When people swear to do something, they make a serious commitment. Words, from a Torah perspective, are binding. (It is for this reason that many people, after promising to do something, will append the caveat "bli neder" - without intending to vow, to prevent themselves from vowing falsely.) In order to nullify a vow or an oath, one must do so in front of a "court" of knowledgeable people.
Why do people make vows? This question is the subject of a great deal of speculation. Indeed, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1), the sages themselves questioned those who vow to undertake extra stringencies by asking: “Are not the things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you? [Why] must you add further prohibitions?”
One fascinating insight into the desire for undertaking additional stringencies can be found in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, where Rabbi Akiva is quoted saying: “...Tradition is a fence to the Torah; tithes [form] a fence to wealth, vows a fence to self-restraint; [and] a fence to wisdom is silence.” The idea expressed herein is that making a vow is meant to help a person stay strong when faced with something that is their particular, personal temptation. Having made that vow strengthens their inner resolve to stay far away from that which might come to tempt them to break the law.
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