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Nazir 30

A Nazirite in her father's stead.

On today’s mishnah, we learn: 

A man can shave by using his father’s naziriteship, but a woman cannot shave by using her father’s naziriteship. How so? One whose father was a nazirite and separated unallocated money for his naziriteship and died and the son said, “I am hereby a nazirite on the condition that I will shave by means of the money that my father set aside.”

Recall that the rabbis use “shave” as shorthand for the full set of rituals performed on completion of a term of naziriteship. This means not only shaving one’s hair, but bringing a burnt offering, a sin offering, a peace offering and various cakes and wafers. So today’s mishnah refers to a case where a nazirite sets aside money to purchase the necessary sacrifices, but dies before he can purchase the sacrifices or even indicate which coins are meant for which animal. 

As we have seen, the normal course of action is to throw the dead man’s sanctified but unallocated coins into the Dead Sea, where no one can accidentally benefit from them. But according to this mishnah, the dead man’s son can take an oath to become a nazirite and use those same sanctified coins to bring the sacrifices to conclude his own term of naziriteship. 

But a daughter cannot do this. Since daughters can become nazirites just as sons can, this doesn’t make logical sense. Indeed, the Gemara asks:

What is the reason (for this difference between a son and a daughter)? Rabbi Yohanan said: It is a halakhah with regard to a nazirite.

What’s the reason daughters can’t use those coins as sons can? According to Rabbi Yohanan, it’s because God told us so. (When Rabbi Yohanan states that it is a halakhah with regard to a nazirite, he doesn’t mean that it is written in the Torah — it’s not — but that it is understood to be a halakhah transmitted to Moses at Sinai as part of the Oral Torah.) In other words, there’s no logical reason for this law, it’s simply God’s will.

Or maybe there is a logical reason? Here’s the Gemara’s next comment:

It is obvious! What is the purpose of stating this? Is Rabbi Yohanan coming to say that a son inherits from his father whereas a daughter does not? No, this halakhah is necessary in a case when he has only a daughter. Lest you say that we learned this halakhah from the laws of heirs, the mishnah therefore teaches us this halakhah.

Actually, says the Gemara, it’s obvious that daughters cannot shave with their deceased fathers’ unallocated consecrated coins. Why? According to Torah law, only sons inherit their father’s property on his death. The coins, therefore, don’t belong to her. We don’t need a halakhah from Moses to teach us that! 

So what is the mishnah teaching us? It must actually be speaking about a special case, in which a man has a daughter and no sons. In that case, she does inherit those consecrated coins. We might logically suppose, therefore, that she can take a vow of naziriteship and shave by means of her father’s coins. The mishnah comes to tell us otherwise: Even women with no brothers cannot use their deceased nazirite fathers’ sanctified coins to bring their own sacrifices to conclude a term of naziriteship.

In this brief sugya, the Gemara presents two different ideas of how law is made. There are laws logically inferred from other laws: Since a daughter doesn’t inherit, she can’t shave by means of her deceased nazirite father’s coins. And there are laws that are stated by God and need no logical explanation: Even when a daughter does inherit those coins, she still can’t use them to bring sacrifices at the conclusion of her naziriteship. 

Evoking the rule that daughters can inherit in the absence of sons, this sugya brings to mind a third and rather exceptional way law is made. In one of my favorite passages in the Book of Numbers, a man named Zelophehad dies, leaving behind five daughters and no sons. According to the law of the Israelites at that time, only sons could inherit. But these daughters petitioned Moses, who in turn petitioned God, who was persuaded to change the law. From then on, when there were no sons to inherit a man’s property, it passed to his daughters. It is exceptional, but it is undeniable — people who were dissatisfied convinced God to change divine law. (Numbers 27) 

Halakhah, Jewish law, is considered by the sages to come from God and is therefore sacred and inviolable. It also evolves — and our understanding of it evolves — in a variety of ways. These two ideas are not contradictory. In fact, I would suggest, it is the flexibility built into the halakhic system, and the allowance for various means of reinterpreting and even readjusting, that allows it to persist and makes possible the Jewish people’s millennia-long conversation with God.

See you tomorrow!

Read all of Nazir 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 22nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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