Nazir 26

How to destroy an idol.

On today’s daf, we encounter a beraita that brings the following case:

A person was obligated to bring a sin-offering and they also said, “It is incumbent upon me to bring a burnt offering,” and they separated money and said, “These (coins) are hereby for my obligatory offering”: If they wish to (purchase and) offer a sin-offering (with these funds), they may not. If they wish to purchase (and offer) a burnt offering, they may not. If they die and have unallocated funds, the money should be cast into the Dead Sea.

Having committed a sin, a person is obligated to bring an offering. At the same time, they take on an obligation to bring a second sacrifice as a gift. When setting aside funds to purchase their sacrifices, however, they make a general declaration, dedicating funds for their “sacrificial obligation,” but not specifically identifying whether the funds are meant for one or the other, or both. As we have seen many times, their lack of specificity can leave them stuck.

Since the sin-offering is required and the burnt offering is voluntary, they fall into different categories. Money set aside for one cannot be used for the other. If the person has set aside enough money for both, they have no problem, they can use it to buy two animals and make good on their sacrificial obligations. If, however, they have enough to purchase only one animal, their non-specific declaration leaves them stuck. They cannot purchase a sin-offering, because their declaration could indicate that it was meant for the burnt offering, and vice versa. 

While the person is alive, they can get unstuck by dedicating additional funds and then buying both sacrifices with the pool of money. But if they die, the status of the money remains eternally unclear and, like the case on Nazir 24, the coins are cast into the Dead Sea.

As it turns out, there are other things the rabbis think should be cast into the Dead Sea. As Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3 teaches:

One who finds vessels with a figure of the sun, a figure of the moon or a figure of a dragon, he must take them and cast them into the Dead Sea. 

Here, instead of dealing with items that have been dedicated to God, we are dealing with items that were created — as the images on them attest — for the purpose of idol worship. It’s interesting to note that the fate of these objects, dedicated to an unholy purpose, from the rabbinic perspective, is exactly the same as that of sacred objects which can no longer fulfill their intended purpose. They are both equally prohibited from future use.

On our daf, the rationale for casting money into the Dead Sea is implied (or, at least the Talmud assumes that we already are aware of it), but in the mishnah in Avodah Zarah, the text is more explicit. There, Rabbi Yosei brings a minority opinion suggesting an alternative means of disposal for idolatrous vessels:

When one encounters an idol, they should grind the idol and throw the dust to the wind or cast it into the sea. 

In response, the rabbis said to him: 

What is the good of that (grinding)? That also gives a Jew benefit from the idol, as it becomes fertilizer for his crops, and deriving any kind of benefit is prohibited, as it is stated: And nothing of the proscribed items shall cleave to your hand. (Deuteronomy 13:18)

When the prohibition is absolute, the rabbis want to ensure that the prohibited material is destroyed in such a way that there is no way it will return to be of benefit in the future, not even in the form of dust that could eventually fertilize one’s fields. As the notion that a significant tourist and beauty industry would emerge millennia later was likely unimaginable to them, the Dead Sea, with its extremely brackish and unusable waters, was the ideal location to deposit that which was never to be used again.

While we do not have historical evidence about whether or not the Dead Sea was ever used as a kind of black hole for disposing of dangerous objects, I wonder if there is a modern halakhic case to be made that we should avoid using Dead Sea cosmetics in case they contain trace materials, both sacred and profane, that remain forbidden. I couldn’t find any trace of such a discussion in the halakhic literature — if you now share the question, you may want to check with your local halakhic authority for advice.

Read all of Nazir 26 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 18th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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