As we have learned, in addition to refraining from cutting one’s hair, shaving and consuming grape projects, a nazir may not come in contact with a dead body. On today’s daf, we encounter a curious mishnah that seems antithetical to this stricture, since it involves a person who declares that he is a nazir while standing in a cemetery.
One who took a vow of naziriteship while in a cemetery, even if he was there for 30 days, (those days) do not count for his tally. And he does not bring offerings of impurity. If he left (the cemetery) and entered again, (those days) do count for his tally, and he does bring the offerings of impurity.
Our mishnah imagines two scenarios: one in which the new nazir stays in the cemetery for 30 days (the standard default period of naziriteship), and another in which the new nazir leaves and then reenters the cemetery. Leaving aside for a moment the mishnah’s concern with which offerings the nazir must bring to make up for having come near to a corpse, what in the world is going on here? Why would a person who presumably knows that corpse impurity is inconsistent with naziriteship make such a vow while surrounded by dead bodies?
One possibility is that this is a border case brought by the Gemara to push the boundaries of the discussion and sharpen some principle of law — not because this situation might actually occur in the real world. But I think something else might be going on here.
In the biblical passage concerning the nazirite, we are told that nazirites aim to “to set themselves apart for Adonai.” (Numbers 6:2) Why would a person feel so moved to set themselves apart? A midrash brought by the Ein Yaakov in the 16th century clarifies: “Whenever people lament their evil deeds, they become nazirites.”
Spending time in a cemetery, whether for a funeral or to visit a loved one’s grave, has a way of making a person confront their own mortality — and possibly their past actions. It’s not too difficult to imagine such a person being so moved that, in the words of the Ein Yaakov, they “lament their evil deeds” and then, without thinking it through, suddenly declare themselves to be a nazir. Now what? Is this a real declaration of naziriteship? And if it is, has their naziriteship been immediately invalidated by corpse impurity?
In the Gemara’s discussion of this mishnah, we learn that, unsurprisingly, two sages disagree about whether the declaration is valid at all:
It was stated with regard to one who vowed to be a nazirite in a cemetery: Rabbi Yohanan said naziriteship takes effect for him, and Reish Lakish said naziriteship does not take effect for him.
Rabbi Yohanan, who said naziriteship takes effect for him, holds that it is pending, so when it is found (that he is in a state of) ritual purity it takes effect. And Reish Lakish said that naziriteship does not take effect for him. If he again said (after leaving the cemetery that he is a nazirite), it takes effect for him. But if not, he is not a nazirite.
According to Rabbi Yohanan, a nazirite vow made in a cemetery is binding, but it does not take effect until the vower enters a state of ritual purity — that is, until they have left the cemetery and purified themselves. Reish Lakish disagrees, saying that this is not a real declaration at all. It’s only binding if the person leaves the cemetery and then repeats his intention to become a nazir.
Sometimes in the heat of the moment (or the chill of the cemetery), we say things we do not mean. Reish Lakish seems to think a nazirite vow taken in a cemetery falls into this category. Rabbi Yohanan disagrees. Who wins?
The discussion will carry on well into tomorrow’s daf. But the Gemara will ultimately side with Rabbi Yohanan, a position Maimonides will later endorse in the Mishneh Torah: A nazirite vow made in a cemetery is binding, but it only takes effect once the person is ritually pure. Even in a case where a nazirite vow can’t be effectuated immediately, it is nonetheless binding — and the vower has to live with the consequences.
Read all of Nazir 16 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 8th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.