Nazir 14

What are you doing here, Moses?

By this point in our Daf Yomi journey, we know that the flow of talmudic discussion often has a logic all its own. Sometimes we’ll be in the midst of discussing one topic when something completely unrelated pops up, leaving us unsure how we even got there. Today’s daf largely sticks to the subject, exploring the length and overlap of periods of naziriteship. But there’s one stray remark that might leave you thinking, “Huh?”

In the context of discussing how long a nazirite vow lasts, the Talmud poses the following question:

If one said: I am hereby a nazirite like Samson after 20 days, and from now I am hereby a nazirite without specification, what is the halakhah

Since here it is not possible to request (dissolution of the vow of naziriteship like Samson), does it take effect or not? 

And if one said: I am hereby like Moses on the seventh of Adar, what is the halakhah?

In the first part of the passage, the Gemara is considering what happens if one makes two vows simultaneously — the first a vow to be a nazirite like Samson that will kick in 20 days from now, and a separate standard 30-day nazirite vow that takes effect immediately. The Gemara wants to know how, if at all, these two vows impact one another. But before it can start to address that question, we get another question entirely about Moses. Why are we bringing up Moses in the context of a discussion of being a nazir?

To begin with, the seventh of Adar is the date of Moses’ death, a date calculated by counting backwards from when the Israelites crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua. Today, there are prayers and rituals associated with this day. It’s also the date on which the State of Israel honors soldiers whose burial place is unknown.  

Coincidentally, the seventh of Adar is also said to be the date of Moses’ birth. The Tosefta highlights Moses’ reference to being 120 years old “today” in his valedictory speech in Deuteronomy and reasons that this indicates an exact match between the date of his death and birth.

Back to our nazir puzzle. Rashi holds that Moses never drank alcohol again after dying because, well, he was dead. So vowing to be “like Moses on the seventh of Adar” can be understood as a permanent vow of naziriteship. Alternatively, the Tosafot suggest that the intense communal sadness around Moses’ death prompted many to take vows of naziriteship. But the seventh of Adar could also be a reference to the birth of Moses, which was a day of celebration and has no connection to abstaining from wine — and thus, from naziriteship — at all. If so, why bring it up now?

Many commentators are deeply confused by this. There’s no clear consensus about what exactly this passage is doing here and what it means. In fact, the discussions about Moses and the seventh of Adar among later commentators are surprisingly balanced and calm, as if the rabbis are aware of their own befuddlement and thus offer their perspectives with humility.

As we contemplate this unresolved question, let’s take a moment to consider how strange it is that we even have to try to figure this out. Moses is the most important prophet and one of the most significant figures in all of Judaism. We know the exact day when the twelve spies returned from Canaan and other less significant events, so isn’t it a bit odd we aren’t sure when Moses was born and died? Is this akin to leaving Moses out of the Passover haggadah so as not to overly elevate him? 

In short, it’s a mystery why Moses is mentioned on today’s daf — but that’s not the only mystery we’re confronted with here. 

Read all of Nazir 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 6th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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