In today’s daf (21) of Nazir the Gemara discusses the statement in the Mishna that if a wife makes a neder to be a nazir and afterwards her husband says “ve’ani” to mean that he too would like to be a nazir, he can no longer release her from that vow. The Tosafos on 21b s.v. “ela” discuss why. They record two opinions:
1) He cannot release her from her vow because the manner in which he took his vow made his own nazirate vow dependent upon hers, therefore, by releasing her from the vow he would release himself also. This violates the rule that one may not release oneself from any vow (only someone else can release a person from a vow he took) in Chagigah 10a; or,
2) The Tosafos quotes the opinion of Rabeinu Elyakim that it is permitted to release oneself from a vow in this fashion but in this particular case by agreeing to take a vow contingent upon his wife’s vow, the husband effectively agreed that her vow should be binding. After doing so, he can no longer release her from its authority.
The opinion of Rabbeinu Elyakim makes a lot of sense. He’s not really releasing himself from his own vow. By releasing his wife, he indirectly causes the effect that his own vow would no longer maintain its force because it was contingent upon her vow, but that is something which is not relevant to the question of whether he can release her from her vow. It would be including in common parlance under the “law of unintended (or, in this case, intended) consequences”. However, how are we to understand the first opinion? We can understand it by assuming that the rule preventing a person from releasing himself from his own vow is not merely a detail in the complex laws of nedarim. It lies at the very heart of that system. If you could release yourself from a neder you took., then there would be no reason for the rules of nedarim to exist at all. The Torah dictated that if you make a vow, you must keep it. By making that vow you incurred a moral obligation to see it through. If you don’t, then you literally “profaned your speech” (see Rashi on Bamidbar 30, 3). Furthermore, I heard once from Rav Lichtenstein hk”m that the reason for laws which protect the sanctity of speech, ranging from this prohibition to that on lying, is Onkelos defines humans as possessing “רוח ממללא” or “the spirit of speech.” In other words, it is our very ability to communicate in words which defines us. As such, it simply cannot be that a person would so violate his responsibility to respect the sanctity of his own speech by releasing himself from a vow, even indirectly. If an action of his would automatically have that consequence, it must be that the Torah would not allow that action to take effect.
Tomorrow morning we will all release ourselves from any vows we might have taken over the last year. This ceremony seems incidental to the observances of the yamim noraim, and yet it lies at their very heart. By going before a panel to release ourselves from any vows we may have taken over the past year (even if we haven’t kept them through lack of knowledge), we are affirming the sanctity of our speech and our responsibility to respect that sanctity. May that awareness travel with us through the coming year and help us maintain the requisite level of holiness in all our words, not just when we make a vow.