We learned in the opening mishnah of Tractate Nazir that one who says, “I am hereby like this” becomes a nazirite based upon that declaration. The Gemara quite naturally is troubled by this. That phrase is quite generic and could mean nearly anything. Certainly on its own, it doesn’t imply that the speaker intended to be a nazirite. So the Gemara qualifies it as follows:
Though this is indeed a case where he is holding his hair at the time, since he did not say, “I am hereby like this,” how can this statement constitute an acceptance of naziriteship?
Shmuel said: It is a case where a nazirite was passing before him when he made his statement.
First, the Gemara reads a particular detail into the case to help clarify the person’s intention: They are holding on to their hair when they make their declaration. Nazirites, as we know, are forbidden to cut their hair, so this may hint that the person making the declaration has naziriteship on the brain. Yet this too is insufficient to constitute a declaration of actual naziriteship. So Shmuel adds a more pertinent detail: A nazirite is passing by at the time. This does the trick. The proximity of an actual nazirite at the time of the declaration clarifies that the speaker who intends to be like “this” is referring to a nazirite.
Moving on, the Gemara addresses a case where the link between the words and the intention is even less clear. The mishnah stated Rabbi Meir’s opinion that if one made a general vow with respect to birds, he is a nazirite. The majority of the rabbis disagree. Why would Rabbi Meir think that a generic vow concerning birds is sufficient for a nazirite vow to take effect?
Reish Lakish said: He accepted upon himself (an obligation with regard to the) birds that are juxtaposed to hair, as it is written: Until his hair was grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws. (Daniel 4:30)
Reish Lakish explains that Rabbi Meir’s opinion is rooted in a verse from Daniel. In its original context, the verse is talking about Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the Babylonian empire, who falls out of favor with God. As a result, his hair grew out like eagles’ feathers and his nails became like bird claws. According to Reish Lakish, Rabbi Meir believes that the juxtaposition of long hair and birds in the verse compels one who makes reference to birds in a vow to become a nazirite.
If Reish Lakish’s explanation seems like a stretch to you, you’re in good company. Rabbi Yohanan thought so too. He states:
Rather, this is the reason of Rabbi Meir: We are concerned that perhaps he accepted upon himself the birds of an impure nazirite.
According to Rabbi Yohanan, everyone agrees that we do not hold people accountable for the words of vows that happen to be juxtaposed to other words in a given verse. Rather, a more plausible reason for Rabbi Meir’s position is that the sacrifice made to conclude a period of naziriteship includes birds. Rabbi Meir therefore believes that saying one has an obligation with birds is tantamount to indicating someone intends to become a nazirite and eventually end that commitment by sacrificing birds.
In response to the first case, the Gemara limits the scope to cases where it is clear the person is referring to a nazirite. But in the second case, the Gemara seeks to justify the position that someone who makes a generic vow pertaining to birds has taken a vow of naziriteship. Why the difference? Because in the second case, Rabbi Meir’s opinion is a minority one and therefore isn’t followed. The debate about his reasoning is merely academic.
You might be tempted to argue that such a conversation is “for the birds.” But doing so misses an important tenet of the talmudic endeavor — all conversations that seek to better understand teachings that have been passed down through the generations are valuable, whether they have practical applications or not.
Read all of Nazir 3 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 26th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.