Massekhet Shevuot offers an exposition of how Jewish law relates to different types of oaths. The placement of Massekhet Shevuot in Seder Nezikin can be explained because some of the laws that apply to oaths are connected with courtroom activities (e.g., oaths taken by litigants as part of the court process, or someone who swears that he does not have testimony to offer). Thus, it is usually placed just after Massekhet Makkot as an additional conclusion to the laws of courts that appear in Massekhet Sanhedrin. At the same time it includes discussions of oaths in general that parallel the laws of vows found in Massekhet Nedarim, as well as other topics – including discussions of sacrifices and ritual purity – that are raised tangentially.
When a person makes a promise to do something, or when he affirms something that he says by means of an oath – especially when he makes the oath using God’s name – the laws of shevuot apply. Such oaths are taken very seriously by the Torah; in fact, one of the Ten Commandments forbids taking an oath in vain (see Shemot 20:6 and Devarim 5:10) – even if the statement is truthful. Of course, a false oath is even more severe and we find discussions in this tractate regarding atonement for them, either by means of sacrifices or by punishments meted out by the courts.
There are different types of shevuot, whose regulations – as well as their punishments and atonements – vary. Most of these appear in the Torah, although there are a number that are rabbinic enactments, whose laws differ from the biblical ones.
One type of oath relates not to others, but to the individual himself. We find this type of oath divided into two categories: Shevuat bituy (an oath of utterance) and shevuat shav (an oath taken in vain).
Shevuat bituy refers to a situation where a person makes a positive or a negative statement, either regarding past events or future ones. If it was made regarding the future, it is similar to a vow, and will be treated as a false oath if he does not fulfill the statement that he made. The difference between a shevua (oath) and a neder lies in the fact that a shevua is what a person accepts upon himself, while a neder relates to the object under discussion, and in the different sacrifices that are brought if they are not fulfilled. If the shevuat bituy was made regarding past events, if his statement was false, he is held liable immediately. If it was done knowingly, he will receive malkot (lashes) and if unknowingly, he will have to bring a sacrifice according to his financial standing.
Shevuat shav is a type of false oath, when a person takes an oath that he will do something that cannot be done, or if he tries to affirm a false statement that he made by means of an oath or if he swears for no reason at all. In these situations he will be liable to receive malkot if he did it knowingly; if unknowingly there is no punishment.
The second type of oath relates to interactions with other people, and includes four categories of oaths: Shevuat ha-eidut (an oath regarding testimony), shevuat ha-pikadon (an oath regarding a deposit), shevuat ha-dayyanim (an oath imposed by the court) and shevuat ha-shomerim (an oath of the bailees, or someone who is watching an object).
Shevuat ha-eidut refers to a situation where a witness knows information that would allow a litigant to win a case, and refuses to testify, claiming – by means of an oath in court – that he does not know anything, causing a loss to the litigant. In such a case, if it was done knowingly, he will have to bring a sacrifice according to his financial standing, otherwise he is free of any penalty.
Shevuat ha-pikadon is not really limited to oaths regarding deposits, rather it refers to anyone who owes money to another person and denies it by means of an oath. This refers to all situations where a person has in his possession money that belongs to another – whether he received it legally (e.g. as a loan, or a lost object that he found) or illegally (e.g. he stole the money) – or even if he owed money because he damaged his friend’s property. In all such cases, if he wants to repent after having taken the oath he must return the money or object, adding a further one-fifth as a penalty, and bring an asham (guilt) offering.
Shevuat ha-dayyanim is similar to shevu’at ha-pikadon, inasmuch as it also relates to denying money that is owed, but it is mentioned separately as the Torah devotes a separate passage to it and it is the court that requires that the oath be taken. When a claimant demands payment for money that is owed to him, but he only has one witness or if the defendant admits to only part of the claim, the court will require the defendant to take a severe oath (i.e. while holding a Sefer Torah or similar) to free himself of the obligation to pay. If the defendant lied, his punishment will be similar to that of shevuat ha-pikadon.
Shevuat ha-shomerim also involved the denial of a debt. When one of the four types of shomerim (someone who watches an object as a volunteer, someone who does so for pay, someone who rents an object or someone who borrows an object) does not return the object to its owner, the Torah teaches there that under specific circumstances in each of these cases the shomer can take an oath and free himself of the obligation to pay. These rules and regulations are discussed at length in Massekhet Bava Metzia, and they are brought here simply to complete the picture of shevuat ha-pikadon.
Aside from the above-mentioned biblical oaths, there are also a number of oaths that were established by the Sages. The Mishna teaches that there are circumstances when the Sages will require that the claimant takes the oath in order to win his case, rather than allowing the defendant to take the oath and free himself from the obligation to pay. One example where this was done was a case where the Sages did not trust the defendant’s oath for one reason or another. The Sages also established a shevuat heset (an oath of inducement) that obligates someone who denies a claim entirely to take an oath (according to Biblical law, if someone denies owing money entirely he is free of any further obligation, and only if he offers a partial confession will he take an oath on the money beyond what he admitted to).
Massekhet Shevuot does not contain much aggadic material, and where it does appear its focus is on the severity of taking oaths, and the damage done by falsehood in general and false oaths in particular.