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Parasha No. 42
Mattot: “Tribes”

Bemidbar (Numbers) 30, 1 - 32, 41

The sacredness of speech

lan Extract in Hebrew
- Themes and meaning of the parasha with transliteration
- Mitzvot and translation
- Rashi
- The Shla's commentary The parasha chanted
- A memorable example of the importance of speech teamim Ashknazim
- The importance of speech in politics

The parasha chanted
Fable teamim Sepharadim
The haftara chanted
teamim Ashkenazim


Themes and meaning of the parasha

This parasha deals first with the sacredness of religious vows, when they are binding and when they can be annulled.
It then goes on to describe the war of vengeance against the Midianites, who tried to destroy Israel by assimilation (ch. 31), enticing them to idol worship through the charms of their women and mixed marriages. Those who are still enticed in this direction should fear the wrath of God.
Then the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and their multitude of cattle, ask Moshe for permission to settle east of the Jordan (ch. 32).
The entire parasha focuses on the theme of a vow that is given or said. Moshe teaches us
how to ensure that vows are fully kept,
the punishment for those among the bnei Yisrael who do not carry out their promise to destroy the Midianites, and the conditions for those who wish to settle east of the Jordan.

The Mitzvot

This parasha describes only two mitzvot, nos. 406 and 407. They are found in this verse from the beginning of the parasha:
"When a man voweth a vow unto Hashem…he shall not break his word, ish ki yidor neder.. lo yahel devaro" (30,3)
"When a man voweth a vow unto Hashem….he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth" (30, 3).
Our Sages comment on this repetition and on the difference between these two similar phrases. We shall study their commentaries


Rashi states first (basing himself on Mishna Kinim 1, 1 an on the Sifre) that this verse relates to vows which add prohibitions to what is permitted, rather than vows authorizing what is prohibited: lesor et hamutar velo lehatir et haasur.
Note: though we did not have enough mitzvot (613!).
In this verse, the Torah predicted the danger of religious extremism.
Talmud Sotah 21b depicts such extremism in its portrayal of the hassid shote who does not understand the connection between theory and real life, and does not know how to distinguish priorities or exceptions. This is often the case with those who are just beginning to study the Torah and do not understand the shimush, its application. This means that they have not studied how the Sages applied the Torah to the totality of their lives. This is why students are not allowed to study alone, for this can cause them to lose all sense of perspective: " or study together, or else death," o hevruta o mituta (Taanit 23a).

Rashi then comments on the phrase: "he shall not break his word" (lo yahel devaro) and tells us that the word "yahel" should be understood in relation to lo yehalel devar, which means to profane (hol). This refers to everything that is not sacred, kedusha (see I Samuel 23, 6). Hulin refers to all that is profane. It also describes the fruits which remain once the teruma has been taken, to be given to the priest, to the symbol of sacredness. At the other extreme to the Holy of Holies (kodesh kodashim), one refers to what is very far removed from sacredness as hule hulin. A banal, everyday conversation can be described as sihat hulin.
We shall first study what Rashi means here and then see how the Shla develops this theme.

He who does not keep his word transforms a word which is sacred (kadosh) into something far removed from sacredness, into hol, profanity. We can now understand better the demand, constantly repeated in the Torah, in the Tanakh and in the history of the Jewish people, "to be like others" and not to be a "holy" people. This is exactly like the hiloniut (secularism) of today, which uses the same root. This has been a recurring theme in the history of the Jewish people and in Israel today, political parties have adopted secularism as their platform.

Rashi returns often to this theme of holiness versus profanity, as in his commentary on Shabbat, in Shemot 31, 14 (those who profane Shabbat, he writes, those who act in a profane manner, while Shabbat is holy). Rashi does not write that these people do not keep Shabbat or do not practice its laws (expressions often used today by those who do not "respect" Shabbat); he writes that the hiloni is someone who transforms the holy into the profane (hanoge ba hol bikedushata).

Rashi thus connect the word "profane" to the "profanation" of holiness. The Torah teaches us here that profanation has nothing to do with some neutral secularism which aims to respect the rights of every individual. Rashi expresses this clearly and passionately in his commentary on Vayikra 21, 9, which prohibits prostitution and uses the verb hol, to profane ("ki tehel kizenot et avia, if she profane herself by playing the harlot, she profaneth her father").

The Shla's commentary: the sacredness of speech
The Shla explains that the whole parasha is devoted to the completeness of the soul (shlemut haneshama) for speech is the outer expression of the neshama and represents its inner discourse.
This is why speech separates man from all other creatures. Where the Torah says that Adam was created as a "living creature" (nefesh haya), Onkelos translates this as "talking creature" (ruah memalela). Speech is thus directly connected to the Creator, and is therefore sacred, and removed from the world of the profane and hiloniut.

Because of its intrinsic sacredness, it is essential to respect speech, to keep one's word, not to dishonor it, or prostitute it, and not to make it into something profane. This is not just a social or ethical code, it is a code which stems from the very sacredness of speech.
Note: Those who do not keep their word, do not realize that this entails a process of profanation and prostitution. This is why the Torah teaches us this code and warns us, through the precepts of the Sages, against those who mock and disrespect speech. The Baal Haturim begins his monumental work on Hakakha (the Tur) with this theme.

This is why King David wrote: "My mouth shall speak the praise of Hashem" (tehilat Hashem yedaber pi" Psalm 145, 21).
Note: David knows the nature of what comes out of his mouth, and he directs it to its original source through praise. He transcends banality into praise, through speech.
The words of the Torah (30, 3) can now be understood to mean: nothing which comes out of one's mouth should be profaned by being reduced to the level of hol, that which is profane. Everything must remain at the level of sacredness. This is how my master, Rabbi Moshe Zenu, lived: his daily speech was full of blessings. This is the education parents should give their children, as is written in the chapter containing the Shema Yisrael (Devarim 6): "ve dibarta bam, and thou shalt teach them [the words] diligently unto thy children…"

The Shla proceeds to define the nature of neder, vow: in Judaism, every word has the power of attaining divine kedusha, sacredness, but if someone is in doubt of this and wishes to ensure sacredness in all that he does, he imposes on himself additional prohibitions to those in the Torah. According to the root of the word neder, the letter nun, whose numerical value is 50, represents supreme wisdom. It goes without saying that he who aspires to such a level, to the extent of imposing on himself additional obligations, must have already upholded all the commandments of the Torah.

This teaching on the nature of speech and the need for caution in the face of extremism, as represented in the neder, warns against the phenomenon of pseudo Sages, pseudo hassidim and fervent fundamentalists. It also teaches us all to maintain the quality of holiness in our speech, which does not mean it should be sad for there is much joy and humor in the Torah, the midrashim, the Talmud, Rachi etc. This precept to maintain holiness in speech is important because:
Tractate Yoma of the Talmud teaches us that the temple was destroyed because the people had lost this element of holiness in their speech and conduct. It gives five examples drawn from the absence of the letter he (5) in Haggai 1, 8: "Go up to the mountain and brig wood and build the house and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, said Hashem." (glorified: veekaveda is written instead of veekavedah.)
The conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezar was a result of the violation of this respect for speech, as was the destruction of the Sanhedrin at the time of King Tzidkiahu.
This is why midrash Eikha Rabbati (2, 18) says: do not take lightly this passage of the Torah on the sacredness of vows and speech.

A memorable example of the importance of speech
Tractate Sanhedrin is similar to a civil code of law, for it details every possible law to govern cases of damages against others. But behind the judicial structure, it is the words of the witnesses which bear weight. The Tractate ends with the example of the prophet Eli, which I quote below. Tractate Sanhedrin, page 113a-b:

"Rabbi Yosse of the town of Sephoris recounted this:
father Eli (the great prophet himself!) was irascible.
(how can one write such things?! This refers to what he says in I Kings 17, 1).
Now the prophet Eli was accustomed to visiting Rabbi Yosse (he visits the great Sages in different generations) but for three days he did not visit him.
When the prophet Eli resumed his visits, Rabbi Yosse said:
Why did you not come before?
You accused me of being irascible.
This just shows that you are irascible!"
It would be a mistake to think that the Talmud describes humorous, folk or popular stories which do not have the elevated, sacred level of the commentaries on the Torah. The point of this story is that daily life is also kedusha, and humor should be understood not just as a joke but as transmitting the truth.
True Jewish humor expresses itself when external pressure is fiercest, but it is always pertinent, affectionate and intimate.

The importance of speech in politics
In contrast, many believe that it is permissible to lie in business or in politics. Those who believe this forget that lying for material gain is a desecration of the divine word itself, that which guards the people, Israel.
Politics is one of the domains which makes most use of spin-merchants and where the power of speech is most deceptive.
The state coffers may be empty, but somehow, during campaign elections, the politicians and those who earn the most are suddenly promising a hoard of handouts. And when they take power, they inevitably declare that they have just discovered that the preceding government left the coffers empty. And they always find funds for the needs of their followers, who, they suddenly declare, are the nation's most needy group.
In such a world, which separates sacredness from real life, the good Jew is always tamim, na?ve, as in the story recounted in Tractate Sanhedrin 67b:

"Zeire travelled to Alexandria in Egypt in order to buy an ass (who will be the greater ass in the story?). He bought it and when he tried to give it water to drink, the ass disappeared and in its place was a plain piece of wood! (just like voters who fall for promises like the ass Zeire bought in the market).
Zeire went to complain to the vendors, who like all good traders, responded: Just because you are Zeire, otherwise we wouldn't return you your money. Is there anyone in the world who buys an ass without testing it by submitting it to the test of drinking water?" (This means that we all know that we constantly deceive in business and that even our eyes can be deluded by lies.)

This story must have served as a lesson for a man called Yanai, as the rest of the text recounts:
"Yanai arrives at an inn and is on the alert. He asks for water to drink and notes that the servant girl moves her lips as she serves him (one of the last presidents of the USA used, in his electorate campaign, the slogan - look at my lips, and you will pay no more taxes - and he won. Yanai also forgets everything he learnt about the sacredness of speech and takes up the game of deception).
He tells himself that the servant girl must have deceived him and pours the water on the ground, and indeed, scorpions emerge from the glass.
Cunningly, he tells her: I drank the water you gave me, now it is your turn to drink the water I will give you. She drinks the water Yanai gives her and transforms into an ass.
Proud of his success, he mounts the ass and makes his way back, crossing the marketplace. But the servant girl's friend saw the scene, runs after him and breaks the spell.
Then, to the great amusement of everyone, Yanai was seen crossing the marketplace astride a woman."
The lesson of the neder teaches us that it is not enough for man to keep the commandments of the Torah, he needs to add to them. Any attempt at falsifying speech will only lead to self delusion and moral turpitude. Empty electoral promises, the public's need to play this game of deception, phony scientific polls, the list is long and one wonders where it will end.

Vote for me; my program is unique; I juggle better than the others; I am different to everyone else; I am the best; only I can bring peace now; I will give you all that you want.
This is the language of opinion polls: for whom do you intend to vote? Who is the better speaker? Who is the most convincing candidate? Who is the best dressed candidate? Who is best able to make peace, provide jobs, improve health services?
Why do I deal with these issues in a commentary on the Torah? Because they show how speech is exploited, particularly when the stakes are highest.
He who aspires to make a vow, or to add another commandment to the Torah, must first keep all the mitzvot.

This approach (discussed in the third part of the Shla's commentary, following the commentary on the mitzvot and that on the Torah) is called: Derekh Hayim (way of life).

The Shla draws the following conclusions:
1. Man should be credible and reliable in his speech (neeman bekiburo).
2. He must pay heed to everything that comes out of his mouth: thus after making their request to Moshe, the tribes of Reuven and Gad were obliged to keep their word (read the text in ch. 32).
3. This obligation applies not only to the vows we make and to important issues, it also applies to every word we utter.

We should all examine closely the way we speak and whether we keep our word, especially to those we love, but also in our professional and social relations.
Our speech reflects the divine element in us, which is our neshama (soul), and it shows whether the neshama is respected and praised or profaned and abused.
It is Hashem himself who is affected for Israel is a holy people, kaddosh.
The state of benediction is either extended or reduced by speech, and the consequences affect everyone.

The Lubavicher Rabbi would always offer those who came to see him one or two 1$ bills, even though the visitors came to see him because of his great spirituality. By this gesture, perhaps he was saying: may your words and actions conform to the words of the Torah which you express here or which you wish to hear from me; may they conform in the tiniest detail, down to the smallest $ bill.

The aim of bringing up the issue of politics (which affects all of us) and the word games we collude in, between politicians and voters, is to make us aware of what is at stake. From the time of the burning bush, Moshe struggled to ensure the triumph of sacredness in words and deeds, as of the holy forces which carry the world. He tried to tell this to Pharaoh but was not heeded, so he left Egypt and made his way to Jerusalem without Pharaoh.

During the period in the desert, recounted in the book Bamidbar, Moshe showed the children of Israel the terrible consequences that can ensue from imprudent speech (Miriam in Behaalotekh, the political and religious leaders who are not faithful to the land of Israel in Shelach Lecha, the rivalries for power in Korah, the terrible curses made against Israel by other nations and religions in Balak. In Hukkat, Moshe teaches us how to ensure sacredness in speech and in Pinehas, he urges us to react against those who wish to destroy the Jewish people because they are the people of the Torah).

According to the Shla, parasha Mattot adds the finishing touch to these laws which aim to ensure tikkun (reparation) of the neshama of the people. The following chapter (Massei) will describe the tikkun of the body. Since these two parashiot have a similar aim, they are often linked together, making the union of the neshama and the body complete.
Thus the Torah and its teachings are given to the whole being.
The book of Devarim will them summarize these teachings.
Accomplishing this tikkun depends solely on ourselves: we must study these parashiot not only with our heads but also with our bodies, hearts, thoughts and actions. We will then have accomplished the task we have been given.

It is a mistake to think that "such vigilance on the sacredness of speech and its consequences is excessive and that there is no harm in enjoying political verbal sparring, hurting someone with a caustic or sadistic remark, selling ideas for money, vying to control the public purse, choosing to follow only what we please in the Torah and ignoring the rest."
The Torah and our Sages do not think in this way, as we see in the Tur's commentary on Bamidbar 30, 2:
Nedarim, be gematria rotzeah. She hanoder hashuv ke rotseah im eino meshalem de beavon nedarim, habbanim metim.
"The word nedarim has the same gematria as rotzeah (assassin). Thus he who makes a vow is considered an assassin if he does not keep it completely, and because of the abuse of the vows, the sons die." The Tur bases himself on Tractate Shabbat 32b, which states that not keeping one's word is as serious, and has the same consequences, as the abandonment of the study of the Torah.
Respect for the sacredness of speech is a question of life or death.
It is no easy thing to do, for any of us, at any time.
So let us help one another.



1. Memorize verse 30, 3 at the top of the parasha, which summarizes this commentary.
2. Study the subject of respect for speech in:
Rambam, Sefer hamitzvot, 95 and 157.
Rambam, Mishne Torah, haflaat nedarim 4, 5.
Rabbi Yosef Caro, Shulhan Arokh, Yore Dea 204 ; 215, 5; 228, 1-3; 234, 1, 2, 5.
3. Discuss in groups the issue of respect for speech and the problems related to it, basing yourselves on this parasha and its commentaries.


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Rav Professor
Yehoshua Rahamim Dufour
(Dipur, in hebrew)

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