Yiftach: To Sanctify Oneself by Rabbi Ezra Weiner


The Torah states in Parashat BeChukotai (27:29), “Kol Cheirem Asher Yachoram Min Ha’Adam Lo Yipadeh, Mot Yumat,” which literally translates to “anyone devoted that may be devoted of men shall not be ransomed, he shall surely be put to death.” This most enigmatic injunction is subject to varied interpretation. Rashi (ibid. s.v. Kol Cheirem Asher Yachoram), quoting the Sifra, writes that that this Pasuk teaches that a person who is convicted of a capital crime and is subject to the death penalty, has no inherent value, hence anyone who pledges a donation to the Temple in accordance with the value of this person, has donated nothing. Since he is being brought to his death, “Lo Yipadeh”, he cannot be redeemed. In other words he has no price tag.

Ramban (ibid. s.v. Kol Cheirem Asher Yachoram Min Ha’Adam) claims that this serves as an injunction to the people during wartime. Occasionally the Jewish king or the Sanhedrin (the High court) will declare a “Cheirem” on a certain city. This essentially is a conditional vow that should G-d hearken to our prayer and allow the enemy to fall victim to us in battle, if we successfully vanquish our adversaries, we will declare all of the possessions of the conquered city as holy (Whether or not this denotes a mass burning of the entire city to preclude benefit, the offering of the animals as sacrifices, the use of the various spoils for the upkeep of our Temple is irrelevant for our purposes). The distinctive consequence is the prohibition for an individual to derive benefit from the spoils of war. Those who have failed to heed this type of Cheirem during the times of the prophets met their demise based on this interpretation of our pasuk, “Kol Cheirem...Mot Yumat.” Ramban bolsters his position by citing the troubling and emotionally charged episode of Yiftach in Seifer Shofetim, Perek 11, in which Yiftach also declares a vow of this nature in great anticipation of a successful battle against the enemy, Amon. Sefer Shofetim records the vow as follows: “VaYidar Yiftach Neder LaShem, Vayomar: Im Naton Titein Et Bnei Amon BeYadi. VeHaya HaYotzei Asher Yeitzei MiDaltei Beiti Likrati BeShuvi VeShalom MiBnei Amon VeHaya LaShem VeHa’Alitihu Olah,” “And Yiftach made the following vow to HaShem: “If you deliver the sons of Amon into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the sons of Amon shall be HaShem’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”(11:30-31). The terror and horror that seizes Yiftach when he returns from battle and beholds his daughter cross the threshold of his house to greet him with dance and percussion is palpable. The Pasuk writes “Vayikra Et Begadav, VaYomer Ahah Biti Hachrei’a Hichratini Ve’At Hayit BeOchrai, Ve’Anochi Patziti Pi El Hashem Velo Uchal LaShuv,” “On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to HaShem and I cannot retract” (11:35).

Ramban asserts that Yiftach misunderstood the scope of this injunction. Uttering a vow and failing to fulfill it, would represent a defiance of the highest order, and as our Pasuk indicates, the death penalty. Yiftach’s daughter, claims Ramban, was not sanctified. There was no need for him to agonize over the repercussions of his haste in uttering such a vow. In the words of Ramban, “Aval LeChol HaNeder La’Asot Olah MiDavar She’Ein Ra’uy LaShem, Chas VeCahlila”. Ramban then writes that we should not be led astray by the Ibn Ezra’s vain claim (which we do not have, but does represent the opinion of Ralbag to Sefer Shofetim) that the vow indeed would take effect on his daughter in an unusual manifestation. She would become holy in the sense that she would be removed from a mundane life, and would lead a life of celibacy and serving G-d in pure holiness. This is untenable (“Ve’Eileh Divrei Ruach”), claims Ramban, for the following troubling reason: If Yiftach’s vow would indeed elevate his daughter to serving HaShem in the is his “House”, no different than Shmuel, there would be no reason to lament her celibacy as she would be serving G-d in purity.

One can certainly question the position of Ramban. Should we not lament the lost opportunity to wed, to raise a family, to play the role of a wife and mother? Should this not be a woman’s choice? One can also challenge the comparison of Chanah, who wanted a child, to Yiftach who had intention to offer an animal sacrifice. Yes, her friends can and should cry for her and with her. This is not the life she chose and it is not within the authority or rights of her father, at least from her perspective, to relegate her to this way of life, despite its edifying appeal for others who may have consigned themselves for such a holy purpose. The notion of sanctifying oneself to live beyond the letter of the law, in extreme piety and purity should be the choice of the individual. Many of our youth in various communities suffer the same fate, where parents after years of spiritual and religious growth demand that their children embrace Judaism with unrealistic and extra legal standards. The result can often be catastrophic.

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