Many good initiatives - like phone-free driving or diets or teen celibacy - are based on the premise of making a pledge. What does Judaism say about these types of promises and pledges, and are there "religious" implications if you breach your pledge?
1.Deuteronomy 23:24 [Written Torah] teaches that what we say we must fulfill, and vows are sacred commitments., or vows.
2.Deuteronomy 2323 tells us that failing to fulfill the vow is a sin, a mistake, a wrongdoing.
3.Ecclesiastes 5:3 maintains that not fulfilling a vow angers God, will implicitly result in punishment, and is therefore a foolish act to do.
4.The notion tn act performed three times is not consistent with the Judaism of the Dual [Written and Oral Torah] and is a value upheld by some Jews, but the value is not mandated by Judaism. What counts in Judaism are spoken words.
5.In the writings of the ancient Near East, an oral statement provides a potential reality.
6.b Nedarim 22a [Oral Torah] takes the Torah statement cited above to be religious law.
7.bBaba Mezia 48b proclaims a curse [mi she-para] on those who fail to fulfill their oral commitments.
1.We are obliged to say what we mean and mean what we say.
2.Our character is crated by our words and the sincerity of our intentions
3.It is wise to not make commitments that one cannot or will not keep
4.Breaking one’s word is a breach of social trust and religious integrity
5.Among those to whom we must be truthful is ourselves.
6.The Oral Torah says that we should say little and do much, being real rather than being boastful. nAvot 1:15.
The place to begin a discussion about making oaths and promises is with the fact that the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, begins with Kol Nidre, a statement in which we ask to be relieved of any vows or oaths we have made, or more correctly, that we are about to make in the coming year. Kol Nidre is not a prayer but a statement which is made in the presence of a beit din (Jewish court of three) in which we ask to be released from any oaths and promises. This statement is part of a complicated and troubling ceremony (how can I be relieved of oaths I haven’t yet made) but the fact that we begin the Day of Atonement by speaking of broken promises says a lot about how we feel about making pledges and promises, particularly when we do so in the name of God.
The fact that the Jewish tradition provides a way of getting out of an oath reflects the seriousness with which they considered statements. Promises once made could not be ignored. There had to be a legal means through which such a statement could be broken. Some scholars think that Kol Nidre may have been composed at a time in Jewish history when Jews were forced to make promises to other faiths that they were not prepared to keep – such as the promise to enter another religion. In such cases there was a deep sense of guilt about such promises. Even though these pledges were were made under duress, people felt the need for a ‘legal’ way of releasing themselves of such pledges.
Virtually all statements can be considered promises. In the book of Numbers, chapter 30, we find the following statement: “One must carry out anything that crosses his lips.” There are people who take this statement literally. Any statement of intent is a potential promise, so some people will preface or follow their statements by saying, “b’lee neder,” which literally means, “without an oath.” For instance, a person might say: “Let’s plan to meet tomorrow at Starbucks, b’lee neder.” This may seem a bit extreme but it reflects the idea that as Jews we take our words seriously. We should always say what we mean and mean what we say. This is especially true when the promises or pledges we make are in the name of God.
So the short answer to this question, then, is yes – there are most definitely religious implications if you break your word or breach an oath, whether it is a promise to a friend or a pledge we make to God. Of course we make promises all the time with little thought – we are therefore challenged to think carefully about our words. Sometimes making promises is helpful in terms of living up to our own expectations or the expectations that others have of us. We need to think carefully about such statements when we make them.
The response of Orthodox Rabbi Alan Yuter above does a great job laying out the Jewish sources on oaths and pledges. I would summarize that Judaism has always taken oaths very seriously, regarded it as a great sin to break or not fulfill an oath and, therefore, advises us not to make too many of them.
A discussion of oaths and pledges in Judaism is not complete without touching on the High HolyDays, Yom Kippur, and the process of t'shuvah (repentance). If you think that it would be fine to make an oath or pledge that you may not be able to fulfill, but are reassured that you can repent for any failure on Yom Kippur, the mishnah comes to say, "For the one who says, 'I will sin and the Day of Atonement will atone for me, the Day of Atonement does not atone." (Mishnah Yoma 8) Further, if you might think (as do many critics of Judaism) that that is why we have the Kol Nidrei - the prayer which absolves us of all oaths, remember that the intent is for oaths that are forced upon us. In fact, for this very reason, the Reform movement has, at several times, attempted to ban Kol Nidrei - feeling that it goes against the spirt of Yom Kippur to seek forgiveness before even sinning. Although Kol Nidrei is now part of the Reform liturgy again, the English "translation" after the words "be null and void" adds, "should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them".
Another note is that when one pledges to donate something (dealt with in the Torah as hekdeish - made holy), there is no going back. If projected produce or land is dedicated to the Temple, it must be given - or, failing that, redeemed by an equal monetary amount. We can extrapolate this value - if we make a promise to donate, or pledge something, we are obliged to fulfill that promise, whether we feel differently later or not.
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