Nazir 29

Vows for kids.

We learned from a mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s page that a father can vow that his minor son will become a nazirite. If the son does not wish to do so, he can prevent the vow from taking effect by objecting verbally or by shaving his head. A relative can also register an objection on his behalf or be the one to shave the boy’s head and, if so, the vow will also not take effect. Otherwise, the boy becomes a nazirite based on his father’s vow.

As part of a longer conversation about the source of this rule, the Talmud brings beraita that poses this question:

Until when can a father vow that his son should be a nazirite? It is until the son develops two pubic hairs — this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Rabbi Yosei son of Rabbi Yehuda says it is until he reaches the age of vows.

This is one of many places where the Talmud explores when a child begins to be treated as an adult according to Jewish law. In the case of nazirite vows, two possibilities are considered: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi suggests legal independence arrives with physical maturity, and Rabbi Yosei son of Rabbi Yehuda says it is based on the individual’s intellectual maturity.

In the ensuing discussion, the Gemara cites an anecdote found in a different beraita:

An incident occurred involving Rabbi Hanina in which his father vowed that he should be a nazirite when he was a minor, and they brought him before Rabban Gamliel, and Rabban Gamliel examined him to discern if he had already developed two pubic hairs or if he had not developed. Rabbi Yosei says that Rabban Gamliel examined him to discern whether he had reached the age of vows or not.

As the beraita tells it, when Rabbi Hanina was a boy close to adulthood, his father vowed that he would become a nazirite. There was some question about whether the vow was effective for a child that age, so the question was brought to Rabban Gamliel. (This would have predated the disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Yosei by about a hundred years.) But before the examination began, Hanina the boy speaks up and says:

My teacher, do not go to the trouble of examining me, since if I am a minor I shall be a nazirite due to my father’s vow, and if I am an adult, I shall be a nazirite due to my own vow. 

In other words, Hanina tells Rabban Gamliel that the exam is unnecessary, as he will become a nazirite either way. If not through his father’s vow, through his own volition. Rabban Gamliel is impressed by what he hears and responds accordingly:

Rabban Gamliel arose and kissed the child on his head. He said: I am certain of this child that he will eventually become an authority of halakhah for the Jewish people. They said: In fact, it was only a few years later that the child issued rulings for the Jewish people.

At the beginning of the story, the beraita makes space for the opinions of both Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Yosei, and the Gemara concludes that it can be read to support either opinion. Yet, I can’t help but think that the tale is actually a nod to Rabbi Yosei’s view that intellectual development is what really counts. Whether physically an adult or not, the young Haninah shows his passion and maturity in a number of ways: his willingness to become a nazir, his courage and confidence to speak up before Rabban Gamiliel and his understanding of the rules governing vows. It’s these qualities, as opposed to the physical signs of adulthood, that earn him the praise of Rabban Gamliel and a future seat at the rabbinic table.

Read all of Nazir 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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