Restoration Quarterly 42 (2000) 193-209.
Copyright © 2000 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.
VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH
MATTHEW 15:3-6//MARK 7:9-13
JON NELSON BAILEY
Religious vows are prominent in ancient Judaism. This study examines the
evidence that in the first-century CE a son could make a vow that would keep
him from honoring his parents as commanded in the fifth of the Ten
Commandments (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). This practice, mentioned in Matt
15:3-6//Mark 7:9-13, had the effect of vowing away the fifth commandment.
The practice may have been rare and controversial, but it was a phenomenon that
could occur in ancient Judaism.
Since God required that vows be kept, problems arose when a vow was
made that violated the Torah. In this study, I trace the development of such vows
within Judaism and show that the NT bears witness to the practice by which a
person could make a vow that superseded requirements of the fifth command-
ment. I also show that such vows encountered opposition by the rabbis and
eventually became unthinkable for pious Jews by the time of the Babylonian
II. Significant Terms
A vow is a promise made in a religious context, usually to God. Vows tend
to be promises to perform, or to abstain from, specific actions. In biblical and
rabbinic Hebrew, the most common terms for "vow" are the verb rdanA and the
noun rd,n,. The corresponding Aramaic terms are the verb rdan; and the noun rdan;.1
The most common Greek terms for "vow" are the verb eu@xomai and the noun
1 F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old
Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907; repr. 1981) 623-24 (hereinafter cited
BDB, Lexicon); M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and
Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (New York: Judaica, 1903; repr. 1985) 879-80
(hereinafter cited Jastrow, Dictionary).
194 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
eu]xh<.2 A vow is a solemn promise or assertion directed toward God. Vows in
ancient Judaism can be divided into two basic types. The positive vow promises
to perform an act or to offer a gift or sacrifice as a votive offering. The negative
vow promises to abstain from something, imposing a prohibition on the one who
made the vow or others.3
Vows in ancient Judaism were closely related to oaths, and sometimes the
terms were used interchangeably. The common Hebrew terms are hfAUbw; "oath,"
and fbawA "swear, take an oath."4 The Greek terms are o@rkoj, "oath," and o]mnu<w,
“swear, take an oath.”5 An oath is a solemn, formal calling upon God as witness
to the truth of words directed toward other human beings 6
Another important term is the Hebrew noun NBAr;qA. In rabbinic Hebrew this
noun introduces a vow to abstain from something by declaring an object to have
the status of a consecrated offering as far as the one prohibited by the vow is
concerned. This usage is a development from biblical Hebrew in which the term
occurs frequently but simply to denote a literal "gift, offering, or sacrifice.”7 In
2 H. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., H. Jones and R.
Lexicon); W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature (trans. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, 2nd ed. rev. F. W. Gingrich
and F. W. Danker;
BAGD, Lexicon); J. Hermann and H. Greeven, "eu@xomai," TDNT 2:775-808.
3 "Vows and Vowing," Encyclopedia Judaica
(ed. Cecil Roth; 16 vols.;
Macmillan, 1971) 16:227-28; "Vow," Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450
B.C.E. to 600 C.E. (ed. Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green; 2 vols.;
& Schuster/Macmillan, 1996) 661-62; "Vows and Oaths," The
of the Jewish Religion (ed. R. Werblowsky
and G. Wigoder (
Press, 1997) 716-17.
4 BDB, Lexicon, 989-90; Jastrow, Dictionary, 1511, 1515.
5 LSJM, Lexicon, 1223, 1252; BAGD, Lexicon, 565, 581; J. Schneider, "o]mnu<w,"
TDNT, 5:176-185; idem, "o!rkoj et al.," TDNT, 5:457-67.
6 E. Klinger, "Vows and Oaths," The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea Eliade;
Jews often blurred the distinction between oaths and vows, especially in regard to vows
that negatively affected others.
7 BDB, Lexicon, 898; Jastrow, Dictionary, 1411; J. Kuhlewein, Theological
Lexicon of the Old
(Peabody: Hendrikson, 1997) 3:1164-69; R. Averbeck, New International
Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (ed. W. VanGemeren; 5 vols.; Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 3:979-82. The noun occurs 80 times in the Hebrew Bible, with
40 of those occurrences in Leviticus. Both the noun and cognate verb are associated with
the Israelite concept of drawing near to God in worship by presenting a consecrated gift
as a sacrificial offering. While the law specified many gifts such as burnt offerings, grain
offerings, and peace offerings, it also was possible to vow voluntarily to God other gifts
from one's property. After the loss of the
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 195
rabbinic literature it is used both as a designation for actual sacrificial offerings
and as a technical term that introduces a vow of abstinence from some object
consecrated to God. In rabbinic texts, to avoid use of the actual word for sacri-
ficial offering, the term commonly is replaced by the euphemism MnAOQ.8
III. The Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible indicates that vows were important in Israelite religion
from an early period.9 With a vow a person was placed under solemn obligation
to God to do something or to refrain from doing something. Vows were volun-
tary. Yet, once taken, they were to be fulfilled. The motive for vows was often
a desire to obtain divine favor. They regularly have the form "If God does
something for me, then I will do something for God." Except for the Nazirite
vow, negative vows or vows of abstinence are rare in the Hebrew Bible. Vows
intended to affect others negatively are even less common.
A few examples will demonstrate the importance of positive vows in the
Hebrew Bible.10 Jacob vowed that if God would keep him safe, fed, and clothed
until he returned, he would make the pillar at
tithes (Gen 28:20-22; 31:13). The people of
vowed that if God would bring him home victorious, he would offer as a
sacrifice whatever first came out of his house when he returned (Judg 11:30-40).
Hannah vowed that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to God
(1 Sam 1: 11). In addition, the Psalms include many texts associated with making
and fulfilling vows (Pss 22:22-31; 50:14-15; 56:12-13; 61:8; 65:1; 66:13-20;
Much of the information concerning vows is in the Pentateuch. Everything
offered in fulfillment of a vow was to be of the highest quality (Lev 22:17-25).
The vow of valuation allowed one person to vow another person, an animal, a
building, or a portion of land, but then redeem what had been vowed by paying
sacrifice was considered an offering to God.
8 Jastrow, Dictionary, 1335.
9 The text of the Hebrew Bible used for this study is the Hebrew-Aramaic text of
Elliger and W. Rudolph, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
stiftung, 1977), and the Greek
text of Alfred Rahlfs, Septuaginta (
English quotations are taken from The New
Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version (ed.
Metzger and R. Murphy;
10 F. W. Cartledge, "Vow," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev.
W. Bromiley; 4 vols.;
in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (JSOT Supplement Series
JSOT Press, 1992).
196 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
what it was worth to the priests (Lev 27:1-33). Whether made by a man or a
woman, vows were absolutely binding (Num 30:1-2). However, a vow made by
an unmarried woman could be annulled the same day by her father, and a vow
made by a married woman could be annulled the same day by her husband (Num
30:3-16). Vows were to be fulfilled at the place God chose: the temple in
obtained by immoral means (Deut 23:18); and even though vows were voluntary,
they were most serious:
If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for
the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur
guilt. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt. Whatever
your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed
to the LORD your God with your own mouth (Deut 23:21-23).
The most notable vow of abstinence is the Nazirite vow. It required a person
to abstain from grape products, from cutting the hair, and from contact with the
dead (Num 6:1-21; Judg 13:4-5; 1 Sam 1:11; Amos 2:11-12). Another negative
vow is the vow made by David that he would not enter his house, go to bed, or
sleep until he had found a place for God's house (Ps 132:1-5). Also worth
considering is an oath imposed by Saul upon
laid an oath on the people, saying, "Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is
evening" (1 Sam 14:24).
Later passages suggest that vows created practical difficulties and conflicts
with the Law. Vows resulted in promises people failed to fulfill (Mal 1:14). The
author of Ecclesiastes advises: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay
fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that
you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it" (Eccl 5:4-5).
Similarly, the book of Sirach teaches: "Let nothing hinder you from paying a
vow promptly, and do not wait until death to be released from it. Before making
a vow, prepare yourself; do not be like one who puts the Lord to the test" (Sir
The most relevant source from
Two incomplete medieval copies of this document were discovered in an old
11 The text used for this
study is The
Texts with English
J. Charlesworth; 10 vols.;
Knox, 1994-) vol. 2:
English quotations are from The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (ed. G. Vermes;
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 197
in Caves 4, 5, and 6 at
century BCE. The most important text for this study begins at CD 16:6 and
continues to CD 9:1.12
And concerning the saying, "You shall keep your vow by fulfilling it (Deut
23:24)," let no man, even at the price of death, annul any binding oath by
which he has sworn to keep a commandment of the Law. But even at the
price of death, a man shall fulfill no vow by which he has sworn to depart
from the Law. Inasmuch as He said, "It is for her husband to cancel her
oath (Num 30:9)," no husband shall cancel an oath without knowing
whether it should be kept or not. Should it be such as to lead to transgression
of the Covenant, he shall cancel it and shall not let it be kept.
The rule for her father is likewise. No man shall vow to the altar anything
unlawfully acquired. Also, no
Priest shall take from
unlawfully acquired. And no man shall consecrate the food of his house to
God, for it is as he said, "Each hunts his brother with a net (Mic 7:2)." Let
no man consecrate.... And if he has consecrated to God some of his own
field ... he who has made the vow shall be punished.... Every vow by which
a man vows another to destruction by the laws of the Gentiles shall himself
be put to death.
This passage emphasizes the solemn nature of oaths and vows. It allows for
annulment of vows of women that violate the law. It prohibits vows that dedicate
wrongfully acquired property. It forbids vowing or consecrating personal
property to affect others negatively. And it condemns the practice of vowing
another person to destruction. The entire passage is based on Deut 23:21-23
(Matt 23:22-24) and Num 30:2-15 (Matt 30:3-16). However, the texts from the
Hebrew Bible have been paraphrased, and the terms for oath and vow are used
interchangeably. In addition, CD 16:6-18 uses Mr,He ("something consecrated,
dedicated, removed from profane use, vow"), hbAdAn; ("freewill-offering, dona-
tion"), wDeqi ("sanctify, consecrate, dedicate"), MUq ("swear, vow"), hfAUbw;
("oath"), and fbawA ("swear, take an oath").13
The text upholds the inviolability of the Law, requiring individuals to pay
the price of death rather than transgress a commandment. The text does address
the annulment of oaths and vows made by women, but any such annulment is
limited only to oaths or vows that violate the community's covenant. Significant
for this study are the admonitions concerning unacceptable vows, particularly the
ruling "No man shall consecrate the food of his house to God, for it is as he said,
12 D. Dimant,
"Qumran Sectarian Literature," Jewish
Writings of the
Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha,
M. Stone; CRINT;
13 BDB, Lexicon, 355, 356, 21,872, 873; Jastrow, Dictionary, 503, 504, 877, 1319,
198 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
‘Each hunts his brother with a net’ (Mic 7:2).” The prohibition is supported by
a quotation from Mic 7:2: Mr,He UdUcyA Uhyfere tx, wyxi. In CD 16:15, the noun
Mr,He should be understood as "something consecrated, dedicated; vow;" rather
than the homonym meaning "trap, net, snare." According to Fitzmyer, the text
forbids "the dedication of any food to God so that it might not be used to help
Philo of Alexandria, who lived from about 20 BCE to 50 CE, provides still
another link in the tradition concerning vows.15 He regularly uses eu]xh< and
eu@xomai for "vow."16 His most extensive treatment of vows occurs in On the
Special Laws. In 1.247-54 he discusses the `great vow' of the Nazirite. In
2.1-38 he discusses rash oaths and vows, oaths and vows of women, and vows
of valuation, all under the category eu]orki<a, "fidelity to one's oath, the duty of
keeping oaths."17 In 2.16 he comments on people who make oaths that negatively
affect others. Here Philo uses o!rkoj, "oath," rather than eu]xh<, "vow." But he
often uses the terms interchangeably, and his statements in this text show how
negative oaths or vows affecting others could be made by Jews in his time
contrary to the law or good moral judgment:
But there are some who, either because through excessive moroseness their
nature has lost the sense of compassion and fellow-feeling or because they
are constrained by anger which rules them like a stern mistress, confirm the
savagery of their temper with an oath. They declare that they will not admit
such and such a person to their board or under their roof, or again, that they
will not render assistance to so and so or accept anything from him till his
life's end. Sometimes they carry on their vindictiveness after that end has
come and leave directions in their wills against even granting the customary
rites to the corpse.
Although the practice was not considered acceptable by Philo, this example
provides evidence that oaths, and probably also vows, were used by Jews in his
14 J. Fitzmyer,
"The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in
and in the New Testament," New Testament Studies 7 (1961) 323. See also L. Schiffman,
Laws of Vows and Oaths in the Zadokite Fragments and
de Qumran 15 (1991-1992) 199-214.
15 The Greek and English texts used for this study are from F. H. Colson, G. H.
and R. Marcus, Philo (Loeb Classical
Library, 10 vols.;
University Press, 1929-1962).
16 Philo, Allegorical Interpretation 1.17; 2.63; On the Unchangeableness of God 87;
On Husbandry 175; On Drunkenness 2; On Mating with the Preliminary Studies 99; On
Flight and Finding 115; Life of Moses 1.252; On the Decalogue 126; et al. See also
Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 8.7.
17 LSJM, Lexicon, 725.
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 199
day to prohibit individuals from receiving any assistance from the one who made
the oath or vow.
VI. Archaeological Evidence
Two archaeological discoveries provide valuable information regarding the
Jewish practice of making vows during the
the term Nbrq was used to deny others the use of something by declaring an
object to have the status of a consecrated offering.
The first discovery is a fragment of a stone vessel recovered from an
excavation of a first-century-BCE Herodian street near the
The vessel, found among coins and other vessels, bears the inscription Nbrq,
most likely representing the Hebrew noun NBAr;qA. Along with this inscription is
a carved depiction of two birdlike figures, suggesting some connection with the
offering of two doves or pigeons (Lev 12:8). The vessel's inscription and its
discovery along with coins indicate that its use was similar to the practice
debated in the following passage from the Mishnah:
Any coins that are found are deemed unconsecrated, even if it was a golden
denar found with silver coins. If a potsherd was found with them and on it
was written ‘Tithe,’ they must be deemed (Second) Tithe (redemption
money). If a man found a vessel and on it was written "Korban," R. Judah
says: If it was of earthenware the vessel is to be deemed unconsecrated but
its contents Korban; and if it was of metal it is to be deemed Korban but its
contents unconsecrated. They said to him: It is not the way of men to put
what is unconsecrated into what is Korban (m. Ma 'aser Sheni 4:9-10).19
The second discovery is an ossuary found southeast of Jerusalem.20 On the
ossuary lid, written in a Herodian script from the end of the first century BCE, is
the Aramaic inscription: hvgbd Nm Nbrq hd FtlHb hnhtm wnx yd lk
hlx ("Everything that a man will find to his profit in this ossuary (is) an offering
to God from the one within it)."21 According to Milik, NBar;qA is used as a male-
diction or imprecation toward others." Fitzmyer claims the term still means
"offering," but is used here as "a warning that whatever of value is in the ossuary
18 B. Mazar,
"The Excavations South and West of the
The Herodian Period," Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970) 55.
19 H. Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).
20 J. Milik, "Trois tombeaux juifs recemment decouverts au Sud-Est de Jerusalem,"
Studii Biblici Franciscani Liber Annuus 7 (1956-1957) 232-39; J. A. Fitzmyer, "The
Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et-Turf and Mark 7.11 /Matt 15.5," JBL
78 (1959) 60-65. See also J. A. Fitzmyer and D. J. Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian
Aramaic Texts (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978) 168-69, 222-23.
21 Fitzmyer and Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts, 168-69.
22 Milik, "Trois tombeaux juifs," 235, 238, 239.
200 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
has been dedicated to God and is not intended for any profane use."23
Significantly, the term NBar;qA, did not transfer the ossuary or its contents to the
temple. Rather, this vow formula was used simply to declare something to be
sacred and thus prohibit others from using it or obtaining benefit from it in any
VII. The New Testament
The practice of vowing is not common in the NT.24 The verb eu@xomai is
not used meaning "vow," but only "pray" or "wish" (Acts 26:29; 27:29; Rom 9:3;
2 Cor 13:7, 9; Jas 5:16; 3 John 2). The noun eu]xh< is used once meaning "prayer"
(Jas 5:15) and twice meaning "vow" (Acts 18:18; 21:23).25 References to oaths
are more common. The noun o@rkoj, "oath," occurs ten times, and the verb
o]mnu<j, "swear, take an oath," occurs twenty-six times.26 Most significantly, with
the exception of oaths made by God or an angel, swearing of oaths is always
portrayed in the NT as an undesirable act. Other significant terms include
a]na<qema ("anything dedicated, a curse") and a]naqemati<zw ("curse, bind with
The one clear NT example of a negative vow forbidding the use of some-
thing by others is in Matt 15:3-6 and Mark 7:9-13. Here Jesus speaks to some
Pharisees about a conflict between their oral tradition and the Scriptures. The key
sentence occurs in Matt 15:5 and Mark 7:11-12. It describes a practice by which
a son could make a vow prohibiting his parents from receiving any benefit from
him, thus exempting him from honoring them with material support. This
violated not only the commandment to honor one's parents (Exod 20:12; Deut
5:16) but also the commandment not to speak evil of one's parents (Exod 21:17;
Lev 20:9). According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus accused the Pharisees
of upholding the validity of such a vow that would prevent a person from doing
anything for his parents.
23 Fitzmyer and Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts, 222.
24 The Greek text used for this study is The Greek New Testament (4th ed., B. Aland,
Aland, J. Karavidopolous,
C. Martini, and B. Metzger;
geselschaft, 1993). English
quotations are from The New
Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, ed. B. Metzger and
R. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
25 BAGD, Lexicon, 329.
26 BAGD, Lexicon, 565, 566, 581. See also: e]norki<zw, "cause someone to swear";
e]corki<zw "charge under oath"; and o]rki<cw, "cause someone to swear"; o]rkwmosi<a,
"oath, taking an oath."
27 LSJM, Lexicon, 104-5; BAGD, Lexicon, 54. See Acts 23:12; Rom 9:3.
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 201
Matt 15:3-6 Mark 7:9-13
3) He answered them, "And why 9) Then he said to them, "You have a
do you break the commandment fine way of rejecting the
of God for the sake of your commandment of God in order to
tradition? keep your tradition!
4) For God said, ‘Honor your 10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your
father and your mother,’ and father and your mother,’ and
‘Whoever speaks evil of father or ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or
mother must surely die.’ mother must surely die.’
5) But you say that whoever tells 11) But you say that if anyone tells
father or mother, ‘Whatever father or mother, ‘Whatever support
support you might have had from you might have had from me is
me is given to God,’ Corban’ (that is, an offering to
then that person need not honor God)--
the father. 12) then you no longer permit doing
6) So, for the sake of your anything for a father or mother,
tradition, you make void the word 13) thus making void the word of God
of God." through your tradition that you have
handed on. And you do many things
According to Mark 7:11, the vow was introduced by the formula "Whatever
support you might have had from me is Corban." The term korba?n is simply a
transliteration of the Hebrew NBar;qA or the Aramaic NBar;qA. Mark explains this term
with the clause o! e]stin dw?ron, "that is, an offering to God."28 Matthew simply
has the translation dw?ron. Thus NBar;qA or NBar;qA was understood in the first
century CE to mean "gift, offering" while also functioning as a technical term in
a vow formula that prohibited others from deriving benefit from that which was
Scholars are divided over whether a vow formula like the one preserved in
Mark 7:11 actually dedicated the designated object to the temple or simply
declared the object to have the status of consecrated property as far as certain
individuals were concerned.29 Derrett has argued that the person who made the
vow could not continue to use the property, but was required to give the property
28 BAGD, Lexicon, 210-11.
Buchanan, "Some Vow and Oath Formulas in the New Testament," HTR 58 (1965)
202 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
or its value to the Temple.30 However, Derrett's argument is based entirely on
later rabbinic rulings concerning vows of valuation and does not consider earlier
In an age when the
used to dedicate property that would subsequently be given as an offering to God.
Yet the previous evidence examined in this study suggests that the formula was
also used to prohibit others from using something by declaring it consecrated as
far as they were concerned. The person who made the vow could retain possession
of the property as before, and only those toward whom the vow had been
directed could have no further use of it. Still, the effectiveness of this vow was
based on the belief that such a declaration gave objects consecrated status, even
if only with limited application.31
However, would the Pharisees actually have upheld a vow that violated the
Law of Moses? For scholars such as E. P. Sanders, this would not have been
possible. At least not as it is portrayed in the Gospels. According to Sanders,
even if some odd Pharisee may have done this at some time, the Pharisees as a
whole were not guilty of teaching people to act in this way. Instead, according
to Sanders, most Pharisees would have condemned the practice just as Jesus did.
Thus the story preserved by Matthew and Mark must be considered part of the
anti-Jewish or anti-Pharisaical polemic of the early church and not dependable
evidence for an accepted practice within the tradition of the Pharisees in the first-
In response to Sanders, it must be pointed out that his claim is based on the
presupposition that the teaching of the Pharisees is preserved in later rabbinic
texts. However, the tradition passed on by the Pharisees was not identical with
that of the later rabbis, but underwent considerable development.33 One area in
which such development occurred was the tradition concerning vows. As Saul
Lieberman has shown, the practice of making all kinds of oaths and vows
30 J. D. M. Derrett, "KORBAN, O ESTIN DWRON," NTS 16 (1970) 364-68.
31 J. Hart, "Corban," Jewish Quarterly Review 19 (1907) 615-50; H. Strack and
P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch (4 vols.;
Z. Falk, "On Talmudic Vows," HTR 59 (1966) 310; K. Rengstorf, "korba?n, korbana?j,"
32 E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (
1990) 55-57; idem, The Historical Figure
of Jesus (
33 J Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (3 vols.;
Jesus Christ (rev. and ed. G. Vermes et al.; 3 vols.;
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 203
presented a constant challenge to rabbis in the formative period of Judaism.34
Albert Baumgarten has argued very convincingly that the Pharisees of the first-
century CE probably taught that only a limited number of vows could be released
and that they probably would have required a son to fulfill a vow even like the
one recorded in the Gospels."
The vow described by Jesus may have been due to anger, selfishness, or
even misguided religious zeal. However, to uphold the sacredness of vows, the
Pharisees were apparently bound by oral tradition to enforce and not annul such
The writings of the Jewish author Josephus contain two passages that include
korba?n, a transliteration of either the Hebrew noun NBar;qA or the Aramaic noun
NBar;qA similar to Mark 7:11.36 In Antiquities 4.73, Josephus says that the term
korba?n was used as a vow by those who declared themselves a "gift," dw?ron,
for God, apparently referring to the vow of valuation (Lev 27:1-33). In Against
Apion 1.167, he reports that according to Theophrastus the use of korba?n as an
"oath"(o!rkoj) was forbidden by the
"Now this oath will be found in no other nation except the Jews, and, translated
from the Hebrew, one may interpret it as meaning ‘God's gift.’” Josephus's
translation "God's gift," dw?ron qeou?, confirms that the idea of an offering or
consecration of something to God was still behind the formulaic use of the term
in the first century CE.
IX. The Mishnah
The Mishnah treats oaths and vows at length.37 Although primarily
informative regarding the time of its completion around 200 CE, the Mishnah
also provides some insight into earlier development of Jewish law. The rulings
on vows before 70 CE dealt with the invalid nature of vows made in error or
under constraint. From 70-140 CE, general principles for abrogating vows were
34 S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish
35 A. Baumgarten, "Korban and the Pharisaic Paradosis," Journal of the Ancient
Near Eastern Society 16 (1984) 5-17.
36 The Greek text and English translation used for this study are from Josephus
37 The Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Mishnah used for this study is Shishah Sidrei
Mishnah (ed. C. Albeck; 6 vols.; Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1959), with comparison of Mishnayoth
ed.; ed. P. Blackman; 7 vols.;
from the Mishnah (ed. H. Danby;
204 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
worked out. After 140 CE, the language of vows was subjected to greater
clarification. The general trend was to restrict frivolous vows and to annul
The main treatment of oaths is found in tractate Sebu’oth ("Oaths").39 The
most extensive treatment of vows is found in tractates Nazir ("Nazirite Vow"),
‘Arakin ("Vows of Valuation"), and especially Nedarim ("Vows").40 According
to Neusner, the predominate concern of the tractate Nedarim is "the power of a
person to affect his or her concrete and material relationships with other people
through invoking the name of heaven."41 In this tractate, the rabbis attempt to
regulate the practice of vowing, to prevent improper vows, and to provide for
release from harmful or unjust vows because "vows will be taken primarily
under emotional duress and express impatience and frustration. They are not
predictable and never follow upon a period of sober reflection."42
The passages in the Mishnah of primary interest for this study are those that
deal with negative vows, or vows of abstinence or prohibition. Many of these
passages use NBar;qA.43 Even more frequent is the euphemism MnAOq.44 The following
passages from the Mishnah are significant because they include the use of these
terms in negative vows, or vows of abstinence intended to prohibit the use of
something by someone other than the person who made the vow:
(If a man said to his fellow,) "May I be to thee as a thing that is banned!" he
against whom the vow is made is forbidden (to have any benefit from him);
(if he said,) "Be thou to me as a thing that is banned!" he that makes the
vow is forbidden (to have any benefit from the other); (if he said,) "May I
be to thee and thou to me (as a thing that is banned)," then each is
forbidden (to have any benefit from the other). (m. Nedarim 5:4)
38 J. Neusner,
Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (
39 See also m. Seqal. 2:1; m. Ketub. 8:5; 9.2; 10:5; 13:1-4; m. Ned. 1:1, 2; 2:1, 2, 3;
3:4; m. Git. 4:3; 5:3, 4; m. Kidd. 1:5; m. B. Qam. 9:5; 10:3; m. Baba Mezi'a 1:1, 2; 3:1,
2; 4:7; 6:8; 7:8; 8.2; 9:12; m. Sanh. 3:2.
40 See also m. Sebu. 9:7; m. Ter. 1:3; m. Hal. 1:2; m. Sabb. 24:5; m. 'Erub. 3:1; m.
Meg. 1:6,7; m. Wed Qat. 3:1, 2; m. Hag. 1:8; m. Yebam. 2:10; 13:13; m. Ketub. 7:6; m.
2:5; m. Sanh. 3:2; 7:6; m. Menah.
12:2; m. Hul.
8:1; m. '
41 Jacob Neusner, Nedarim, Nazir, vol. 3, A Histony of the Mishnaic Law of Women
42 Neusner, Nedarim, Nazir, 5.
43 m. Nedarim 1:2-4; 2:2, 5; 9:7; 11:5; m. Nazir 2:1-3; m. Ma'aser Sheni 4:10.
44 m. Nedarim 1:2, 4; 2:1-2, 5; 3:1-4, 11; 4:6; 5:3; 6:1-4, 7, 10; 7:3, 6-8; 9:2-3,
7-10; 11:1-4, 6, 11; m. Gittin 4:7; m. Baba Kamma 9:10; m. Sebu'oth 3:4.
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 205
If a man was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from his fellow, and he
had naught to eat, his fellow may give (the food) to another as a gift, and
the first is permitted to use it. It once happened that a man at Beth Horon,
whose father was forbidden by vow to have any benefit from him, was
giving his son in marriage, and he said to his fellow, "The courtyard and the
banquet are given to thee as a gift, but they are thine only that my father
may come and eat with us at the banquet." His fellow said, "If they are
mine, they are dedicated to Heaven." The other answered, "I did not give
thee what is mine that thou shouldst dedicate it to Heaven." His fellow said,
"Thou didst give me what is thine only that thou and thy father might eat
and drink and be reconciled one with the other, and that the sin should rest
on his head!" (m. Nedarim 5:6)
So, too, if a man said to his fellow, "Konam be the benefit thou hast from
me if thou come not and give my son a kor of wheat and two jars of wine!"
R. Meir says: The vow is binding until he gives (him them). But the Sages
say: He, too, may break his vow without recourse to a Sage, and he can say
to his fellow, "Lo, it is as though I had already received them.." (m.
R. Ehezer says: They may open for men the way (to repentance) by reason
of the honour due to father and mother. But the Sages forbid it. R. Zadok
said: Rather than open the way for a man by reason of the honour due to
father and mother, they should open the way for him by reason of the
honour due to God; but if so, there could be no vows. But the Sages agree
with R. Eliezer that in a matter between a man and his father and mother,
the way may be opened to him by reason of the honour due to his father and
mother. (m. Nedarim 9:1)
If a man said to his son, "Konam be any benefit thou hast of mine!" and he
died, the son may inherit from him; (but if moreover he said) "both during
my life and at my death!" when he dies the son may not inherit from him
and he must restore (what he had received from his father at any time) to
the father's sons or brothers; and if he has naught (wherewith to repay) he
must borrow, and the creditors come and exact payment. (m. Baba Kamma
The preceding passages demonstrate that at the time of the Mishnah
negative vows could affect other people, even spouses, parents, or children. Some
vows were declared with the intent of denying benefit to others. The most
significant texts are m. Ned. 9:1 and m. B. Qamma. 9:10. In m. Ned. 9:1, in spite
of debate, the Sages agreed "in a matter between one and his father and his
mother," a son could be released from a vow "by reason of the honor due to his
father and his mother." A vow such as that described in Mark 7:11 was a vow that
could be annulled. This is a change from the situation in Mark 7:12, where Jewish
teachers would not permit one who made such a vow to do anything for his
parents. And in m. Baba Kamma 9:10, it is the father who declares MnAOq any
benefit that his son might have from him. It was possible for a son to vow away
obligations toward his parents, but the rabbis of the Mishnah would declare such
a vow voidable. As Z. W. Falk observed, "had the son approached them, they
206 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
would have taught him to annul his vow and abide by the rules of filial duty."45
Still, the Mishnah considers rules of release from vows to "hover in the air and
have naught to support them" (m. Hagigah 1:8).46
Sometimes, he says, when money-lenders fell in with stubborn debtors who
were able but not willing to pay their debts, they consecrated what was due
to the account of the poor, for whom money was cast into the treasury by
each of those who wished to give a portion of their goods to the poor
according to their ability. They, therefore, said sometimes to their debtors
in their own tongue, "That which you owe to me is Corban," that is, a gift,
"for I have consecrated it to the poor, to the account of piety towards God."
Then the debtor, as no longer in debt to men but to God and to piety
towards God, was shut up, as it were, even though unwilling, to payment of
the debt, no longer to the money-lender, but now to God for the account of
the poor, in the name of the money-lender. (Commentary on Matthew 11.9)
X. The Yerushalmi
The Yerushalmi, also known as the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud of the
400 CE, it contains a systematic exegesis of thirty-nine of the Mishnah's sixty-
two tractates.48 The Yerushalmi contains numerous stories concerning the sages
and how they found grounds for absolving vows. Some passages speak of oaths
45 Falk, "On Talmudic Vows," 311.
46 Origen was a contemporary of the Mishnah's redactors and appears to have had
firsthand knowledge about Jewish teaching of the time. For information on Origen and
his knowledge of Judaism, see J. Danidiou, Origen (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955);
C. Kannengiesser and W. L. Petersen, eds., Origen ofAlexandria: His World and His
Legacy (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988); H. Crouzet, Origen
korba?n, which he learned from a Jew. The translation is from A. Roberts and J. Donaldson,
The Ante-Nicene Fathers (rev. A. C. Coxe, 10 vols.;
47 The Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Yerushalmi used for this study is from Talmud
Yerushalmi, (7 vols.;
The Talmud of the Land of Israel (35 vols.;
between the Mishnah and Yerushalmi. The work m. Aboth, compiled around 250 CE,
contains only two brief references to vows (3:14; 4:18), neither of which concerns
negative vows. The Tosefta, compiled around 300 CE, omits much of the Mishnah's
discussion of negative vows, especially expletive vows. Of the Mishnaic texts discussed
previously, the Tosefta does not include m. Nedarim 5:6 and 9:1 and includes only a
small portion of m. Nedarim 8:7.
48 J Neusner,
Judaism in Society: The Evidence of the Yerushalmi (
sity of Chicago Press, 1983), x-xi; idem, The Oral Torah: The Sacred Books of Judaism
(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986) 73.
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 207
and vows interchangeably (y. Ned. 1:1 VI; 5:4 IV; 9:1 V). Other passages dis-
tinguish oaths from vows by claiming that only vows were capable of being
absolved by the rabbis (y. Ned. 11: 1 II). According to Jacob Neusner, what is
important is that "in its account of the public conduct of the rabbis, the Talmud
provides ample evidence that rabbis found grounds for absolution of vows and
told people about them."49
The Yerushalmi discusses m. Ned. 5:4; 5:6; and 8:7, but it provides no
additional information. It treats m. Ned. 9:1 more thoroughly, including some
material found only here in rabbinic literature. In particular, y. Ned. 9:1 I-IV
contains various rulings on the proper grounds for release from vows.
Immediately afterward y. Ned. 9:1 V attempts to explain what the rabbis of the
Mishnah must have meant in m. Ned. 9:1 in the matter between a son and his
How shall we interpret the matter? If he says, "Benefit deriving from me is
forbidden to father," then we must invoke that which was said by R. Jacob
bar Aha, R. Samuel bar Nahman in the name of R. Jonathan: "They force
the son to provide maintenance for the father." But thus we must interpret
the matter: It is a case in which he has said, "Benefit deriving from father is
prohibited to me."
The rabbis of the Yerushalmi record an interpretation that the son had made a
vow forbidding his father from receiving "benefit" (hyyAnAHE), the financial support
due to his parents.50 But they conclude this could not be the correct meaning of
the Mishnah. The command to "honor" one's parents was sufficient reason to
absolve the vow and force the son to provide for his father. Therefore, they
explain the text to mean that the son had vowed not to receive any benefit from
XI. The Bavli
The Bavli, also called the Babylonian Talmud, dates from 500-600 CE.51
Like the Yerushalmi, the Bavli provides an exposition of over half the Mishnah.
In addition to organizing the work around the structure of the Mishnah, the
compilers of the Bavli produced a synthesis of all rabbinic literature, drawing on
previous Mishnah exegesis in the Tosefta, the Yerushalmi, and previous
Scripture exegesis in the various midrashim. All this material was selectively
shaped into the "classical statement" of rabbinic Judaism." As Louis Jacobs has
49 Neusner, Judaism in Society, 169-70.
50 Jastrow, Dictionary, 357-58.
51 The text and translation of the Bavli used for this study is from I. Epstein, ed.,
Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1962-).
52 J. Neusner,
Judaism: The Classical Statement, The Evidence of the Bavli (
208 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
observed, "the compilers were creative artists, reshaping all the earlier material
to produce a literary work."53
The Bavli shows significant developments in rabbinic attitudes toward
vows. These include emphasis on fulfilling all binding vows, opposition to vow
taking in general, and increased efforts to find ways of releasing people from
improper vows. In b. Shabbath 32b the rabbis say failure to fulfill a vow can result
in the death of one's wife and children.54 In b. Ta'anith 4a the rabbis criticize the
vow of Jephthah (Judg 11:30-40) and link it with worship of Baal.55 In dealing
with annulling vows, b. Yebamoth states: "R. Nathan said, ‘If a man makes a vow
it is as if he has built a high place and if he fulfills it, it is as if he has offered up a
sacrifice upon it."56 After quoting the biblical injunction on vows in Eccl 5:4, b.
Hullin 2a says: "And it has been taught: Better than both is he who does not vow
at all; this is the opinion of R. Meir. R.
vows and pays."57
As in the Mishnah and Yerushalmi, the most extensive treatment of vows
in the Bavli is Nedarim ("Vows"). Here the Bavli intensifies its opposition to
vows, offers examples of rabbis granting release from vows, but demands
fulfillment of binding vows. Numerous passages repeat that any vow that appears
to violate biblical commands must not really violate them or must be annulled
(b. Nedarim 13b; 14a; 15a; 15b; 16a; 16b; 17a; et al.). The practice of taking
vows is discouraged: "Never make a practice of vowing, for ultimately you will
trespass in the matter of oaths" (b. Nedarim 20a). Occasionally, rulings attempt
to save the practice from condemnation (b. Nedarim 21b). However, in general,
vowing is seen as undesirable, as the rabbis once told a man who sought release
from a vow: "Go and pray for mercy, for you have sinned. For R. Dimi, the
brother of R. Safra, learnt: He who vows, even though he fulfills it, is designated
a sinner" (b. Nedirim 77b).
53 L. Jacobs, The Talmudic Argument: A Study in Talmudic Reasoning and
Methodology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 20.
54 Similar warnings concerning vows are found in Leviticus Rabbah 37:1, where a
man's unfulfilled vows result in idolatry, fornication, and bloodshed, including the death
of his wife and himself. Also Genesis Rabbah 81:1 explains that when a man delays to
fulfill his vow, God examines his ledger.
55 A similar disapproval occurs in Genesis Rabbah 60:3 and Leviticus Rabbah 37:4,
where it is emphasized that Jephthah should have obtained release from his vow by
appealing to Phineas.
56 Opposition to vows was so strong that sayings attributed to the rabbis in Leviticus
Rabbah 37:2-3 state that whoever takes a vow and whoever annuls a vow deserve to be
stabbed with a sword. Still, anyone who makes a vow is urged to go to a rabbi and beg
for release. See also b. Nedarim 22a.
57 See also b. Nedarim 9a; Leviticus Rabbah 37:1.
BAILEY/VOWING AWAY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT 209
The passages of the Mishnah concerning negative vows of prohibition that
affect others are not at all important for the compilers of the Bavli. For example,
the Bavli's treatment of m. Nedarim 9:1 in b. Nedarim 64a-65a lacks the
discussion that is found in y. Nedarim 9:1 V A-B. The rabbis of the Yerushalmi
concluded that the Mishnah could not have meant that a son could make a vow
forbidding him from supporting his parents, but they did record the earlier view
that it could happen. The rabbis of the Bavli omit all discussion of this issue. The
issue had been settled, and it was no longer even a faint memory that a person
seeking to live as a faithful Jew could vow away the fifth commandment.
A major issue in the development of Jewish law concerning vows is the
possible conflict between keeping a vow and keeping the commandments of the
written Torah. Evidence from the Hebrew Bible,
archaeological information indicates that prior to the first century AD negative
vows that affected others were already being made. Mark 7:9-13 shows that, in
the first century CE, a son could make a vow using the term qorban and prohibit
his parents from receiving support from him. Even though such a vow violated
the fifth commandment, some Jewish teachers upheld such a vow, perhaps
because of the biblical teaching on the inviolability of vows. The NT and
Josephus indicate that the use of the term qorban as a vow formula was still
associated with the idea of an offering. Later the Mishnah set forth rulings
making such a vow clearly voidable because of the honor due to one's parents.
For rabbis of the Yerushalmi, the practice was understandable, though rejected.
By the time of the Bavli, the rabbis did not contemplate it, for one could no
longer vows away the fifth commandment.
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