Oaths teach us that every word uttered carries significant weight, and understanding these words is not just encouraged but require. On Rambam’s Laws of Oaths Chapter 7.
Imagine a world where promises hold no weight, where words can be spoken without any understanding or intention behind them. It would be a world where trust is elusive and accountability is a rarity.
Now consider the Jewish laws on oaths, where the rule is quite the opposite. In these laws, every word uttered carries significant weight, and understanding these words is not just encouraged but required.
The seventh chapter of Maimonides' laws of oaths, specifically dealing with oaths, including an "oath of deposit." In simpler terms, an "oath of deposit" refers to the promise made concerning a borrowed or entrusted item.
To illustrate, imagine Reuven leaves a valuable item with Shimon for safekeeping. When Reuven asks for it back, Shimon claims it's lost. Reuven asks Shimon to swear to this. If Shimon falsely swears that the item is lost when he actually has it, he has broken his oath. As a consequence, under Jewish law, Shimon needs to return the item plus an additional fifth of its value. He also must bring a guilt offering as a sacrifice, traditionally offered in the Holy Temple.
The seventh law in this seventh chapter reads: "One cannot be held accountable for such an oath unless they take it in a language they understand."
This law underscores the crucial role of understanding in the process of taking an oath. It means that for a person to be held accountable for this type of oath, they must fully comprehend the words they are uttering. It's not just about the act of making the promise, but truly understanding the commitment they are making and the potential consequences they face should they not honor it. This rule puts significant emphasis on comprehension and understanding, not just the act itself. Let's delve further into why this is so important.
Firstly, comprehension is paramount in Jewish law. The Talmud, in Sotah 32a, recognizes the necessity of understanding religious obligations: "The entire Torah was given in the Holy Tongue, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, permitted them to translate it into Greek." This permission to translate the Torah affirms the importance of understanding in observance and commitment, extending to the administration of oaths.
The second implication is one of accountability. As the Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 36b, teaches us, "The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: 'he heard the voice of the oath' (Leviticus 5:1)—this teaches that an oath is not effective unless it is articulated verbally." The act of articulation in a language one understands is crucial to taking responsibility for the oath.
Thirdly, requiring an oath in a language the person understands emphasizes dignity and respect for the individual. A fundamental respect is owed to each person, as expressed in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 3:14 by Rabbi Akiva, "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]." This love and respect extend to recognizing and respecting the individual's language when administering an oath.
Finally, the requirement contributes to the creation of a meaningful commitment. From the book of Deuteronomy (23:24), we learn that, "What has crossed your lips you must keep and perform." Understanding and meaning behind one's words hold significant importance in forming genuine commitments.
When viewed from a Chassidic perspective, this principle becomes even more meaningful. Chassidic philosophy places great importance on personal understanding and connection with the Divine. The foundational work of Chabad philosophy, the Likutei Amarim-Tanya, authored by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, states (Chapter 3), "For even one who is at the apex of perfection in the performance of mitzvot, but does not occupy himself with their inner significance... his service is not complete."
This statement underlines the need for understanding in one's service to G-d. An oath made in a language one understands ensures that it's not just a rote action, but a heartfelt commitment that the person can connect with on a personal level.
In conclusion, the Rambam's seventh rule on 'sh'vuat hapikadon' reveals a profound insight into the significance of language in religious commitment. It emphasizes the importance of understanding, accountability, respect, and sincerity in the observance of Jewish law, serving as a reminder that the spirit of the law is as vital as its letter. The Torah is not a set of detached commands but a system meant to be internalized and understood, deeply interwoven with our day-to-day lives.