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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
There is a feature of this week’s Torah portion of Matot that offers a fascinating perspective on the male-female relationship.
In the beginning of the Parshah, the Torah discusses the making, keeping and annulling of vows. This is the “keep your word” section. However, there are significant differences between Torah’s treatment of vows made by men and those made by women. Indeed, only a single verse is devoted to a man’s vows, whereas the balance of the section – a full 14 verses – addresses a woman’s vows.
Essentially, the Torah discusses the vows of three kinds of women:
In the case of the single girl under her father’s roof, when she makes a vow, within a limited period of time of her hearing the vow, her father has the power to annul her vow, in which case it is as if she never made it. If he misses that window of time, however, her vow stands.
Similarly, in the case of a married or betrothed woman, when she makes a vow, within a limited period of time of her hearing the vow, her husband/fiance has the power to annul her vow, in which case it is as if she never made it. If he misses that window of time, however, her vow stands.
However, a single woman above the age of 12 who makes a vow is fully and solely responsible for her vow.
Why does a husband or father have a temporary veto over the vows made by his wife/daughter? Is it because, as many like to suggest, the Torah regards women as mere property? No, this cannot be the case, because there is no way that a culture which regarded women as property would provide complete autonomy to a single girl over 12 years old. And, if they were no more than property, then why should a husband or father have to annul their vows at all? And if an annulment is required, why limited the annulment period to a day?
There is no question that this certainly challenges the model of gender equality in this post-feminism era, and definitely demonstrates the Torah’s desire for a certain degree of paternalism, as the husband may annul his wife’s vows, and in fact succeeds the same position previously held by his wife’s father. Thus does a husband have a brief opportunity to veto a vow that he determines not to be in his wife’s best interests or in the best interests of the marriage. However, if he recognizes the wisdom of her vow, or if he is uncertain and makes no decision within a 24-hour period, or if he respects her too much to seek to undo her words – her vow stands.
Why does the Torah provide a husband with this power? Is it simply a narrow-minded view of a woman’s intelligence and wisdom, that a man is given the power to veto her vow; perhaps a hearkening back to the days when a woman’s views were considered childish, and in need of paternal guidance and protection? That would certainly be the trendy perspective…but it wouldn’t explain why the husband may only veto his wife’s vow on the day that he heard it; nor why this principle is illustrated in fourteen verses dealing with a woman’s vow (although she is free to do whatever she wants – it is merely that her vow is not binding). I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint.
Think of a bill, argued, voted on and passed by Congress, which now awaits the President’s signature or veto. The bill can sit on his desk for ten days before it becomes law by default. Why does the bill end up on the president’s desk at all? Passing laws is the province of the legislature – not the chief executive! And yet, are not our three co-equal branches of government a team? Will it not be the president who will ultimately be charged with responsibility of executing this law? Thus, in tribute to this teamwork, this collaborative effort, the president is given a period of time in which he may veto the law (and to either propose changes that make the law more workable, or require that the law be so popular that it can pass over his objection).
A husband and wife are a team. Within that team, the wife’s decisions and commitments are arguably the most influential and significant to the marriage and their joint mission. Recall G-d’s own explicit endorsement of our matriarch Sarah’s demand that Abraham send away his son Ishmael: “Whatever Sarah says to you – listen to her voice.” Because of the gravity of a wife’s decisions, those commitments that a woman considers so important as to formalize in a solemn vow require additional scrutiny by the other member of the marital team. And a husband is required to immediately consider his wife’s vow on the day that she makes it; he may not delay – for if he does, the default position is that her vow stands.