When and where were the oaths accepted by the Jewish people?

Feb 11 2008

Dear Rabbi,

Here is a new insight I read in the brochure I received at
last night's shiur on Eretz Yisroel given by our local Chabad that sheds a new light on the oaths, for me anyhow.
Perhaps you have already studied it and have a responsa,
but I'll present it anyhow just in case:

Responsa Avnei Neizer, Yoreh De'ah 454:

When and where did the Jewish people accept the Oaths that prohibit them from leaving exile and taking over Eretz Yisroel? Moreover, the oath that he administered to the nations, that they should not enslave Israel too much, what could its nature really be, if they didn't know about this oath at all?"

The answer is that the Jewish Oaths were imposed on the roots of the Jewish souls in Heaven, and the gentiles' oath was imposed on the angels of each nation.

This fits well with the Zohar (Bereishis 242a), which says in reference to Shir Hashirim 5:8 that the words “daughters of Jerusalem” refer to the souls of the righteous. Here too, Hashem made the souls of the Jewish people swear to keep to the terms of exile. This is similar to the oath administered to the soul before it comes into the world, “Be righteous and do not be wicked” (Niddah 30b).

If every person’s soul swears to be righteous before it is born, what was the purpose of the oath the Jews took when they accepted the Torah? The Avnei Nezer answers that an oath accepted by the soul is not legally binding. It merely means that the soul is infused with a desire to be good. But a person can ignore his soul and follow the evil inclination. The Jews had to take an oath in this world; otherwise they would not have been punished for not listening to the soul.

At this point, the Avnei Nezer is bothered: if the oaths are not legally binding, how could there be a punishment for violating them? He answers that “I will permit your flesh as the gazelles and deer of the field” is not to be understood as a direct punishment, but as a cutting off of Hashem’s protection that comes as a result of the sin. Sometimes even when a person cannot be culpable for what he did, the sin itself distances him from Hashem. We find this in Tikunei Zohar regarding the concept that the Heavenly Court does not judge a person under twenty years of age (Shabbos 89b). Why, then, do people sometimes die under the age of twenty? Because, says the Zohar, “a wicked person’s own sins entrap him” (Mishlei 5:22).

Here too, if the Jews violate the terms of exile and conquer Eretz Yisroel or fight against the nations, Hashem will ask their souls why they did it, and the souls will answer, “We tried our best to push the bodies in the right direction, but they did not listen to us.” Then He will call their bodies in for judgement, but the bodies will reply that they never took any oath; only the souls did. Each has a good excuse, but the connection between body and soul has been ruptured. Hashem’s providence and supervision is removed from the body, and the body is left as ownerless as the wild animals, which have no soul. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:17) and the Chinuch in Mitzvah 169 write that Hashem's supervision does not apply to the particulars of each animal but only to the preservation of the species. The same will be the case for a human being who distances himself from his soul.

Of all wild animals, the gazelle and the deer are singled out because they are used elsewhere as the symbols of detachment from holiness. In three places, when the Torah wants to teach us that meat is not holy, it says “like the gazelle and the deer.” Devarim 12:15, says Rashi, is talking about sacrificial animals that became blemished and were redeemed with a replacement animal. The new animal is brought as a sacrifice instead, and the blemished one may be eaten as plain meat without any special restrictions. The Torah uses the same comparison in 12:22 when referring to plain meat that was never designated as a sacrifice, and in 15:22 when referring to a firstborn animal that became blemished and is permitted to eat as plain meat.

In two out of those three places, the Torah is discussing meat that was once holy but now its holiness has been removed. Here also, the result of violating the oaths of exile is that one is cut off from his source of holiness and removed from Hashem’s supervision, may Hashem spare us.

A lot of this is tangential, I believe; as the Avnei Neizer himself
begins, "It is not understood exactly why this result will occur..." I think
we can say alternatively, simply that should the oaths be abrogated, God
will withdraw his supernatural assistance. But it does mean he will actively
punish us for it is not an outright sin. The main point is that which is
stated in the first part of the Avnei Nezer, that it is not meant as an halachic injunction, as the oath was not
worded in an halachically mandated manner nor with enough specifity in its
definition, and all the more so the third oath given to the nations.

Any response to this?

The Avnei Neizer asks the old question of when and where the Jews accepted these oaths. This question has several other answers:

1) The Midrash says (Shemos 28, on the posuk 20:1) that the Prophets were all standing at Har Sinai and they heard there all the words of prophecy they would ever say. Thus the book of Shir Hashirim, in which the Three Oaths are written ("I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, not to arouse or awaken the love before it is desired" 2:7) was really first brought down through Moshe at Sinai, and only later publicized by Shlomo Hamelech. (Introduction to Vayoel Moshe, p. 17)

2) Rabbi Dov Ber Treivish, rav of Vilna during the Gaon's lifetime, in his commentary Shir Chadash on Shir Hashirim, answers that at Mt. Sinai and again in the land of Moav, we accepted the entire Torah with a covenant and an oath. Included in that oath was the warning that if we would not keep the Torah, all the misfortunes listed in Parshas Bechukosai and Ki Savo would come upon us. These misfortunes culminate in our going into exile and living under the nations (Vayikra 26:33 and Devarim 28:64). Therefore, included in the oath of the Torah is the acceptance of the yoke of exile, not to rebel against it, and not to attempt to end it on our own.

3) The Satmar Rav's own conclusion (Vayoel Moshe Chapter 80) is that the oaths are not a separate and distinct halachic prohibition; rather the violation of the oaths is a form of heresy, and the punishment given by the Talmud is the punishment for that heresy.

Even according to the Avnei Neizer who says that the punishment mentioned in the Gemara is not a punishment for a sin, but a cause-and-effect - we cut our connection off from Hashem and He takes away His providence from us that's still not a very good thing to have happen, is it?

See our Parsha pearls about the Avnei Nezer:
Scroll to the bottom for the relevant info.

With all due respect, answer 1) above is a very weak answer in my opinion on more
than one count. First of all, king Solomon was not one of the prophets.
He had ruach hakodesh which is not the level of prophecy to make him a
prophet. However, even if you want to say that he was a prophet of sorts,
here is further proof that one cannot draw the conclusion that the Satmar
Rav has drawn: 1) The Chatam Sofer comments on a Rambam in hil. melachim
3:8. There, the Rambam quotes Joshua 1:18 in the context of the halacha
that anyone who rebels against a king may be executed by the king. Joshua
said, "Whoever rebels against your command shall be put to death." The
Chatam Sofer (Orach Chayim, responsa n.208) questions how a matter of such
serious nature can be derived from a book of the prophets; for a prophet
cannot create a new mitzvah that was not given in the Torah itself. Other
commentaries explain that the authority of the king to execute rebels is an
extension of the mitzvah to appoint a king and revere him (i.e. mitzvot that
were given in the Torah itself. Accordingly, the charge to Joshua didn't
represent a new mitzvah, but rather an extension of an existing one). In
any case, we see from this an example that the idea that words publicized
later by prophets that are not in the Torah itself are not considered Torah
commandments. Thus, when the Midrash you quote says that the Prophets were
all standing at Sinai and they heard all the words of prophecy that they
would say, does not meant that we should then conclude that therefore when
the Prophets would only later publicize such words that makes those words on
the level of a mitzvah given in the Torah. 2) A second example: The
Gemeara in Sanhedrin 22b questions that before Ezekiel came and spoke
verses (as quoted from a baraisa) comparing Kohanim with long hair to those
who have drunk wine thus proving that a Kohen who performs the service with
long hair is subject to the death penalty, how was this law known prior to
Ezekiel? Surely, this law existed centuries prior to Ezekiel since a
prophet like Ezekiel cannot reveal to us any new Biblical laws as they were
already given at Sinai. Without getting into the answere to this matter
as it is lengthy and not the main point here, the answere is not that
Ezekiel was standing at Sinai and he heard there all the words of prophecy
that he would say. The fact that the Gemara seeks to know the Torah source
for such a law shows that Ezekiel's words would not have been sufficient to
stand on their own were it not that the Torah itself has in it such a law,
and are merely a support for the law that already existed from the Torah
itself. Perhaps one can derive from the Midrash you quote that words of
prophecy were given at Sinai but one cannot use such words in the context of
deriving mitzvot and halachos that are not in the Torah itself; perhaps
such words may be seen as on the level of Torah misinai in terms of drush or
hashkafa, but not in an halachic context.

Solomon was not a prophet but see the Gemara in Berachos 5a which says that Neviim and Kesuvim were given to Moshe at Sinai. You're right that Chazal never understand this halachically otherwise for all intents and purposes a prophet could give us new laws and claim they were from Sinai. I think that in the case of the oaths, we are not looking for a Torah source in the same way the Gemara looks for a Torah source for Yechezkel's laws, because anyone can make an oath and it will take effect according to Torah law. We are only looking for the time and place when all the Jews heard and accepted such an oath. To overcome this technical problem it is sufficient to rely on the fact that the oaths were said at Sinai. The Satmar Rav in his Chapter 34 even uses this argument to explain how the oaths can affect future generations, something ordinary oaths cannot do. He says that since all future souls and even converts were present at the revelation at Sinai, the oath is binding on them as well.

However in the same chapter he asks how the oath can affect the gentiles, who were not at Sinai. He brings the Avnei Nezer's answer, and in the end he prefers the Shlah's answer that the oaths are not really oaths at all and the word "oath" is only used to show the seriousness of the prohibition.

You cannot explain the removal of providence spoken of by the Avnei Neizer to mean that Hashem does not perform supernatural deeds to protect us, because even during exile in the time that we were keeping the oaths there were no supernatural miracles done for us.