Parshas Matos.




In the beginning[1] of this week's parsha two types of oaths are discussed: Shvuos and Nedarim. Nedarim are actually types of special prohibitions or commitments based on the idea of making something similar to a korban or Temple property. What is the difference between Nadarim and regular swearing (Shvuos) and what is the reason for this difference?




Even though swearing existed in all time periods in various cultures, Nedarim is a uniquely Jewish concept[2]. The concept of making a Neder is directly related to the laws of Temple service in general. Objects that are dedicated for Temple usage are not permitted to be used for anything else. In fact, the one misusing the Temple objects commits a major transgression called Meila.


Hashem gave us a way to make other objects similar to Temple property. The concept of making a Neder is based on this. A person can forbid any object to himself, making it like a korban[3]. Similarly he can forbid other people to himself; he may make a Neder not to eat someone’s food, or not to derive any benefit from what somebody else does etc. Using Nedarim he can also make an object that belongs to him forbidden to others. He can also make a Neder by offering his objects or money to charity.


One of the main differences between regular swearing called Shvuah and a Neder is that Shvuos can not apply to something already permitted or forbidden by the Torah. For example, if one says: “I swear that during the coming Pesach Seder I will not eat matzah”, or “I swear that on the first day of Sukkos I will not pick up the four species (Lulav, Esrog, etc)” this is considered a vain oath and he still has fulfill those mitzvos he swore not to perform. Similarly, of he swears to eat a piece of pork, his oath is in vain, and he is still forbidden to eat it. Even if he does eat it, he did not rectify his vain oath, for he swore in vain immediately and it can not be rectified[4]. However, a Neder does apply to mitzvos as well. If he had made a Neder, by saying for instance: “Let matzah be for me like a korban”, the Neder applies and unless there will be a way to cancel it, he is not allowed to eat matzah on Pesach[5].


The books of Kabala discuss the spiritual reason behind this difference[6]. The word Shvuah in the Holy Tongue comes from the word “Seven” because it has to do with the seven lower Sefiros, and in particular with Malchus that receives the Spiritual Flow from the other Six. All our mitzvos in this world generally have to do with Tikunim (rectifications) in these Sefiros. However Neder[7] comes from Binah – the Sefirah above the lower Seven. This Sefirah (also called Teshuvah – repentance by early Mekubalim) can override the lower Seven. Indeed, this is the reason for the possibility of repenting and rectifying the already brought damage[8].


This explains the difference between the Neder and the Shvuah. Since the Shvuah is in the lower Seven Sefiros it can not override the mitzvos that are also there. The Neder however comes from higher worlds. This is why it can override the mitzvos in the same way the Teshuvah can override violation of mitzvos. May we deserve to return to Hashem in full repentance and speedily see the coming of Moshiach.



Parshas Massey.




In this parsha we learn about an incredible mitzvah: a person who accidentally killed somebody has to run away into one of the refuge cities and stay there until the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) dies. What is the significance of this commandment and what does it have to do with the Kohen Gadol?




In this parsha we learn about the command of separating six special "arei miklat" (refuge cities) where an unintentional murderer runs away. The law of inadvertent murderer who has to go into exile was already mentioned very briefly in parshas Mishpatim, but nothing was then said about the place to which he has to flee. Later on, in parshas Vaeschanan, the Torah tells us that Moshe separated three of the cities on the east side of the Jordan River, and Sefer Yehoshua describes how the remaining three cities were separated. The Torah also tells us in parshas Shoftim that when we listen to Hashem and deserve that our land will be expanded, three more cities will need to be separated.


Many questions are asked about the details of this commandment and it's difficult to discuss all of them. One of the points that this mitzvah touches on is the question of life and death in general as well as the question of freedom of choice and the Divine Providence. It is certainly hard to imagine that one person would die because of somebody's negligence. On the other hand, if the person killed was supposed to die anyway, why does his murderer have to run away? In general what is his fault and did he have his freedom of choice or not when the accident happened?


Before we start our discussion let's ask one more question posed by Arizal. Why is the Torah telling us that if we listen to Hashem and our land will be larger, we will need to separate additional cities of refuge? It would seem that if we listen to Hashem we should deserve that there would be fewer murders, even unintentional ones! This question is especially appropriate given that these words of the Torah are talking about the end of days, during the times of Moshiach for there was never before in our history a period when we had nine refuge cities. Why would we expect there to be a lot of accidental deaths in the time of Moshiach?


To start answering these questions we need to first try to understand what is murder and what is death? Even though the commandment not to kill seems to be the most obvious of all commandments and it was accepted by all societies, still once we start probing it in depth things become not quite as obvious as they seemed at first sight. Let's ask ourselves a simple question: if we had ten people in front of us, and we knew that nine of them are the worst murderers who deserve to die but one is innocent, would we be allowed to kill all ten? The answer is: obviously not[9]. Well how about a situation when there is a country 90% of whose citizens pose terrible thread to society. Let's say we can prove 90% of the people of that country are terrorists who don't hide that their goal is to destroy the world. Would we then be permitted to drop a bomb that would destroy the entire country? Most people would still say: no. How about if we start a war with this country? Every war causes "casualties". That meant when we are starting a war we know we will have to kill innocent civilians. There is no way to avoid this. We can try to minimize the numbers but there will be “accidental” deaths. In many cases the number of "good" people killed during the war may be far greater than the number of actual "war criminals" we are trying to catch and bring to trial!


Now if we keep approaching the war as any other "mass murder" then no war would be permitted to be waged. In general, this is not a Jewish approach[10]. There are times when war can be justified. This is true about the wars the Jewish people waged in the ancient times and true about some of the wars the non-Jewish nations wage today. Until the end of days war will remain a necessary "evil" to save ourselves from problems that are even worse[11]. One of the differences between war and murder is that during the war many people get killed but nobody is singled out to be killed. 


In general, even during times of danger the Divine Providence operates. One may need more merits but whoever needs to be saved, will be saved[12]. However there are people that need to die and they die during various types of calamities brought to this world. War is only one of them and it's the one that may seem to have the most to do with freedom of choice of individual leaders choosing to wage the war. There exist many other catastrophes[13] like the recent tsunami. They do not depend on anybody’s free will and can take many people out of this world in a short time period.


The paradox of free will and Divine Providence is hinted by the Torah. When teaching the mitzvah of making a fence around one's roof, the Torah says (Devarim 22:8): "So that the one falling will not fall from there". Our sages[14] point out that the language of the Torah seems to imply that the person is supposed to fall anyway. Indeed this person is supposed to die, but we need to make protective measures so that his death will not be caused by our negligence! Similarly the one who is neglectful[15] and ends up killing somebody else deserves to be punished and has to flee.


For thousands of years the Jewish people were using another parable[16] about two people, one that committed a murder and the other that killed accidentally. Neither one had witnesses and they seemed to remain unpunished. Hashem then brought the two together in the same hotel, and the second accidentally killed the first. Now the first got the punishment he deserved, and the second got the punishment he deserved, since this time there were witnesses and he had to flee[17].


Now death in itself is not always as bad as it seems[18]. There are people whose rectification is to die in a certain way. In particular, Arizal[19] writes that people from the spiritual root of Hevel (Abel, son of Adam) need to die. Indeed even though Cain was worse than Hevel, Hevel also had a sin for which he had to die[20] and so too the souls coming from his spiritual root. Throughout our long exile many of the Jewish people died in various ways at the hands of the nations. The choice of who will live and who will die was determined by Hashem's Providence. The Arizal writes that indeed if we deserve and Moshiach comes early[21], not all of the people who need to be fully rectified through death will finish their rectification. For this reason there would be a lot of accidental deaths and there would be a need for more refuge cities. However if we don't deserve his early coming, then everybody who needs to be rectified through death will already die during our long exile.


Even though death can serve as a rectification, it is still tragedy to everybody involved. Moreover, when our nation is on a high level and especially when our leaders are very righteous, they are often able to prevent the accidental deaths and achieve the needed rectification through other means. In particular, the leader of the Jewish people - the High Priest who serves in the Holy Temple may be able to achieve through his service that no accidents would happen. If he was not successful, his indirect punishment becomes that now the unintentional murderer will consciously or subconsciously desire his death, since after the death of Kohen Gadon, he can come out of his exile[22]. May we deserve to come out of our exile soon and that the High Priests serving in the Third Temple will always be righteous so that there won't be a need for any more deaths and Hashem will erase all tears from everybody's face (Yeshiyahu 25:8).



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[1] This parsha is continuation of the end of parshas Pinchas where the Torah mentioned that one is not allowed to delay any of his korbonos that he made a Neder to bring (see Rashbam).


[2] This was in fact noticed by ancient non-Jewish historians: Jews have a way to forbid something by making it like a Korban (sacrifice) or Temple property (see Doros Harishonim). Note that our sages had put the laws of Nedarim and the laws of Shvuos in two separate tractates in the Mishna and Talmud, and moreover they are even in different Seders (Orders, the entire Mishna and Talmud are divided into six Orders).


[3] That is he says: “Let this piece of bread be like a korban to me”. There are also Nedarim where a person simply forbids something to himself by saying: “Let this be forbidden to me”. On the other hand he cannot forbid an object by comparing it to otherwise prohibited items (except Temple related objects). For example, if he says: “Let this piece of bread be like pork for me”, this statement has no value.


[4] If he was warned not to swear and there are witnesses, then he gets flogged.

[5] See Also Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 215:5-6 regarding whether Nedarim can apply to items prohibited by negative commandments.


[6] See Ramban Bemidbar 30:3; Rabeynu Bachye, Shemos 20:7; Bemidbar 30:3; Rekanti Bemidbar 30:2; Zohar 2:91b; 3:255a; Beginning of Etz Chaim, Shaar Haklalim.


[7] Indeed the 50 gates of Binah are nihted by the word Neder, see Rekanti (Bemidbar 30:2) and Shla Hakodesh (Toldos Adam, Beis Yisroel, 5).


[8] See for example Zohar 3:122a.

[9] See also Talmud, Kidushin 32a. For related questions see Mishna Trumos 8:12, Yerushalmi Trumos 47a.

[10] See also Talmud, Shvuos 35b and Tosafos there.


[11] Of course the prophets promised us that in the end of days there will be no war, and the budget that was used for war effort will instead be used for peace (see Yeshiyahu 2:4, Mika 4:3).


[12] Obviously not everyone that dies is “wicked” and not everybody who gets saved is “righteous”. There are many reasons why somebody might live longer or shorter. However the merits of a person certainly do help. On the other hand there are situations when righteous perish because of minor sins they committed and possibly not even in this life but in a different gilgul. This way they enter the Heaven purified of all their faults. On the other hand a wicked person may have a long and blissful; life in this world and no share in the thereafter (see Devarim 7:10, Koheles 7:15). 


[13] See Talmud, Taanis 18b.


[14] Talmud, Shabbos 32a.


[15] Note that in case of death that happened without his fault at all, the murderer would not have to run away. Thus, if one was driving a car and following the rules, and somebody jumped under his wheals he would not have to flee to a refuge city (see Makos 8b).


[16] See Talmud, Makos 10b based on Shmuel 1:24:13. Dovid said this to Shaul: "Why would you want to pursue me? If I deserve to die, let Hashem choose a wicked person and execute me through his hands. Why should a righteous king like yourself be the tool for execution?"


[17] Note however that at times the punishments do not come in the same gilgul, so the one that killed in one gilgul may be killed in a different life.


[18] All of us are naturally afraid of death and this deeply rooted psychological fear mainly has to do with the general fear of the unknown. On top of this, Hashem wanted us to try to survive as long as possible so that we could complete our missions on Earth. If we had no fear of dying many would choose not to struggle with death too hard especially when one knows that life after death is much better. (I am not talking about committing suicide, this is strictly forbidden. But there are many sick people that would simply do little to get treatment or follow diet and regimen if not for the fact that survival at any cost is part of our subconscious.)


[19] See Shaar Hamitzvos and Taamei Mitzvos on parshas Shoftim.


[20] See Tikuney Zohar, 69th Tikun, pg. 105-111, see the GR"A there.


[21] See also Shla Hakodesh, Toldos Adam, Beis Dovid 50-52. See our words in 10centuriesenglish.htm regarding the two periods of Moshiach.


[22] See Mishna, Makos 2:6.