Written words are often ambiguous, especially when punctuation is absent. Consider the sentence: “I gave up eating chocolate for a month” which can be read as a statement of self-denial or a statement of resignation and self-medication (“I gave up. Eating chocolate for a month.”) More seriously, “Let’s eat grandpa” can be read as an invitation to cannibalism or a call to come to the table (“Let’s eat, grandpa.”). A life may depend on where we place the pause.
Thirteenth century French commentator Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah sees ambiguity as an issue in the application of scriptural law. The Torah describes the type and condition of a sacrifice required for the fulfillment of vows. The Torah uses an unconventional word to convey the fulfillment of a vow, a word that derives from the Hebrew root meaning “wonder” (pele). Contextually the word seems to mean: “to fulfill.” Thus Leviticu 21:24 would read: “When a man offers a sacrifice from the herd of the flock to fulfill (l’fa-le) a vow…” Indeed, eighteenth century commentator Rabbi Judah Leib Shapira, author of Ha-rehasim L’vik’ah, defines it precisely that way. But Hizkuni, the name by which Rabbi Hezekiah is known, understands it differently.
According to Hizkuni, l’fa-le neder does not mean “to fulfill a vow” but to clarify a vow. Sometimes a person may articulate an ambiguous vow using “words that can be interpreted two ways, one opposite to the other.” He notes that in the book of Deuteronomy (17:8) the same root appears to have a similar connotation: “If a matter is too wondrous for you…” then the way to resolve the ambiguity is to travel to Jerusalem where the experts can be consulted. Here, wondrous matters are ambiguous matters that require clarification.
Thus, on Hizkuni’s view, the Torah teaches that should someone articulate words that might be construed as a vow he is duty bound to consider it a vow and bring the appropriate sacrifice. The message of the Torah is a message that all speakers should heed: be careful of what you say. You may have meant one thing but it could be taken as another. And you will be held responsible for the way it is taken.