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Torah Sparks

August 29, 2009 – 9 Elul 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 23:8 – 24:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 1123; Hertz p. 847)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Slightly different systems of enumeration find either 72 or 74 of the Torah’s mitzvot – more than 10 percent of the 613 – in this parasha. It opens with three difficult laws – the treatment of a woman captured in war, the rights of the firstborn son of an unloved wife, and the punishment of a “wayward and defiant” son.

A person must return lost property to its owner. A person must help someone who is trying to raise a fallen animal. Men and women may not wear clothing associated with the other gender. A person must shoo away the mother bird before taking eggs or chicks from her nest. The roof of a house must have a parapet or railing. Mixtures – of different types of seeds in a single field, of an ox and an ass yoked together, or of wool and linen in a single cloth – are prohibited.

A man who marries a woman and then falsely claims she was not a virgin is flogged, fined, and forbidden to divorce her. If the claim is true, the woman is put to death. Adulterers, both male and female, are to be put to death. Laws concerning rape are given. The Torah names those who may not be “admitted into the congregation of the Lord.”

Laws concerning impurity and hygiene in military camps are given. A runaway slave must not be returned to his master. Cult prostitution is forbidden. Jews may not take interest on loans to fellow Jews. A person must fulfill his or her vows. A man is permitted to divorce his wife. Laws concerning collateral on loans are given.

No one may oppress the powerless – poor laborers, strangers, widows, and orphans. The rituals of yibum, Levirite marriage, and halitzah are given. A person may use or even own only completely honest weights and measures.

We are commanded to remember Amalek.

1. But You Promised!

When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:22-24)

  1. The Torah warned you to be careful before making vows, and remember that though they constitute an incentive to bring a sacrifice, if you do make a vow there is always the danger of committing a sin through neglecting or deferring its fulfillment, while if you do not vow at all, you have committed no sin. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  2. Rabbi Dimi, the brother of Rabbi Safra, stated: Whoever makes a vow, even though he fulfills it, is called a sinner. What is the scriptural source for this? “Whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing” – but if you do not refrain, there is guilt.” (Talmud Nedarim 77b)
  3. Behold, it is proper that your word be trustworthy with all. However, that which you vow to God, not only are you obligated to pay it, but, in addition, the payment must be made without delay. For if you delay payment, He will collect it from you against your will. And that which you do pay in this manner will still carry with it punishment for the delay. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. As Maimonides explains: “By this injunction, we are commanded to fulfill every obligation that we have taken upon ourselves by word of mouth.” . . . Although this verse seems to be speaking of someone who has made a formal vow to do something, subsequent Jewish law regards it as obligatory to fulfill whatever you have said you were going to do. Therefore, keep your word, particularly if someone is relying on it, and even when it is inconvenient to do so. Not infrequently, we offer to do someone a favor. At the time we commit ourselves, we really intend to do it. Later, however, we realize that the favor is more inconvenient or time-consuming than we originally thought, and we are tempted not to follow through. Nonetheless, we remain obligated to carry out our word. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, p. 411)
  5. One should not promise a child something and then not give it to him, because as a result the child will learn to lie. (Talmud Sukkah 46b)

Sparks for Discussion

None of our commentators doubts that people make vows and promises with sincere intent. Why are they nevertheless so opposed to the making of vows? What happens when circumstances beyond our control prevent the fulfillment of a vow or promise?

Imagine you have a friend who pledged to donate $5,000, an amount well within her means, to a synagogue, federation, or other organization. She then loses her job and has no immediate prospects for new employment. Is she still obligated to pay the pledge? Was she wrong to make the pledge rather than writing a check on the spot? What would you advise her to do?

2. A Bill of Divorcement

A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)

  1. It is a mitzvah to divorce her. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040- 1105, France)
  2. Rabbi Elazar said: If a man divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears. (Talmud Gittin 90b)
  3. Why did the rabbis institute that the husband give his wife a ketubah [which specifies an amount of money that he must pay her in the event of divorce] at the time of their marriage? So that it might not be an easy matter for him to divorce her. (Talmud Ketubot 39b)
  4. When our love was strong, we could have made our bed on the blade of a sword. Now that our love is no longer strong, a bed 60 cubits wide is not large enough. (Talmud Sanhedrin 7a)
  5. The school of Shammai says, A man may not divorce his wife unless he found her guilty of sexual misconduct... But the school of Hillel say, Even if she spoiled his food... Rabbi Akiva says, Even if he finds another woman more beautiful than she is... (Mishmash Gittin 9:1)

Sparks for Discussion

What do these texts suggest about the traditional Jewish attitude toward divorce? How do you understand Rash’s statement that it is actually a mitzvah for the man in our verse to divorce his wife? It is usually understood that in the debates between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, the school of Shammai tends to be more conservative and allied with the elite, while the school of Hillel tends to be more liberal and allied with the poor. If so, why does the school of Hillel (whose view becomes halakhah) hold that a man can divorce his wife for such a trivial reason? What would happen to divorced women if the school of Shammai’s opinion had been adopted as halakhah? What is significant about Rabbi Akiva’s addition?

Do you think that there are too many divorces today? Too few? Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate for a husband and wife to divorce?

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