Toward the bottom of today’s page, we encounter this mishnah:
If one says: “It is incumbent upon me to shave half a nazirite,” and another heard and said: “And I, it is incumbent upon me to shave half a nazirite,” — this one shaves a whole nazirite and that one shaves a whole nazirite. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.
And the rabbis say: This one shaves half a nazirite and that one shaves half a nazirite.
No, the mishnah does not mean that this vower literally grabs a nazirite by that beautiful crown of luscious locks and hacks it all off. Instead, the expression “shave a nazirite” means to pay for the sacrifices that are brought at the conclusion of the nazirite’s vow, at which time the nazirite also shaves off his hair. In the mishnah’s scenario, a person vows to pay half the cost of a nazirite’s vow-ending sacrifices, and someone similarly inspired vows to do the same. According to Rabbi Meir, both actually have to pay the full cost of a nazirite’s sacrifices, but according to the rabbis they can share the cost equally.
The expression “shave half a nazirite” is pretty strange. Let’s turn to the Gemara for comment:
Rava said: All concede that whenever one said, “Half of the offerings of a nazirite are incumbent upon me,” he brings half of the offerings. And when he says, “The offerings of half a nazirite are incumbent upon me,” he needs to bring all of the offerings of a nazirite. What is the reason that he must bring all of the offerings of a nazirite? It is that we have not found such an entity as half a naziriteship.
Reasonably, Rava points out that if his intention was to pay for half the offerings of a nazirite, he should have just said that. But when he says the offerings of half a nazirite, he has created a nonsensical formulation. There is no such thing as “half a nazirite.” Therefore, we might have expected his vow to be considered ineffective, but instead Rava views the vow as effective and requires him to bring the complete cost of the offerings.
But if everyone agrees that one who says “I will shave half a nazirite” instead of “I will half shave a nazirite” is obligated to bring the full cost of the sacrifices, why do the rabbis of the mishnah disagree with Rabbi Meir and maintain that the “shave half a nazirite” vower is only obligated to pay for half of the sacrifices?
Rabbi Meir holds that once he said, “It is incumbent upon me,” he is obligated in all of the naziriteship offerings, and when he later says, “half a naziriteship,” it is not in his power (to uproot his first obligation). And the rabbis hold that it is a vow with its inherent opening.
Rabbi Meir sees the vow as binding even before the final words are out of his mouth. Once he says, “it is incumbent upon me,” with the intention in mind, he is obligated to pay the full cost of those sacrifices. (Just as we saw back on Nazir 2 that a person can enact an nazirite vow even with a half sentence.) Ending his vow with the impotent formulation “half a naziriteship,” according to Rabbi Meir, does not diminish that obligation. In contrast, the rabbis hold that after he utters the first half of the vow, there is still wiggle room: He can end the sentence in a way that adjusts the meaning.
Which leaves open the question: How many people begin a vow and realize, mid-sentence, it’s not what they intended? And should we hold them to what they began to say, or to what they actually said? And how often could we avoid that fiasco if we were to think a little more before we speak?
Read all of Nazir 12 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 4th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.