Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Why would a Jew decide to become a nazirite? Naziriteship involves some significant sacrifices—a person who has taken the vow cannot cut his hair or drink wine—so, it’s natural to assume that it is an act of exceptional piety: You become a nazirite because you want to take up a heavy burden on God’s behalf. In Tractate Nedarim, however, the Talmud showed that people often took vows for less elevated reasons—out of pique or spite, or a rash desire to punish someone. And the same holds true, we learned this week in Tractate Nazir, of nazirite vows. Take, for instance, the rather odd scenario envisioned in Nazir 10a: “If one said: This cow said: I am hereby a nazirite if I stand up; or if he said: This door says: I am hereby a nazirite if I am opened, Beit Shammai say he is a nazirite, and Beit Hillel say he is not a nazirite.”

What does this enigmatic mishna mean? The rabbis of the Gemara asked the obvious question: “Does a cow speak”? Of course it doesn’t, and still less does a door; so how could either of these things vow to become nazirites? The explanation, Rami bar Chama explains, is not supernatural. Rather, what we have here is an idiom, a manner of speaking. When a person says, “This cow said: I am hereby a nazirite if I stand up,” what he really means is: “This cow thinks it will not stand; I am hereby a nazirite and therefore will refrain from its flesh if it stands of its own accord.” In other words, this is an example of taking a nazirite vow out of pure frustration. Imagine a farmer dealing with a refractory cow, or a homeowner who can’t make his door open; in order to show how annoyed he is, and to invoke God’s help with the situation, he promises to become a nazirite if the cow stands up or the door opens. It is just as if you were to say, “God damn this cow”: You don’t literally want God to send the cow to hell, but you are using a sacred formula to express irritation.

The question, then, is whether a nazirite vow made in this conditional form is binding. Say you promise to become a nazirite if the cow stands up and it does stand up; are you now a nazirite? The answer is no—but not for the reason you might think. The rabbis do not invalidate such a nazirite vow because it is made frivolously or because it depends on a contingency. Rather, they invalidate it based on a different principle entirely. The form of the vow suggests that the speaker will become a nazirite with regard to the cow—that is, he won’t slaughter the cow and eat it. But as we know, refraining from meat is not one of the conditions of naziriteship. In this case, the speaker has misconstrued what being a nazirite means, and a nazirite vow taken in such a mistaken frame of mind is invalid.

This principle was established in the previous mishna, in Nazir 9a. “If one says: I am hereby a nazirite and therefore will refrain from dried figs,” is he a nazirite or not? Here, the term “nazirite” is being used very loosely, as if it were equivalent to the formula we heard so often in Tractate Nedarim, “this is like an offering to me.” Calling something an offering is simply a way of swearing not to eat it, and the person taking the vow in this example seems to believe that being a nazirite in regard to something is an equivalent vow. But this is a legal misunderstanding, since in fact the nazirite vow has certain specific conditions: A nazirite must refrain from all grape products, but the Bible doesn’t say anything about figs. If someone doesn’t understand what being a nazirite entails, is their vow still effective?

This is a case where Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel give different answers. In keeping with their typical strictness, Beit Shammai say that such a vow does render the person who makes it a nazirite. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, say that “he is not a nazirite.” The Gemara goes on to give fuller explanation for this disagreement. Beit Shammai are relying on a legal principle of Rabbi Meir, who said, “A person does not utter a statement for naught.” This implies that we should interpret the nazirite vow in such a way that it means something, even if that means disregarding the clause about figs. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, rely on the dictum of Rabbi Yosei, who says that “a person is held accountable for the conclusion of his statement.” In other words, both clauses of the statement have to be taken equally seriously. And since, in this case, the two clauses contradict each other, they end up canceling out the statement altogether.

These are examples of a person taking the nazirite vow and adding extra conditions to it: not to eat a cow, not to eat figs. In Nazir 11a, the rabbis go on to consider the converse case, of a person who takes a nazirite vow but tries to subtract conditions from it. If you swear to become a nazirite “on the condition that I will be allowed to drink”—when drinking is ordinarily forbidden to nazirites—is such a vow effective? No, the rabbis rule, you can’t custom-tailor naziriteship in this way. If you swear to become a nazirite, you are a full-fledged nazirite, and your conditions are nullified. This is because of the well-known legal principle that “anyone who stipulates counter to that which is written in the Torah, his stipulation is void.” Similarly, in American law, a contract to perform an illegal action is unenforceable; you cannot legally promise to break the law. Since a nazirite is forbidden by the Torah to drink wine, a vow to become a nazirite and still drink wine has no legal standing.

Another reason why a person might take a nazirite vow, we learn in Nazir 12b, is to bargain with God. So, a person who desperately wants a son might say, “I am hereby a nazirite when I will have a son”: This is using naziriteship as a kind of bribe to the Deity. That doesn’t sound exactly pious, but the mishna rules that this is a valid vow: If the person who makes this vow goes on to have a son, he then becomes a nazirite. However, the exact language of the vow matters. If he vows to become a nazirite when he has a son, then only a male child triggers the naziriteship; if he has a daughter or has what the Talmud calls a tumtum, a person with no visible genitals, he is not obligated. If, on the other hand, he vows to become a nazirite if he has “a child,” then any offspring make him a nazirite. This is the case even though, the Gemara explains, a tumtum and even a daughter are “not considered significant by people.” This statement speaks volumes about the relative status of sons and daughters in Talmudic-era Jewish culture. As in many cultures, even today, a male child was desirable and a female child was a disappointment. Sometimes it is the Talmud’s off-hand remarks, the things it takes for granted, that reveal most about the worldview of the Jews who created it.

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