There are two different types of vows, nedarim, mentioned in the Torah. The first, which is the subject of Tractate Nedarim, is the prohibitive vow, nidrei issur, pursuant to which a person utters a vow not to do an action, which but for the vow would have been permitted. The second, which is the subject of Tractate Arachin, is known as a nedrei hekdesh, that is a vow to dedicate something of value for the upkeep of the Temple.
While the first type of neder is applicable today the second is not because we no longer have a Temple to maintain.
Nevertheless, the Rambam includes studying the laws of nidrei hekdesh in his list of mitzvot.
The laws of nidrei nekdesh permit one to vow to pay a certain amount of money for the upkeep of the Temple. The amount to be paid depends upon the payment index the person has chosen when making his or her vow. The Torah permits one to choose between four different indices. One can make a personal vow, by pledging the worth of a person, either of oneself or another person, one can pledge the worth of an animal or one can pledge the worth of a parcel of land.
For the purpose of determining how much the Temple treasurer will collect from a person who vowed that he or she will pay his own, or her own, or somebody else’s worth to the Temple, the Torah ascribes the following fixed amounts: (i) 5 Shekalim for a male between the ages of 1 month and one day and 5 years, and 3 Shekalim for a female in this category; (ii) 20 Shekalim for a male between the ages of 5 years and one day and 20 years and 10 Shekalim for a female in this category; (iii) 50 Shekalim for a male between the ages of 20 years and one day and 60 years, and 30 Shekalim for a female in this category; and (iv) 15 Shekalim for a male over 60 and 10 Shekalim for a female in this category.
It should be noted that in fixing a person with an “erech,” loosely translated “worth” or “value,” the Torah is not discussing the worth of a person for any purpose other than determining how much such a vow obliges a person to pay to the Temple and how much money the Temple’s collection agency may collect.
Although the Torah has a fixed scale for the payment of vows, arachin, it takes into account the financial circumstances of a person who may have vowed to the Temple his or her own erech or the erech of somebody else.
A person who cannot afford to pay according the fixed scale he or she has chosen may fulfill his or her vow by paying not less than 1 Sela (a silver coin having the weight of 384 barleycorns), the exact amount being determined in accordance with his or her means as assessed by the kohen. The Sela is the minimum payment with which a person can discharge his or her erech vow. If the person is too poor, in the kohen’s assessment, to pay 1 Selah, the whole payment is deferred until he or she can afford to pay the full amount in accordance with the fixed scale.
Once an erech vow is made, the maturity date by which the vow must be paid is the date which is the first Yom Tov on which the person would be oleh regel – would visit Jerusalem as a pilgrim. If the vow is not fully paid up by then, the person is considered in default and violates the positive law, the mitzvat aseh, of paying one’s vows in Jerusalem.
If a full annual cycle of three festivals has come and gone and the vow has still not been paid, the person is considered in violation of the negative law, mitzvat lo ta’aseh, of bal te’acher, delaying payment.
After the passage of three Festivals, the Temple treasurer has the power to enter the homes of those whose erech payments remain outstanding and seize personal property and foreclose on real estate to cover the amount of the outstanding payment. The treasurer must, however, set aside minimum subsistence requirements for a poor debtor, including food for thirty days, clothing for one year, basic furniture and bedding, tallit and tefillin and basic tools of trade. The rest of the debtor’s assets are put up for sale to pay the vow.
As we have seen, “erech”means the value of a person attributed by the Torah as opposed to the value of a person attributed by society. In valuing a person, society takes many factors into account including physical, intellectual, social and financial. The way society tends to see it, one is worth as much as one makes. The way the Torah views it, social distinctions are artificial and ephemeral and the only immutable differences are age and sex.