Jephte’s Daughter

In the Haftara for Parshat Chukat, we read the story of Jephte (Shoftim 11:1-33), a Judge who made a neder, a vow to God saying (Shoftim 11:30): “If you will indeed deliver B’nai Yisrael into my hand, then it shall be that whatever emerges- what will emerge from the doors of my house- toward me when I return in peace from the Children of Ammon, it shall belong to God and I shall offer it up as an elevation offering.” Jephte ends up defeating Ammon and the Haftara ends with the words: “and the children of Ammon were subdued before B’nai Yisrael.”


What happens next is not included in the Haftara, the disturbing story of the fate of  Jephte’s daughter (Shoftim 34-40) “Jephte arrived at Mitzpe, to his home and behold! His daughter was coming out toward him with drums and dances- and she was an only child; he did not have a son or a daughter from her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter you have brought me to my knees and you have joined those who trouble me. I have opened my mouth to God and I cannot recant!’ She said to him, ‘My father, you have opened your mouth, since God has wreaked vengeance for you against your enemies, against the children of Amon!’ But she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Let me be for two months and I shall go and wail upon the mountains and weep over my virginity, I and my friends.’ He said ‘Go!’ and he released her off for two months. She went with her friends and wept in the mountains. At the end of the two months she returned to her father. He carried out with her the vow that he had vowed and she never knew a man. This became a practice in Israel: From year to year the daughters of Israel would go to lament with the daughter of Jephte the Gileadite, four days of the year.”


Was Jephte’s vow valid, and what happened to his daughter?


In Breisheet Raba 60:13, Rabbi Yochanan states that Jephte was required to set aside the monetary value for his daughter for the purchase of offerings. According to Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish, the vow applied only to valid animals but not to a human being or an invalid animal, so his vow actually had no legal effect on his daughter.


Tanchuma, Bechukotai 5 says that the Rabbis harshly criticized Jephte for being too proud to seek Halachic guidance.


Pinchas, the greatest man in the generation is also criticized for not taking the initiative to absolve Jephte of his vow.


Eben Eza, Radak, Ralbag and Mbabane state that since human sacrifice is forbidden, Jephte fulfilled his neder by building her a house where she could live in solitude and seclusion, devoting herself to prayer except for the four days that her friends would visit her and bemoan her fate (figuratively she was an “offering”).


Since Jephte was too embarrassed to ask if the vow could be annulled, he cost his daughter a normal life.