Talmud pages

Nazir 23

Real men cry.

Today’s daf is filled with rich rabbinic discussions of intention, assault, sin and atonement. In fact, there is so much to discuss that some of the smaller details can get lost in the mix. So today I want to focus on one small phrase that appears on today’s daf: haya bocheh, he would cry.

The context is a rabbinic discussion about what happens when someone intends to sin, but accidentally does not. The mishnah debates the case of a woman who takes a nazirite vow and then (intentionally) violates it by drinking wine or eating grapes but, unbeknownst to her, her husband has already annulled the vow. Because she is not actually a nazirite, she has not actually violated a vow. The mishnah presents two opinions: The first opinion states that she is not liable to be punished for her acts, and the second opinion, attributed to Rabbi Yehuda, agrees that she is not liable for violating a Torah prohibition, but states that even so, “she should incur lashes for rebelliousness” – because she thought she was rebelling against the law.

While both opinions in the mishnah insist that the woman is not liable for violating a (non-existent) nazirite vow, the Gemara cites a beraita which disagrees: 

The sages taught: “Her husband has nullified them, and the Lord will forgive her” (Numbers 30:13) — the verse is saying of a woman whose husband nullified her vow without her knowledge (and she then intentionally violated it) that she requires atonement and forgiveness.

While the verse in Numbers seems to say that God will forgive the woman (no action on her part necessary), the rabbis read it counterintuitively as stating that actually she needs to atone for her actions, even if the vow was annulled. That she needs God’s forgiveness is proof of her wrongdoing.

And here’s where we get those two little words that I started with: 

And when Rabbi Akiva would reach this verse he would cry: And if one who intended to pick up pork but picked up lamb requires atonement and forgiveness, one who intends to pick up pork and picked up, all the more so.

The word that the Gemara uses for cry, bocheh, does not refer to yelling or crying out. It’s the word for shedding tears, usually (though not always) in sadness. Rabbi Akiva isn’t angry or shouty, he’s profoundly sad, crying when he thinks about the weight of sin on those who sin intentionally. 

The phrase haya bocheh appears five times in the Babylonian Talmud, twice referring to Rabban Gamaliel and three times referring to Rabbi Akiva. In all of these cases, the rabbis are moved to tears at the thought of people sinning, intentionally or not. 

Many of us think of the study of Torah and rabbinic tradition as an intellectual exercise, and it certainly is! Who can forget the intellectual complexities of charting out the many women who disqualify a yevama from performing a levirate marriage? Or the various measurements of walls and ledges required to build an eruv

And the Talmud is also profoundly inspiring, with its meditations on the power of righteousness, its holistic understanding of the relationship between God and Israel and its profound commitment to building and sustaining Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. (And, in many cases, also frustrating when rabbinic values do not seem to align with our own.) 

But Rabbi Akiva here reminds us that the Talmud engages us not just intellectually or spiritually, but also emotionally. The Talmud can and should move us to tears — just as it did the men who made it.

Read all of Nazir 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 15th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 46

Betrothal with dates.

Gittin 84

You can have your divorce when pigs fly.

Gittin 89

The real spinsters.