There was once a man who was owed some money, so he brought the borrower before Rava’s Beit Din and said to him: “Pay me back.”

The borrower responded: “I already paid you.”

Rava said to the borrower: “In that case, you must swear an oath that you have given him the money.”

The borrower went to get his cane, hid the money he owed inside its hollow, and leaned on the cane as he returned to the courtroom. He said to the lender: “Hold this cane in your hand,” ostensibly in order to free his own hands to take hold of the Torah scroll.

He then took a Torah scroll and swore that he had already given the money into the lender’s hand. The lender, incensed at the man’s chutzpah, broke the cane. Suddenly all the money inside spilled to the ground and it emerged that he had indeed sworn the truth! (Gemara Nedarim 25a)

The Gemara concludes that actually an oath taker must adhere not only to the plain definition of his words, but to the meaning they are meant to convey as well, and so this borrower was still guilty of swearing falsely by taking an oath that was technically truthful but deceptive. This rule is derived from the manner in which Moshe made the Israelites swear in the plains of Moav in order to strengthen Israel’s acceptance of the Torah. He said to them: “Know that I am having you swear not according to your own understanding of the words in the oath, but rather according to my understanding and God’s understanding of the words, as the Torah states1: ‘… not with you alone,’ i.e. ‘not according to your understanding alone.’2

Sadly, the episode recorded in our Gemara above is a now all too familiar occurrence of the phenomena whereby a person is rightly afraid of transgressing a Mitzvah between man and God but is regrettably unashamed to break a Mitzvah between man and his fellow. A Yeshivah once noticed that the cholent that was intended for Shabbat lunch had been eaten by some of the students on Friday night. The next Friday, the Rosh Yeshivah delivered a sermon about the prohibition of stealing, a Biblical Mitzvah between man and his fellow, and insisted that there should be no repeat of the cholent-theft, but to no avail. The cholent was still consumed that night. One of the Rabbis found an ingenious solution though for the following week. Just before Shabbat, he lit a large candle and placed it with a Siddur beside it atop the lid of the cholent pot, so that nobody would move the lid with the burning candle, due to the laws of Muktzah, a Rabbinic Mitzvah between man and God. Sure enough, nobody touched the cholent pot that night. The candle had extinguished itself by Shabbat morning, and the presence of the Siddur made it permissible to remove the lid, now that the candle was no longer alight.

1.       Devarim 29:13

2.       Ran elucidates that since the subsequent verse states: “But with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem our God, and with whoever is not here with us today,” the first verse cannot also be needed to teach that the covenant was being made even with future generations. Therefore, the first verse: “… not with you alone” is interpreted to mean: ‘not according to your understanding alone’.