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Nazir 21

Let my foot be a nazirite.

Yesterday we learned in a mishnah that if one person heard another person make a nazirite vow and then immediately declared “And I,” they too become a nazirite. Today we explore a different  situation from that mishnah that’s a little … weirder. 

(If one) said: “I am hereby a nazirite,” and another heard and said, “My mouth is like his mouth, and my hair is like his hair,” he is a nazirite.

Instead of saying “And I” in response to hearing the nazirite vow, here the mishnah imagines someone naming specific body parts of the speaker that he wants to emulate. In the context of the mishnah, it sounds like the man is declaring that he will eat and drink what the first speaker does (which presumably means no wine or grape products) and treat his hair the way the first speaker does (meaning no cutting it). In this case, is the second man’s statement effective in making him a nazirite? The mishnah says yes, even though being a nazirite is not just about eating, drinking and hair (corpse impurity, anyone?). 

But the Gemara initially takes this man’s statement in a different direction. 

My hand is a nazirite, and my foot is a nazirite, he has not said anythingMy head is a nazirite, my liver is a nazirite, he is a nazirite.

According to the Gemara, it’s not just a question of naming relevant body parts — after all, hands and feet are also involved in a nazirite vow in that they are not allowed to become ritually impure. So if the issue isn’t relevance to the specifics of being a nazirite, what is it?

This is the principle: An entity upon which life dependshe is a nazirite. 

According to the Gemara, an organ necessary for life is a stand-in for life as a whole. So any nazirite vow that names a vital organ makes one a nazir. But organs (and limbs) that are not necessary to sustain human life cannot work as a stand-in for the person as a whole.

So far so good. But how does that make sense with the initial mishnah? After all, we all know of people who have lost their hair but are still alive. Hair isn’t a vital organ, but according to the mishnah, saying “my hair will be like his hair” works to effect a nazirite vow. 

Rav Yehuda said that he said like this: Let my mouth be like his mouth from wine, and my hair be like his hair from cutting it.

The more obvious reading was the reading after all. But then why veer into a less obvious reading for a brief discussion? Two reasons. 

First, as a result of this digression we learn that when vowing, a vital organ can be a stand-in for the person as a whole. And second, just because one answer seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s necessarily correct or doesn’t need to be analyzed. Sometimes the original answer is the best answer, but we only know that if we put in the work to think critically about it.

Read all of Nazir 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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