Keeping Our Word

Vayedabeir Moshe el roshei ha’mattos … Lo yachel devaro k’chol hayotzei mipiv yaaseh (Bamidbar 30:2–3)

Parashas Mattos begins with the laws governing oaths and vows. Whereas normally Hashem told Moshe to teach the laws directly to the Jewish people, in this case he curiously began by instructing the tribal leaders. The Torah proceeds to detail laws concerning vows placed on oneself, as well as vows between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters, laws which are not unique to the leaders but which are relevant to every Jew. Although Rashi offers a technical legal point that is derived from this anomaly, what lesson can we take from the Torah’s emphasis on teaching these laws to the heads of the tribes?

When Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who was renowned for his devotion to the truth, turned 80, he began donning an additional pair of tefillin, known as the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam, each morning. Because there is a legal dispute regarding certain details about the writing of the parchments in tefillin, some virtuous individuals have the custom of wearing a second pair to fulfill the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam.

Although Rav Yaakov certainly possessed the piety required for one who wished to take on this stringency, some of his students were puzzled by the fact that he had never done so previously. What suddenly transpired that made him change his practice?

When they asked him about this, Rav Yaakov explained that many years previously, an elderly Jew in his minyan began to put on the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam at the end of the morning services. One of Rav Yaakov’s students asked him why he had not also adopted this praiseworthy practice. In his humility, Rav Yaakov attempted to avoid the question by noting that the other man was much older, adding that if Hashem would allow him to reach that age, perhaps he would also adopt the practice.

Although the comment was said only casually, Rav Yaakov immediately worried that his commitment to truth obligated him to fulfill his words. Upon ascertaining the age of the man, Rav Yaakov waited many years until he reached that age, at which point he immediately adopted the practice in order to keep his “promise.”

In light of this story, we can appreciate that some commentators suggest that the mitzvah of honoring one’s promises and keeping one’s word was taught specifically to the tribal heads to emphasize to them the importance of serving as role models in keeping one’s word. During the recent election season, we were unfortunately often reminded that the dedication of our Rabbis to keeping their word is hardly shared by today’s political leaders. The Israeli politician Abba Eban once cynically remarked, “It is our experience that political leaders do not always mean the opposite of what they say.”

Although many of us do not view ourselves as leaders, this lesson is still applicable to each of us. Whether as parents, bosses, or organizational officers, most of us have people in our lives who look to us to serve as moral guides. Parashas Mattos teaches that one crucial ingredient in successfully filling any leadership role is a strong dedication to honoring our commitments.

Q: The Gemara in Makkos (13a) teaches that an accidental murderer living in one of the six cities of refuge did not have to pay rent to his Levite landlord. If there was not enough space in one of the cities of refuge to accommodate a new accidental murderer seeking refuge there, may he insist that one of the Levite inhabitants move out to make room for him?

A: The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh and Panim Yafos write that there were 48 cities to which an accidental murderer could flee to seek refuge. Six of these cities were specifically designated for the purpose of serving as cities of refuge, and the other 42 cities were those that were set aside for the Levites and which additionally served to protect accidental murderers.

In the six cities that were uniquely appointed to serve as cities of refuge, the accidental murderers had precedence over the Levites and were able to force Levites to move out if there was not enough space for both of them.

Harav Aharon Leib Steinman even wonders whether perhaps a murderer was permitted to take over the house of a Levite even if adequate space existed to build himself a new house. However, in the other 42 cities, the Levites had the primary right of ownership and could not be forced out even if there was not sufficient room for a murderer seeking refuge there. The Minchas Chinuch writes that while reasons are offered for this distinction, the fact that it is not mentioned in any earlier source calls it into doubt.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email