Nazir 17

Nazir in a box in a cemetery.

We know from the Torah (Numbers 6) that a nazir is prohibited from becoming impure through contact with a dead body and as a result a nazir cannot enter a cemetery. If they do, they are punished with lashes for having violated a negative prohibition. 

The Talmud determines that a nazarite vow taken in a cemetery is binding and takes effect immediately. So what happens to the nazir who takes a vow while standing in a cemetery? While Reish Lakish argues that the new nazir should be given time to exit the cemetery, the Gemara sides with Rabbi Yohanan who does not allow for a grace period and rules that the person becomes liable as soon as their vow takes effect. This means the person who takes a nazirite vow in a cemetery is guaranteed to begin their period of naziriteship with a lashing.

But then Rava asks:

What is the halakhah if one took a vow to be a nazirite while standing in a cemetery: Is it necessary that his exit from the cemetery be delayed for a specific period of time for him to become liable to receive lashes or not?

This is puzzling for the Gemara as Rava appears to be asking about a matter that has already been settled — not only on the page, but in chronological time as well, since Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan pre-date him.

In order to make sense of Rava’s question, the Gemara suggests he is asking about a very specific scenario: 

A person who takes a nazirite vow after having entered a cemetery in a chest, box or cabinet; then another came and removed the top from above them.

By entering the cemetery in a wooden box, the person protects himself from corpse impurity. It is while he is protected in that box that he takes the nazirite vow. Then, along comes another person who opens the box, putting the now nazir at risk of coming into contact with the dead. 

The image is creepy: Who (living) goes to a cemetery in a box? (We’ll get back to this question in a minute.) The point seems not to be whether this is a realistic scenario, but rather to find any scenario that would allow Rava to ask a question that has already been answered: Namely, does the new nazirite have time to exit the cemetery or is he doomed to a lashing?

In The Boy on the Door on the Ox: An Unusual Spiritual Journey Through the Strangest of Jewish Texts, Martin Samual Cohen draws our attention to a distinct set of people that we meet in the Talmud — the unnamed, sometimes theoretical people in wild scenarios, like our nazir in a box in a cemetery. (For those who have been around since Tractate Shabbat, you might also recall the baby on the corpse. Or, from Yevamot, the women whose babies were mixed up and who were also married to one another’s sons.) We do not know anything about these characters, except their bizarre circumstances. And we rarely know why they end up in these situations. 

While the primary purpose of today’s strange scenario is to explain how Rava apparently asked a question that has already been answered, Cohen encourages us to take these characters and their situations seriously. So let’s imagine: Who is this nazir in a box in a cemetery? Did they suffer the loss of a parent? A spouse? A child? Did they plan to become a nazir to honor their dead? Did they decide to delay their vow until after the burial, but no longer, placing themselves in a box graveside to allow them to begin to serve as soon as the body had been buried? And why would a passerby open the box? Was it out of curiosity? Or cruelty, knowing the person within would incur punishment?

In this case, what seemed absurd can suddenly seem plausible. After all, truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction, and life can be just as bizarre as the fringe legal scenarios the rabbis invent to explore the finer points of law.

Read all of Nazir 17 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 9th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 73

How to avoid being pelted with etrogs.

Kiddushin 10

Betrothal interruptus.