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B'Midbar/Numbers 30:15(14) ... he has caused them to stand, for he kept silent about it on the day he heard.
The whole of the first aliyah1 in parashat Mattot is given over to a discussion about keeping vows and oaths. In particular, the majority of the text focuses on the vows and oaths made by women and when they can be annulled by their fathers or husbands: their fathers if they are still living at home, unmarried, in their father's house; their husband if they are married. Essentially, the rules are the same: the responsible man may annul a vow or an oath made by his daughter or wife, without guilt or consequences to either if he does so on the day upon which he hears of the commitments. If he does not annul it at that point, then although as the responsible legal party he may later annul it at any point without the woman acquiring any guilt, he becomes liable for the guilt penalty for him breaking her commitment.
There are of course, differences of opinion about many of the details of these regulations. Typically, for example, Don IsaacAbravanel says that the phrase "in the day" means that the husband/father has twenty four hours from the time that he hears about it to make an annulment. Rabbi Hirsch, on the other hand, says that "in the day" refers specifically to the sunset-to-sunset day during which the disclosure was made: "once the sun has set and the day on which he heard of the vow has passed he has no authority to act." Gunther Plaut confirms what happens if the husband later insists that his wife is not to keep her vow - "he shall bear her guilt if she now breaks her vow to fulfill his wishes" - and Richard Elliott Friedman provides the explanation that "having power over another person also means taking responsibility for that person's actions. If a husband causes his wife to violate a vow she made, then it is he who must live with the consequences."
Another point of debate is the verb , which is used many times throughout the regulations - three times in the verse of which our text forms the last phrase. is the Hif'il 3ms affix form of the root, and although the Qal meanings cover ploughing and tilling, engraving, fabricating or working (Davidson), the Hif'il voice followed (as here) by the preposition can take the meaning "to keep silent, be silent, quiet." In a case where a decision needs to be rendered - the husband/father is expected to say 'yes' or 'no' - what does keeping silent mean? The Sages of the Talmud say that "silence confirms, but does not annul; and if he confirms in his heart, he has confirmed it, whereas if he annuls in his heart, it is not annulled. Moreover, if he confirmed, he cannot annul, and if he annulled, he cannot confirm. This teaches that silence confirms" (b. Nedarim 79a). TheSforno agrees, explaining that "silence on the part of one who has the power to protest is tantamount to admission (or consent), for regarding he who is silent (it is as though) he agrees with the action." The husband/father is free to give a decision explicitly: if verbally, he just opens his mouth and says the words; if he is disabled or mute, then he may sign, write, grunt or gesticulate - any identifiable indication is adequate to convey his intentions. On the other hand, saying nothing (including making no indication) by someone who has the authority and ability to say something, is taken as approval or consent since he could have objected to the action or the decision. Refutation of a vow or an oath requires an explicit action or equivalent verbal protest.
Altogether, this imposes quite a significant burden on the husband or father. He has only a short time to consider the matter - very short if it is already approaching sunset when he hears - and make an explicit protest if he wishes to object and annul the commitment. Although this may legitimately be done free of religious guilt or consequences, he has to consider his wife's wishes, the cost to the household of fulfilling the vow or oath, the impact it may have upon her reputation and trustworthiness in the community, what it may do for his reputation as a husband or father, not to mention the strain it may place on his relationship with his wife if he crosses her. To further complicate the decision, he may not actually hear about it until sometime after the vow was made or the oath taken and it may have been in effect for some little time, thus needing to arrange withdrawal or cessation The process is not as simple as the words of the regulations might at first appear.
Stepping sideways slightly from the original intent of our text, but pursuing the idea that silence constitutes consent, one of the most quoted statements attributed to Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish politician, statesmen, writer and philosopher, is: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."2 Hiding behind such aphorisms as "Even a fool, if he keeps silent, is deemed wise" (Proverbs 17:28, NJPS) and Rav Sha'ul's instruction, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Romans 12:18, NASB), we seem to have a penchant in these days for not speaking up to protest even at things we know are wrong. If silence is a form of consent, then surely we must be prepared to speak out when evil is on the rise. We see governments around the world embracing non-biblical practices and legislation; we see good being called bad and evil called good; we see the values of the kingdom of G-d, which have been maintained for centuries, however partially, being swept away in the name of freedom (by which they mean libertarianism) and political correctness; we see a culture of death in many forms being promulgated against the wishes of the majority by vociferous minorities who even deny freedom of conscience for those who would abstain from the reformers' excesses. Has all this gone too far? Is it too late?
The prophet Ezekiel found a voice for G-d in the days of the Babylonian exile when he spoke out the words, "And I searched for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one" (Ezekiel 22:30, NASB). That voice is sounding again today as G-d is calling out and searching for people to "stand in the gap" before Him for the lands in which we live and the peoples of whom we are a part. The Hebrew word 'gap' speaks of a hole in a city wall, resulting either from neglect or from damage caused by enemy attack. In a combat situation, unless the gap is quickly repaired or warriors posted to defend the breach, invaders would have easy access to the city and its inhabitants to kill, plunder and ravage. Let no-one think that we are not in combat; the enemy - our enemy, the enemy of our souls, "prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8, NASB). He is making both a deal of noise and significant advances in these days as liberalism strips the kingdom of its solid basis of faith in the Word and ridicules those who proclaim the sovereignty of G-d.
The husband or father in the text had to make a decision, on the first day that he heard of it: whether to approve or to annul a vow or oath made by his wife or daughter. If he said nothing, his silence was taken as consent. Pastor Martin Niemöaut;ller, who spent eight years in concentration camp for opposing the policies of Hitler and the German National Socialist party, wrote several versions of this poem in the years following the Second World War. He spoke to illustrate the way in which the way that the lack of protest by the church in Germany emboldened and empowered the Nazi administration:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
1. - Each parashais divided into seven segments, known as the aliyot(pl.) or an aliyah(sing.), so that seven people can be honoured by being called up to read from the Torahscroll during the Shabbatmorning service.
2. - Although frequently attributed to Burke in many variants, there is no definite proof or source for his ever having said this. It closely resembles remarks known to have been made by the Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, in an address at the University of St. Andrews in the middle of the nineteenth century: Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
Further Study: Jeremiah 5:1-6; Mark 9:50
Application: Are you prepared to stand up and speak out or are you going to be part of the silent majority that - although you know it is wrong - allows evil to pass unchecked through the land?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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