express that sentiment. When we see communities treating people unfairly, or not valuing certain individuals or groups, we have an obligation to speak up and challenge the community. When we discover a law that favors one group over another, or limits the rights of a particular segment of society, we need to work to eliminate that law.
If we sit back quietly, thinking that it is not our place to change things, or that it does not matter, because it does not affect us directly, then like the father or husband in the Torah, we are affirming the legitimacy of that action. We cannot wait for the moment to be right, or for it to be easy to change things.
This is true on the world stage, this is true on the national stage, this is true in our local communities, and this is true in the PJC.