Talmudic pages

Nazir 11

None for me, thanks.

It can be hard to turn down a drink. Even without problems related to alcohol dependency, when a friend offers you a glass of wine it can feel awkward to just say no. In fact, a number of organizations that support people committed to sobriety advocate telling a white lie — that you’re currently taking antibiotics, say, or have an early morning at work — to blunt the discomfort of turning down drinks.

But the potential awkwardness of refusing an offered drink is not a new phenomenon. In fact, as we read in the mishnah on today’s daf, it’s very old. And as we will see, an awkward little situation has the potential to cause big problems.

If they poured one a cup and he said: I am hereby a nazirite from it, he is a nazirite.

The mishnah doesn’t tell us whether this is a case of someone offering a polite lie to get out of a drink or of someone who came to a genuine decision to take a nazirite vow, but it sounds like either way, if you turn down a drink by saying you’re now a nazirite — surprise! You’re now actually a nazirite. But the mishnah continues:

An incident occurred with regard to a certain woman who was intoxicated, and they poured a cup for her and she said: I am hereby a nazirite from it.

The sages said: This woman did not intend (to accept naziriteship), but to say: It is hereby (forbidden) to me as an offering.

The set-up of this incident is similar to the first case — someone is offered wine and turns it down by saying they are a nazirite. The difference is that, in this case, the woman is already drunk. And that matters to the outcome. The rabbis decide that her words still have consequences — she is forbidden to drink the glass of wine — but she won’t wake up the next day and be prohibited from having raisins in her morning oatmeal. 

The Gemara explains why someone might do this — declare they are a nazirite to turn down a single glass of wine. 

He maintains: They will bring me another and afflict meI say to them this statement, which is definitive to them.

Apparently, the rabbis are imagining someone whose friends pay close attention to her words, so if she states that only this one glass is prohibited to her, her friends will try to convince her to drink another. Lying and saying that all wine is prohibited for her is thus the only effective way to turn down a drink.

But the Gemara doesn’t explain why the woman being drunk leads to an assumption that she didn’t intend to make a nazirite vow. After all, we can imagine someone turning down a drink regardless of whether they are drunk or sober.

Let me offer two possible explanations: 

1) Perhaps the fact that she is intoxicated suggests that she is not rejecting drinking entirely. If context matters — and for the rabbis it does — then a sober person rejecting drinking could be seen as making a broader decision about their life. But someone who has already been drinking is perhaps only declining a single beverage and not demonstrating a broader commitment to sobriety.

2) In the modern world, being heavily intoxicated is seen as an impairment to one’s capacity to make legal decisions. Perhaps the rabbis, too, understand that drinking can cause cognitive distortions and so they do not want to obligate someone (who may well be nursing quite the hangover!) to start an indefinite period of naziriteship.

Either way, if someone who has been drinking declares that they can’t possibly have another glass because they are now a nazirite, they don’t have to actually become a nazirite. But also, maybe make sure to cultivate friends who take no for an answer — no vows required!

Read all of Nazir 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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