July 15, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #981, Mattos, Mattos-Massei, Parsha Thought


The opening of this week’s parsha discusses the institution of the neder-vow. When one makes a vow to either engage in or desist from a certain behavior, one is duty-bound to keep his or her word. There is, however, a method through which one can have a vow annulled. The person who made the vow comes before a tribunal of three rabbis (or even one professional rabbinic judge) and makes it known to them that if he or she had known the consequences of the vow, he or she would never have made it. The three judges then declare the vow to be “null and void.”

Where in the Torah does it provide for annulment of a vow?

If we examine the Biblical text, we cannot find any explicit statement to this effect. It is primarily based on an oral tradition going back to Sinai. However, the Talmud (Chagiga 10a) does find several hints in the Torah for the power for annulment. One of them is the following: The Torah states, “He shall not profane his word.” The Talmud observes: “He (the person who made the vow) may not profane his word, but others can profane it for him.” In other words, while a person cannot personally get out of his commitment, others (a tribunal of three rabbis), are indeed empowered to do it for him.

The fact that the license for vow annulment is merely a hint, prompted our Talmudic Sages to state: “The license for annulment hovers in the air.” This means that there is no solid textual basis for this power. (This was not to suggest that the Rabbis pulled it out of thin air; it just means that it is not textually based, rather it derives from an oral tradition, with a mere allusion to it in the Biblical text.)


There is a body of Midrash that is enigmatic and sometimes even appears to be incoherent. The objective was to get us to extract a message from it by thinking out of the box.

There is such a Midrashic statement revolving around the above-mentioned license of vow annulment:

The license for annulment of vows floats in the air. From this our Sages in the Mishnah (Avos 5) derived that tongs were made by tongs.

On the surface there is absolutely no connection between these two statements. The statement concerning tongs is that in order to manufacture tongs one must use a set of tongs. Who then made the first set? The answer the Mishnah gives, is that G-d created it at the twilight of the seventh day of creation. How does this relate to the law of a rabbinic court annulling vows lacking a solid textual basis to the extent that they appear to just be floating in the air?


To find the connection between these apparently unrelated themes we must first delve more deeply into the significance of G-d creating a pair of tongs at twilight of the seventh day of creation.

The following is an adaptation of the Rebbe’s discourse (Likkutei Sichos Volume 17) in which he explains that the tongs created at twilight signify a higher dimension of human endeavor than that which was created in the earlier six days of creation:

When G-d created the world He gave us everything we needed to make the world perfect. Only then did He create Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation so that everything they needed would be there for them to utilize in making a perfect world. Humanity was created last, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) states, “so that he may enter immediately into the banquet.” The “banquet” includes all of our efforts at getting the world ready for its final achievement, the Messianic Age, at which time we will no longer suffer from hunger and war, strife and hatred.

However, the Messianic Age is not a time for retirement. On the contrary, we will then embark on a major effort within the realm of goodness and holiness. Since G-d is infinite, so are the degrees to which we can connect to Him. Whereas today the primary focus is on combating evil, removing the ills of society by teaching the ignorant, feeding the hungry, assisting the poor etc., in the Messianic Age we will be transforming everything, including the positive, to an even higher level of closeness to an infinite G-d. Whereas today the world is divided into good, evil and neutral, in the Messianic Age, everything will be good and the challenge will be to climb even higher.

This explains the difference between the things G-d created before and after Adam and Eve. The things that were created prior to Adam and Eve’s arrival are the raw material which humanity was charged with the responsibility to correct and perfect. They also serve as the tools needed to achieve that correction. Conversely, those things created after Adam and Eve (including the first set of tongs created at twilight of the seventh day) have a higher function. These unique creations serve as a bridge between the imperfect world of nature and the world that transcends nature and its need for repair and correction. These are the tools which enable us to grow within the already perfected world of the Messianic Age.

We get a taste of this higher mode of perfecting the world every Shabbos, when even the most mundane activities, such as eating, are holy and suffused with Divine delight, and we divorce ourselves from all the negativity of the outside environment.

During this twilight period, which bridges the gap between the weekdays and Shabbos, G-d empowers us to make the transition from the “repair the world” mode into an “uplift the world” mode, equipping us then with the tools to raise an already perfected world to an even more sublime level.


We can now understand the meaning of G-d creating tongs for the purpose of making tongs at twilight of Shabbos. In the pre-Messianic mode of healing and repairing an imperfect world, there is a hierarchy of actions in terms of their proximity to the goal. We must distinguish between the actions that deal directly with the goal and those that are tangential or mere accessories.

To illustrate: When we devote most of our day to earn a living, it is only an accessory to the Mitzvah of giving charity from 10 or 20 percent of one’s income. By contrast, the act of giving tz’daka itself is an intrinsically holy act. Indeed, most of our lives are spent in the world of accessories to meeting our goal. Only a small percentage of our time is directly and intrinsically holy.

This is what is meant, metaphorically speaking, of tongs. They are instruments and accessories with which one constructs the edifice, but they are by no means as significant as the resultant structure.

However, in a perfected world, even the tongs (read: mundane activities that were heretofore only remotely connected to the goal) become an inseparable and intimate part of the goal. They are not just a means to an end; they are part of the end.

Thus, the Rebbe explains, the tongs that were created by G-d at twilight for the purpose of making other sets of tongs alludes to a futuristic mode in which every aspect of our lives ceases to be a mere accessary to holiness. They all become intrinsically sublime and G-dly.


We can now understand the connection between the creation of the tongs in the twilight zone and the idea that the power of annulment of vows hovers in the air.

The two modes discussed above concerning the macro world (repairing an imperfect world and elevating a perfected world) parallel the two modes of a vow and vow annulment within the micro world.

A vow is a support for our inability to cope with the challenges posed by living in an imperfect world. When a person is tempted to engage in a forbidden activity, they will make a vow to restrict himself. The vow draws upon the Divine energy vested within creation that can lend support to a person who is vulnerable and in need of repair.

But annulment of a vow derives from an even higher and more sublime Divine force; a force that “hovers in the air.” This is intended for those who are no longer in the clutches of negativity (particularly the negativity of the time of exile which is a time of Divine concealment) and who have crossed into the pre-Messianic “twilight zone.” They no longer need the additional support from the vow and are able to engage in the process of connecting to G-d directly in all that they do. They are now connected to the “air of Moshiach.” They have traveled outside the stifling, polluted atmosphere and gravitational pull of the earth. They can now soar above the stratosphere and travel at record speeds in the “weightless” and infinite expanse of “outer space.”

Hence, the idea that annulment of vows “hovers in the air” implies that one rises above the constraints of the earth and its imperfections and plugs into a Messianic dynamic. Likewise, the creation of the tongs at twilight of Shabbos implies the creation of an instrument that is no longer needed for repair but for higher and higher elevations.


We are presently living in the twilight of creation; standing on the threshold between the six millennia of existence and the seventh millennium, the Shabbos of existence. Moshiach is in the air! And while we still have much in the world that needs repair, the Rebbe informed us that when we view the cumulative good of millennia, the world has already achieved its “quota” of refinement necessary for Moshiach to come. So while we must not neglect to correct the negatives, our focus should be on rising to higher and higher levels of spirituality, by making all of our activities, even the so-called “accessories-tongs,” into G-dly activities. This is likely what the Rebbe had in mind when he said that we should now “live with Moshiach.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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