Mattot: Silence is assent

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation, while still in her father’s house by reason of her youth; and her father learns of her vow, or her self-imposed obligation, and her father remains silent, then all her vows shall stand, and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day that he hears; not one of her vows, or of her self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father restrained her. (B’midbar 30: 4-6)

The guests around the table
are savoring the meal
raising crystal glasses
amid good-natured talk.
When a sudden lull is countered
with a denigrating joke
targeting a group of others:
women, elders, homeless, gays –
or those of different origin
(there is no dearth of candidates) –
I might sit there uncomfortably
and hold my laughter back
yet if I swallow my response
and do not say a word
then by my very reticence
I signify assent.

Most of the opening chapter of Parashat Mattot is devoted to the annulment of vows made by women. The verses cited above are frequently described as reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband (see a previous post from 2014 and thus as having less relevance in modern society. However, it is edifying to leave aside momentarily the seemingly antiquated aspects and examine the details.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2002,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that the Torah insists that the father or husband acts (either endorses or annuls) as soon as he hears of the oath. If he delays, he can do nothing. Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why the man cannot make a decision to get involved later. He says, “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved.” He notes that the Talmud [Yevamot 88a] teaches that “shetika ke’hoda’ah – silence is like assent.” Once the father (or husband) knows what the woman has sworn, he himself is a party to that oath. Unless he voices his disapproval immediately, thus nullifying her words, his silence makes him an accomplice in her vow.
Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Silence is assent. How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading of political oppression in our newspapers – all of these instances summon us to choose a side. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or – through our silence – we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”
He continues, describing injustices in our own societies: the increase in homeless people; higher unemployment rates among minorities; lower rates of literacy among less affluent children leading to a poverty cycle; ongoing bias against women who are less well-paid then their male counterparts; prejudice and bigotry resulting in violence against gays. Rabbi Shavit Artson adds “This ought to be a time of profound embarrassment to religious people.” He contends that far from partnering God in maintaining the world justly and compassionately, we often turn our backs on the welfare of others. He says “How do we participate in these evils? By not opposing them in public, we allow our silence to speak instead of our words and our deeds.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betsalel the Maharal of Prague (born between 1512 and 1526 – 1609) “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments “In the midst of the dark ages of his time, the Maharal understood that his obligation as a being in covenant with God was to represent God’s light and God’s passion, despite the powerful forces mustered in opposition.
“In the midst of the current dark age, we too need to remember our eternal calling – to sanctify God in the midst of the people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, pursuing peace and identifying with the weak, we move from silence to eloquence. We provide God with hands and a voice. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

In his commentary from 2005 on the same issue,, Rabbi Barry Leff notes that the Talmud has an entire tractate devoted to the laws of vows. He adds that the medieval Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (c.1475 – 1550) teaches “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done.”
Rabbi Leff adds that when we are forbidden (in the Ten Commandments) to bear false witness against our neighbor, the rabbis understand this to include bearing false witness by not speaking up. He says, “For example, under Jewish law, you need two witnesses to be prosecuted for a crime. If there is one witness, and you stand next to that witness, making it look like you are a witness with him, when you are not, you have borne false witness – you have tried to make someone believe something that is not true with your silence, by just standing there. And you would be considered guilty of violating this commandment.”
In the episode at the end of Parashat Baha’alotcha (B’midbar 12: 1-16) we learn that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of “the Kushite woman” [a reference to his wife Tsiporah]. The text says “Vatedaber Miriam ve’Aharon which literally means “Miriam spoke, and Aaron” or possibly “Miriam spoke with Aaron”. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089 – c.1167) picking up on the feminine singular conjugation of the verb “to speak”, teaches that Miriam speaks while Aaron says nothing. Thus God, we learn, is incensed and reprimands them both. (Miriam is then stricken with leprosy, Aaron appeals to Moses who then prays for Miriam to be healed. After a seven day exclusion from the camp, she is readmitted and the people continue journeying.)

Finally in a commentary from 2011,, Rabbi Laura Geller describes an email sent to her, among other people on a list of email addressees.
“I recently received an e-mail with the subject line “The Arab Mentality.” It described a Palestinian woman who had been badly burned and successfully treated in Israel, only to be arrested later for attempting to infiltrate Israel’s borders as a suicide bomber…
“As I often do when I receive e-mails like this, I consulted with the Anti-Defamation League to see if the story was true, and indeed it was. The author of the article was a medical doctor in Israel. What the article didn’t mention is that he is also a member of Moledet, a right-wing Israeli political party with an agenda. The labeling of this posting “The Arab Mentality” is like an anti-Semite titling a posting about Bernie Madoff “The Jewish Mentality.”
“I get a lot of e-mails like this — e-mails describing situations, sometimes true and often not true, that malign Arabs and Muslims as a group. I’m never sure how to respond. The easiest thing to do is to simply delete them. But this was sent by a congregant, a thoughtful person, engaged and passionate about Israel, a person I admire. And if I just deleted the message, what was I saying by my silence? Other congregants were on the same list; they knew I had seen it, too.”
Rabbi Geller continues that what she learned from Parashat Mattot partly fueled her decision to respond. She too notes that the veto by the woman’s father or husband has to be on the same day that he hears. She cites the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law 67:11] which says “He can only cancel the vow within the day he heard it. That is, if he heard the vow at the beginning of the evening, he may cancel it all night and the entire following day. If he heard it close to the time that the stars appear, he can cancel it only until the stars appear. Beyond that time he cannot cancel it. …”
She too cites the Talmud’s injunction “silence is like assent.” She continues “Once you know what the promise is, if you don’t speak up, it is as though you are also responsible for it. Once you know what is going on, if you don’t speak up, you are also responsible. Someone forwards a derogatory e-mail that tarnishes all Arabs and I delete it? “Silence is consent.””
Rabbi Geller quotes the Talmud “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household from sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b).
Rabbi Geller concludes, “So maybe I can’t prevent the whole world from sin, or my community or even my family. But still I am accountable if I do nothing.
“So I responded: “I am not sure that sharing e-mails like this is necessarily helpful in the ongoing discussion of what is best for Israel. You may be interested to know that the author is not an apolitical medical doctor. He is a former member of Moledet and now in the National Union — a right-wing party in the Knesset. While the story appears to be true, he wants people to know the story in order to support a particular political position. This is a not a story about the ‘Arab mentality’ in general. It is rather the story of a particular Arab woman.
“This week’s Torah portion asks us to be careful about what we say, the vows and promises we make. And it also demands of us to be careful about what we don’t say, because “silence is consent.” ”


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