The Torah prohibits taking any type of oath, even when the oath is true, because it is an oath that has no purpose, a sh’vuas shav. Someone who swears an oath that is false violates both the proscription for swearing a false oath and also for swearing an oath in vain, since it too serves no purpose. The Rambam contends that someone who swears because of a din Torah fulfills a positive mitzvah of the Torah, “u’v’shmo tishavei’a, “in His Name you shall swear.” Others contend that this pasuk means simply “in His Name you may swear,” but that there is never a mitzvah of taking an oath (Ramban). Still others contend that even though the pasuk says “in His Name you shall swear,” this does not mean it is permitted to swear, but rather that one who swears is not punished for taking an oath (Shu”t Chasam Sofer). This last authority contends that one should avoid taking an oath under any and all circumstances, and thereby explains why the custom is to pay large fees or even fines rather than swear an oath – even if it is fully truthful.
The renowned Chacham Rabbeinu Yaakov Mutzafi, zt”l, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in the year 5660/1900. He attended the famous Bet Zilkha yeshivah, a truly exceptional yeshivah where hundreds of elite students grew in scholarship and piety. Among them were many chachamim who became Sephardic leaders of the next generation, such as the Ben Ish Chai, Chacham Salman Mutzafi, Chacham Yehudah Tzadkah, zt”l, and many others. When Chacham Yaakov was a younger student in the yeshivah, he was known for his diligence and great intensity. R’ Yaakov eventually moved to Jerusalem and later became the rosh av beit din for the Sephardim of the Eida Charedit there. He was extremely close to Chacham Ben Zion Abba Shaul, zt”l, rosh yeshivah of Porat Yosef, and his family, and he sat on the same beit din with him, presiding over monetary judgments, until his passing on the 13th of Sivan 5743/1982.
On one occasion, as the chachamim sat together to hear a case, two litigants came to the beit din regarding a relatively simple monetary matter; one person claimed that the other owed him money, while the second man, the defendant, denied it. The defendant argued vociferously in his defense and offered to swear on a sefer Torah that he did not owe any money. It frightened Chacham Ben Zion and Chacham Yaakov that the man was stubborn enough to actually volunteer to swear on a sefer Torah. It didn’t seem appropriate in the context of the matter at hand and the two were suspicious of the man’s motives. They tried to convince him to make a deal but he was immovable and insisted on swearing to his innocence.
Eventually, they were left with no choice. If the man insisted on swearing, they would have to oblige him. The chachamim got up and went into the nearby Beit Knesset Shema Tzedakah. They were about to remove one of the sifrei Torah, when Chacham Yaakov asked him, “Wait. Have you gone to the mikvah? You must before you make this shvuah.”
The man replied in the negative. Chacham Yaakov’s intention was to delay the proceedings, and he succeeded. The man waited until the next day and went to the mikvah before returning to the synagogue. Chacham Yaakov asked him, “To which mikvah did you go?” The man told him the name of the mikvah, and Chacham Yaakov insisted that the chosen mikvah was not kosher enough. In an effort to further stall the man and not have him swear unnecessarily, he advised him to go to another mikvah, claiming that this mikvah was acceptable for an oath. The man grudgingly agreed.
The next day, the chachamim came to the beit haknesset, but the defendant did not show up. Wondering what had happened to him, they sent a messenger to his home. The door was answered by a disheveled woman who was crying. When asked what had happened, she answered, “I don’t know. My husband just did not wake up this morning!”
Chacham Yaakov knew right away that this man’s death was min Hashamayim. As the beit din investigated the case deeper, they were able to determine that the defendant really had owed money to the other man. He had denied everything falsely and was willing to swear on it. Had he sworn falsely, he would have died with a terrible sin, a black mark on his soul. Therefore, his untimely death had saved him from a fate that was even worse. It was truly in the Hands of Hashem.
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com.