In biblical Israel, as in the ancient Near East as a whole, oaths were often taken in order to attest to the inviolability of one's word. Such oaths usually involved a curse that would come upon the swearer if the oath turned out to be false. Generally, only the self-imposed condition is stated, with the curse left unstated yet understood. Hence, the words shevu῾ah (“oath”) and ᾽alah (“curse”) are practically synonymous. Often oaths involved the name of God as a guarantor or witness to the assertion. Legal procedures usually involved oaths, such as the exculpatory oath in which a defendant had to swear his innocence to satisfy a plaintiff (Ex. 22.7, 10). Oaths also functioned to force recalcitrant witnesses to testify (Lv. 5.1). Voluntary commitments were taken on in the form of oaths (Lv. 5.4, cf. 5.6–13) and these commitments had to be observed. Numbers 30.2–17 discusses the vows of unmarried and married women, which could be annulled by their fathers or husbands, respectively. Violation of oaths brought divine punishment. For this reason, Ecclesiastes discouraged oaths (Eccl. 5.1–6, 8.2–3).

Vows entail a promise to abstain from that which is normally permitted, as in the case of the Nazirite vow (Nm. 6). Vows often took the form of votive offerings, animals, or other things devoted to God. In this case, the object was rendered sacral and forbidden for common use. In lieu of animals, money could also be paid (Lv. 27). A specific form of oath very similar to a vow was that of oaths of self-denial discussed in Numbers 30. Such oaths taken by a woman were subject to approval of her husband or father.

Second Temple Sources.

Several Second Temple period sources opposed oaths on the assumption that they would be violated and lead to transgression and punishment. Further, violations of oaths and vows were regarded as particularly serious since they involved the invocation of God's name as guarantor of the obligations. In this respect, they continued the trend already observable in Ecclesiastes. Ben Sira warns strongly against oaths in 23.9–11. Philo opposed the taking of oaths by God's name (On the Special Laws 2.1–2) and suggested avoidance or delay of oaths because of their seriousness (Decalogue 84). Josephus states that the Essenes would not swear oaths (The Jewish War 2.135, Jewish Antiquities 15.371) except for their initiation rites (The Jewish War 2.139) and would not swear using the divine name.

The Dead Sea Sect.

Oaths played a major role in the life of the Dead Sea sect, both in terms of the procedures for entering the sect and of the judicial system. At the very start of the initiation process for joining the sectarian group, an oath had to be taken to return to the Torah of Moses and to its sectarian interpretation as taught by the Zadokite priests and the other members of the group. The oath also required separation from evildoers (1QS v.8–10). A similar oath was taken by a boy whose father was a member of the sect when he reached twenty, the age of majority (CD xv.5–6, 12–13; 1QSa i.9–10). This oath represented the transition from being the child of a sectarian to being an independent member of the group. At the age of twenty, the “new” member would take his stand in the mustering of the sect and accept the full obligations and privileges of his new status. The oath bound him to accept the sectarian interpretations of the Torah and the various sectarian regulations.

One of the functions of the judiciary in the Qumran legal system was to administer oaths. It was forbidden to make use of oaths as a legal instrument outside the precincts of the sect's formal courts (CD ix.8–10). We do not have a full set of laws detailing all the cases for which oaths were employed, but some information is available. For example, we can assume that oaths were used, as required by the Torah (Ex. 22.6–14), in cases of damage law where bailees asserted that the property in their care had been damaged by others with no negligence on their part. Oaths of adjuration were used to compel those who might know of the location of lost or stolen property to come forward (CD ix.10–12). Such oaths specified curses that would come upon the one who violated them, and the adjured party was required to respond “amen,” thus accepting the provisions. A similar oath is known from medieval Jewish practice. This procedure was based on the sect's adaptation and interpretation of Leviticus 5.1, which legislated the use of such oaths to compel testimony by recalcitrant witnesses.

Qumran legal practice prohibited the use of the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name of God—YHVH) in oaths. Use of this name was punished by expulsion from the sect (1QS vi.27–vii.2). It was also forbidden to use the names Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God), or even to say “by the Law of Moses.” The only kind of oath permitted was one by the “curses of the covenant,” as delineated in Deuteronomy 28.15–29 (cf. verse 69 and 29.20). Oaths by the divine name are said to profane God's name (CD xv.1–5). According to one view (Qimron, 1990), the oath of the “sons” upon reaching the age of majority was the only exception.

Damascus Document.

A variety of other laws pertaining to oaths and vows are found in the Damascus Document (CD xvi.7–13), which reviews the rules found in the Torah for oaths not particularly connected with sectarian life or with the legal system of the sectarians discussed above. Based on Deuteronomy 23.24, the text specifies that all binding oaths must be carried out. Since this verse refers to vows, it seems that the Damascus Document considered the same laws to apply to both. Further, the text specifies that oaths to fulfill the commands of the Torah must be satisfied even at the sacrifice of one's life. Yet, similarly, if one swore to violate the Torah, he may not fulfill this oath even at the price of death. The tanna᾽im believed that an oath cannot refer to any of the commandments of the Torah for to these the entire people of Israel swore at Mount Sinai so that an oath has already been taken to observe them. Therefore, the oath need not be kept nor does it require annulment. According to the Damascus Document, however, oaths to observe or violate the commandments are valid, and since the latter should not be kept, they should be annulled by a husband whose wife made such an oath or by the father of a minor.

The text also discusses the annulment of oaths of married women, based on the Torah's discussion of the annulment of vows in Numbers 30.4–9. Here the sectarian law required that the oath (probably the vow as well) only be annulled by the husband or father if he was certain that it should not be carried out. It is most probable that the rights of the father or husband to annul oaths and vows were limited to cases in which they would be affected by them. The wisdom text, Instructionb (4Q416) advises a husband to annul all the vows of his wife, making no distinctions at all as to the nature or appropriateness of the vow.

Temple Scroll.

An alternative treatment of these same issues occurs in the Temple Scroll (11QTa lii.11–liv.7, based on Deuteronomy 23.22–24 and Numbers 30.3–17. The text takes the view that vows should be avoided but that if taken must be observed. Further, the addition of the word oath to the biblical text makes clear that the vows in question are essentially taken as oaths and therefore have great stringency.

The Temple Scroll specifies that when a father hears the vow of a minor daughter or a husband hears his wife's vow, he may let it stand or annul it. If he wishes to annul it, he must countermand the vow on the same day that he hears of it. Typically speaking in the name of God, the scroll states, then “I will forgive her” for not keeping the vow. Waiting beyond the same day causes the husband or father to be liable for the transgression when his wife or daughter does not fulfill the vow. If a woman is a widow or divorcee, however, she is bound by whatever she has stated.

The issues dealt with in the Temple Scroll are those of who may vow and under what circumstances the vow may be annulled. The Damascus Document uses these same verses to refer only to oaths, and deals with the content of the oaths themselves—oaths to violate the Torah or the covenant, or oaths to fulfill commandments of the Torah. Either these two documents stem from entirely different circles or they represent earlier and later development of the legal traditions of the sect. The latter is most probable, namely that from the early Sadducean origins of the Temple Scroll laws to the more sophisticated analysis of the Zadokite Fragments legislation, the teachings of the sect underwent a course of development after the arrival of the Teacher of Righteousness corresponding to the establishment of the Qumran sect.

Early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

Early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism both followed the trend observable in Second Temple and Qumran sources of avoiding oaths and vows. Matthew 5.34 and James 5.12 opposed all oaths. In the description of the interrogation of Jesus, Matthew 26.63 says that the high priest adjured him to admit if he was the Messiah, evidence of the continued use of judicial oaths. Matthew 5.36 and 23.16–22 make clear that people took oaths by all kinds of things, despite the advice of so many Second Temple period sources to avoid oaths. Even an angel takes an oath by heaven and earth in Revelation 10.5–6, indicating again the popularity of oaths. (The cutting of Paul's hair in Acts 18.18 seems to have resulted from a Nazirite vow that is not discouraged in our sources.)

The rabbis also cautioned against indiscriminate oaths and vows. Deuteronomy 23.23 gave rise to a dispute in the Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 22a and 77b over whether it is desirable to vow and fulfill the obligation (Rabbi Judah) or whether it is a transgression to vow at all (Rabbi Meir). The majority of sages seem to have followed the view that oaths and vows should be avoided at all costs, except for oaths in judicial context.

Early rabbinic law limited the right of the husband or father to countermand the vows of a woman to those which involved abstinence or self-affliction, or which restricted the married woman's ability to discharge her obligations to her husband. In this respect, the rabbinic views are similar to those in the scrolls. The house of Hillel permitted the annulment of vows and oaths, as did Qumran law, while the house of Shammai only permitted the annulment of vows, following the Torah more literally.


  • Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine. New York, 1965.
    See pages 115–143 for a discussion of oaths and vows in rabbinic literature
  • Qimron, Elisha. “Shevu῾at ha-Banim in the Damascus Document.” Jewish Quarterly Review 81 (1990), 115–118.
    Study of the role of oaths for sectarians reaching the age of majority
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. Sectarian Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Courts Testimony, and the Penal Code. Brown Judaic Studies, 22. Chico, Calif., 1983.
    See pages 111–115 and 136–141 for a discussion of the roles of oaths and vows in the legal system and life of the Qumran sect
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. “The Laws of Vows and Oaths (Num. 30, 3–16) in the Zadokite Fragments and the Temple Scroll.” Revue de Qumrân 15 (1991), 199–214.
    Thorough study of these texts and detailed comparison with rabbinic literature

Lawrence H. Schiffman