Parshat Mattot-Masai: The legend of Billy the Neder

The laws of vows are there for us to contemplate the awesome power contained in our speech.

Rabbi Avroham Leventhal ,

Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal
Rabbi Avrohom Leventhal
PHOTO: Jeff Cohn

A person, who had recently become more interested in his Judaism, approached me with an interesting question. He was familiar with many personalities in Jewish history. There was one, however, whose identity seemed to elude him.

Who is this “Billy Neder” guy whose name is so often evoked?

Chuckling inwardly at the innocence of the question, I explained that “Billy Neder” is in fact the Hebrew words bli neder, meaning: without a vow or promise. When someone offers to do a good deed, the custom is to add those words as a disclaimer in order to protect from obligating oneself through the laws of making a vow.

Being that bli neder is usually an afterthought, the words are often spoken quickly or even mumbled. Thus the misunderstanding of what, rather than whom, Billy Neder is, was quite understandable.

The subject, however, is quite essential to Jewish thought and law.

The verses at the beginning of Parshat Matot delineate the laws of making a vow or promise (nedarim). The mouth, together with the tongue and lips, is perhaps the most powerful tool of the human being.

The mouth, the conduit of speech, contains the power to teach, inspire and console. People, movements, and nations have been built up through words that motivated to action.

Conversely, the potential for harm is equally contained in the tip of the tongue and walls of the mouth. Just as words can build, they can easily destroy.

The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l remarked that this is the reason why the tongue has more barriers (2 rows of teeth and 2 lips) than any other organ. Such a powerful tool/weapon requires more safeguards.

The laws of nedarim (vows) are there in order for us to contemplate the awesome power contained in our speech, and these laws remind us to think before we speak.

People are inherently good. The desire to implement that good, through mitzvot (commandments) and chesed (lovingkindness), sometimes comes without a plan how to fulfill those noble intentions.

Halacha (Jewish law) therefore recommends the addition of “bli neder” (without a vow/promise) to expressions of good intentions. This utterance frees people from the serious implications of a vow, while still encouraging them to do good.

Bli Neder, however, is not a “quick fix,” nor is it foolproof.

It does not help for positive mitzvot that one is obligated to do (ie “I will bli neder wear tfillin (phylacteries)”) nor allow them to transgress negative mitzvoth (“I will bli neder eat unkosher food”). It is also not necessary for actions that have no connection to God or others. Therefore, one need not say “I will bli neder take a walk tonight,” or “Bli neder, I will finish all of my brussel sprouts.”

One should say bli neder when they choose to do a good deed or take on a practice voluntarily, such as when pledging an amount to charity or offering to run an errand for someone else.

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l, says that bli neder only helps if uttered before the promise. Once the words leave the mouth, it is too late. One must predicate his words with bli neder, not add them as an afterthought.

This Shabbat ushers in the “Nine days,” the most intense period of national mourning. The tragedies that we commemorate began with the negative report of the meraglim (spies) upon their return from Israel, and culminate with destruction of both Batei Mikdash (temples), all occurring on Tisha B’av.

The common denominator in those tragedies was the misuse of speech. The spies had the opportunity to inspire the Jewish People as they entered the Land. They chose instead to spread loshon hara (evil speech), speaking poorly of the Land and lowering the morale of Jewish People. The destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and subsequent galut (exile) was due to the expressions of baseless hatred.

This year, let us take the opportunity to utilize our words to inspire, motivate and build. The practice of thinking before we speak will prevent further hatred and hurt.

Our words and thoughts can harbor acts of love and kindness and the redemption that they will bring.



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