“When a woman vows a vow to God…being in her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears her vow….and holds his peace, then all her vows shall stand…. But if her father disallows her in the day that he hears, none of her vows… shall stand; and God will forgive her, because her father disallowed her.
And if she be married to a husband, while her vows are upon her… and her husband hear it, whatsoever day it be that he hears it, and hold his peace at her; then her vows shall stand.. . But if her husband disallow her in the day that he hears it, then he shall make void her vow which is upon her, and the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she has bound her soul; and God will forgive her.
The vow of a widow, or of her that is divorced, even everything wherewith she has bound her soul, shall stand against her.
….These are the statutes, which God commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter, being in her youth, in her father’s house”
On first encounter this makes dispiriting reading for any feminist. The patriarchy is being powerfully accentuated. A woman in relationship with a man – be it father or husband – may make vows just as men may do, but her ability to do so is constrained by the man in her life. He can annul them if he wishes to do so.
After reading only a few chapters earlier of the case of the daughters of Zelophehad who won the right for women to inherit property from their father (a right which will also be limited in this sidra) it is a splash of cold water to see how bible seems to accept the status of women as lesser than that of their men.
But a closer reading gives some cause for hope. Bible is a text that responds to its context, it brings the assumptions and the classifications of the ancient world but often with a twist that undermines the certainties of the world it springs from.
We are given three cases here of women’s vows.. the young daughter, the wife and the widowed/divorced woman. Two of them are economically dependent on the man in whose house they live, one is in charge of her own economic fortune through the payment of her Ketubah. The vow, which may well have required future payment, could be problematic for the woman if there was no money to fulfil it. It seems that in these cases the husband would be able to annul it in order to protect the finances of the household that were his business to safeguard. So while it is still frustrating to note that women who were in the roles of daughter or wife did not have a real say over the discretionary spend of the household, we can look at these cases again and see two encouraging signs. First, that the woman has the right to vow – this is not in dispute. A form of religious expression (however problematic) is open to her from youth onwards. And secondly we see an interesting development. The man has the right to annul her vow, but ONLY if he does so within the day of the vow being made. Otherwise he not only has to allow it, he has to support its execution. The language strengthens so it is not just to allow it to stand but he must establish it – heikim otam.
It doesn’t look like much, but this is indeed a revolution in the status of women. A man doesn’t control a woman’s vow in perpetuity – there is a very limited window where he can protest and annul, in order to defend the family finances. After that he must help her to fulfil her vow.
Talmud picks up this revolution and develops it. They take seriously the idea that the daughter at home is young (bin’urecha) and limit the time she is under her father’s power for this up till the age of puberty – around twelve years old. After that, she may vow her own vows. A husband is not able to annul vows a woman made before her marriage and after the age of puberty, and indeed the Talmudic sages limit even the vows she makes after marriage to those which impinge on him or which afflict her.
There is a further principle that is introduced here that will become important in the later development of Halachah. The phrase וְשָׁמַ֤ע וְהֶֽחֱרִ֣שׁ לָ֔הּ
And he heard [the vow] and he was silent /held his peace is taken as the proof text that in cases like this silence is assent. One who could protest but does not do so is deemed to have assented.
Now sometimes this principle is taken out of context – for it is important that the person who is deemed to have assented through their silence both knew the implications of what was happening and also could properly protest. The silence of people who are frightened or vulnerable or feel themselves to be powerless is NOT assent. Just because someone does not whistleblow in their employment or does not fight back when physically or sexually attacked, assent to what is happening cannot be inferred.
But it does mean that we, who maybe watch the news and see unfairness happen in the world, see refugees attacked or maligned, see pensioners robbed by the owners of their fund, see Governments create policy that will widen the gap between those who have and those who have not – we must not assent. We have to protest and continue to protest.
And there is no limited window for such protest – if we see injustice we have to stand up and say so, demand compensation and change.
Bible shows us that the way the world works isn’t for all time. It takes the status of women’s vows and it changes how they can happen from the usual customs. Talmud takes the journey further, promoting more fairness, more agency to the people who were once without agency.
It is up to us to take the next steps into more fairness, more justice. Our silence must never be construed as assent, and to make sure that it isn’t it is time for our voices to be heard.