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When Making a Vow, Consider Where You Stand

Because a corpse is always a source of ritual impurity, and because on a geological timescale corpses are everywhere under our feet, aren’t all religious Jews impure?

Adam Kirsch
October 13, 2015
Main image: Warner Bros.
Main image: Warner Bros.

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

The ancient Roman city of Palmyra made headlines this summer, for the first time in 1,500 years, for a tragic reason. Motivated by religious zeal against paganism, ISIS destroyed some of the best-preserved structures from the ancient world, including the Temple of Bel—the Mesopotamian god known in the Hebrew Bible as Baal. (Indeed, some of the Hebrew prophets might have applauded the destruction, given their hatred of Baal-worship.) But Palmyra was not only a pagan city; it was also home to a substantial Jewish community, as this week’s Daf Yomi reading testified.

In Nazir 47a, we read about a woman named Miriam of Tarmod—Tarmod, or Tadmor, being the Hebrew name of Palmyra—who was a nazirite. At the end of her term of naziriteship, an incident occurred that raised a legal question about exactly how a nazirite stops being one. According to the Book of Numbers, at the conclusion of his or her term—which is usually 30 days—a nazirite must bring three offerings to be sacrificed. These are a male sheep less than one year old, for a burnt offering; a female sheep less than one year old, for a sin offering; and a ram (a male sheep older than a year) for a peace offering. The animal sacrifices are accompanied by bread, flour cakes, and unleavened wafers. In Miriam’s case, she had completed her first offering, when she was interrupted with news “that her daughter was mortally ill.” Naturally, she broke off the sacrifice to go to her daughter’s side, where she found her already dead.

As a result, Miriam contracted tumah, or ritual impurity, since a corpse is always a source of ritual pollution. Indeed, as we have seen repeatedly in Tractate Nazir, coming into contact with a corpse is one of the three prohibitions for nazirites, along with drinking wine and cutting hair. If Miriam was still technically a nazirite when she visited her daughter’s corpse, then she would have violated her oath, requiring her to bring a guilt-offering and extend her naziriteship by seven days. But was she still bound by that oath, since she had already completed the first sacrifice to terminate her naziriteship? Are all three sacrifices required to end a naziriteship, or is the first one enough? The rabbis rule leniently on this question: “Let her bring the rest of her offerings and be purified,” they instruct. Evidently, the first sacrifice was enough to end Miriam’s oath.

Nazirites outside the Land of Israel are, in a sense, only pretending, or doing a trial run for the real thing.

The mishna does not explicitly say that Miriam’s sacrifices took place in Tadmor/Palmyra, only that she was from there. But since her daughter apparently lived nearby, it is safe to assume that Palmyra was the site of these sacrifices. This raises another question that came up in a previous week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 3 of Tractate Nazir: Can you be a nazirite outside the Land of Israel? After all, only in Eretz Yisrael is it possible to be ritually pure; all other nations are considered tamei, partly because of uncertainty about burial sites. If you don’t know exactly where bodies are buried, it’s possible that you will walk over a corpse without knowing it, thereby contracting tumah. (Today, the notes to the Koren Talmud explain, even in the Land of Israel all Jews are considered ritually impure, since the same uncertainty applies there.) If someone makes a nazirite vow in Palmyra, in Syria, does it actually mean anything?

In Nazir 19b, this question is raised in connection with another woman, Queen Helena of Adiabene, also in modern Syria. Helene once vowed, “If my son will return from war safely, I will be a nazirite for seven years.” He did, and as we have seen earlier in the Tractate, such conditional vows are effective; so she obeyed the nazirite prohibitions for seven years. But even though Helena avoided corpses for all that time, she was living in ritual impurity anyway, since her whole country was tamei. When she subsequently visited the Land of Israel, then, Beit Hillel ruled that she had to perform her naziriteship all over again, since only now was she truly pure. As a result, she had to be a nazirite for seven more years, for a total of 14. Nazirites outside the Land of Israel are, in a sense, only pretending, or doing a trial run for the real thing.

When it comes time to end a term of naziriteship, the nazirite is required to shave his head, thus marking the end of a period when cutting hair was forbidden. According to the Bible, “the nazirite shall shave at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting”; and while the Tent of Meeting stood only during Mosaic times, the Temple in Jerusalem was considered its equivalent in later centuries. Apparently, then, a nazirite should stand at the Temple’s gates and shave his or her head. But the rabbis of the Talmud can’t bring themselves to approve of this idea: “That is a degrading manner of service,” they say in Nazir 45a. After all, in Exodus, God instructs Moses, “You shall not ascend by steps to My altar, so that you should not reveal your nakedness upon it”; and if even climbing steps is considered disrespectful to the Temple, surely cutting one’s hair is even more so.

The rabbis therefore decide that actually shaving in the Temple is not required. It’s sufficient for the nazirite to shave somewhere prior to offering his sacrifice at the Temple. However, the shaven hair is a crucial ingredient of that sacrifice, since the Bible instructs the nazirite to take his hair “and put it on the fire, which is under the sacrifice of the peace-offering.” The hair is burned on the sacrificial flame, marking an end to the term of naziriteship. The Talmud adds a further refinement to this process: Before burning the hair, the nazirite should take some of the gravy from the cooking offering and pour it on the hair. This detail is not in the Bible, and the Gemara asks, “From where are these matters derived?” The answer, as often, has to do with a creative interpretation of the text—specifically, the repetition of the word “sacrifice” in the biblical verse. Since the rabbis believed every word of the Torah was there to teach a specific law, this deduction made it possible to ground what might have been a later innovation in the biblical text.

The issue of cutting hair also raised another question for the rabbis, this one sexual in nature. It was a basic rule of feminine modesty that women must not display their hair in front of men, since it was considered sexually arousing. What happens, then, when a female nazirite shaves her head at the end of her term; doesn’t this process inevitably involve baring her head in the presence of men, specifically “young priests” who “will become aroused by her”? The Gemara debates whether a woman in such a situation would necessarily be attractive, and decides that she would be, since even a nazirite is allowed to beautify herself with cosmetics like “blue and blush.” To spare the sensitivities of the priests, then, Rabbi Shimon Shezuri rules that female nazirites were not required to shave at the Temple. Once again in the Talmud, women are held responsible for the sexual feelings of men—a tendency that, to say the least, has not disappeared in the modern world.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.