Talmud pages

Nazir 10

A talking cow.

A new mishnah on today’s page takes up a another case of an oddly stated nazirite vow:

If one said: “This cow said: I am hereby a nazirite if I stand up,” or “This door said: 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. 

A person quotes a cow (or a door) that seems to have made its own nazirite vow. If the cow stands or the door opens, Beit Shammai rule the person is himself a nazirite and Beit Hillel say he is not. Of course, the Gemara first asks:

Does a cow speak?

While a literal read of the mishnah suggests that we are dealing with a cow who can articulate a full sentence and even make its own conditional nazirite vow, Rami bar Hama suggests are more plausible scenario:

It is a case where there was a prone cow before him and he tried, without success, to cause it to stand, and he said, “This cow thinks it will not stand; I am hereby a nazirite and will therefore refrain from its flesh if it stands of its own accord,” and it stood of its own accord.

This makes more sense — we’re dealing with a nazirite vow made in a last-ditch attempt to move a bullheaded animal that weighs, on average, a literal ton. Unable to shoo the cow out of the way, the frustrated person attempts to entice the cow to move by vowing that if the stubborn animal finally gets up they will become a nazirite and, for good measure, they promise never to eat the cow. If this vow of frustration actually does the trick, Beit Shammai rules that the person is a nazirite, Beit Hillel does not. 

The difference of opinion, according to Rami bar Hama, is that Beit Shammai holds the person to both parts of the vow, and Beit Hillel does not hold them to the nazirite portion of the vow — as, in his view, the nonsensical nature of that portion of the vow indicates the person is not fully aware of what their vow entails, rendering it null and void.

There’s a problem, though. Rami bar Hama’s scenario doesn’t entirely fit the mishnah. In the mishnah, it is the cow who speaks and the cow who promises to become a nazir. In Rami bar Hama’s version, the cow doesn’t utter a word (more realistic, but it doesn’t fully explain the mishnah). The commentary from the inner margin of the Vilna Shas (Rashi for most tractates, but unidentified for Nazir) attempts to align the two statements, suggesting that Rami bar Hama’s explanation that the cow makes its intentions know is what the mishnah is talking about when it say that the cow speaks.

But can a cow express its intentions?? The question calls to mind Milky White, the cow in Steven Sonheim’s musical Into the Woods, which has no lines but, in many productions, has been effective in conveying what it is thinking to the audience. For this idea, the talmudic commentator has a different frame of reference, citing Psalms 15:2, which refers to the ability to “speak truth in one’s heart,” and Genesis 27:41, where Esau “speaks in his heart,” to provide biblical support for the notion of effective non-verbal communication. But it’s interesting that while normally vows require an out-loud expression, this discussion considers that non-verbal communication (from a cow, no less) might impact a vow.

And what of the talking cow? We’ve seen examples of intelligent animals who know and follow rabbinic law in the Talmud (for example, the donkeys on Taanit 24), but the Talmud does not suggest that the cow on today’s daf has any extraordinary abilities.

Readers may be disappointed to find that this mishnah is not to be followed by fantastical stories about the adventures of cows and other animals who became nazirites. Instead, today’s daf turns the conversation back toward a familiar theme: How to deal with vows that were not articulated in the clearest of ways. 

Read all of Nazir 10 n Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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