Talmudic pages

Nazir 31

Better bulls.

A mishnah that begins on the bottom of yesterday’s daf considers a situation in which a person makes a mistake when consecrating an item for use in the Temple. According to Beit Shammai, the mistaken item is still consecrated and cannot be used for any other purpose. Beit Hillel says that it is not. On today’s daf, the mishnah goes on to include some examples to help us understand what we’re talking about. Here are two:

If one said: A black bull that will emerge from my house first is consecrated, and a white (bull) emerged. Beit Shammai say consecrated and Beit Hillel say not consecrated.

(If one said): A gold dinar that will come up first in my hand is consecrated and (a dinar) of silver came up. Beit Shammai say consecrated and Beit Hillel say not consecrated.

In these two examples, a person consecrates an item of a particular type, but it turns out that an item of a different type turns up instead. When this happens, Beit Hillel holds that the mismatch nullifies the consecration while Beit Shammai holds that the consecration is still valid. After a lengthy exploration of the potential rationale for each of these positions, the Gemara quotes Rav Hisda, who shares some information about bulls:

A black (bull) among white ones is deficient, and a white (patch) on a black bull is a deficiency. 

Ok, great. White bulls are better than black ones, according to Rav Hisda, and solid black bulls are better than ones with a white patch on their coats. While it would not be out of the ordinary for the Gemara to go on a tangent and bring Rav Hisda’s statement merely to share with us some additional information about bulls, it turns out that it raises a question about the mishnah and about the position of Beit Shammai. How so? 

The Gemara suggests that Beit Shammai allows for an erroneous consecration to be valid based upon the relative values of the items in question. When the actual item that appears is worth less than the specific item that was consecrated, Beit Shammai holds that it is valid since the person does not suffer a financial loss based upon their error. Based upon this logic, we would assume that if the reverse were true, and the erroneously consecrated item were worth more than the intended item, Beit Shammai would agree with Beit Hillel that the consecration is nullified. 

Beit Shammai’s position in the case of the coin makes this clear. If a person declares that a gold coin pulled from their pocket is consecrated and a silver coin winds up being pulled, Beit Shammai holds them to their commitment because the silver coin is worth less than the intended gold coin. But presumably if the person had declared silver and pulled gold, Beit Shammai would agree with Beit Hillel that the consecration is nullified. 

Back to Rav Hisda, who declared that white bulls are better than black bulls. This position puts Rav Hisda in direct conflict with the mishnah, which — if the aforementioned logic is correct — holds that black bulls are better because (according to Beit Shammai at least) white bulls are still consecrated even if a person intended to consecrate a black bull. Either Rav Hisda is wrong about bulls or Beit Shammai is wrong about erroneous consecration. 

How does the Gemara resolve the conflict? By suggesting a new way to understand the statement of Rav Hisda:

When I [Rav Hisda] said that a white one is superior, I was referring only to a Karmanian bull.

When Rav Hisda said that white bulls were superior to black ones, he meant only one type of white bulls: Karmanian bulls. All the rest are inferior. Or put another way, while we thought Rav Hisda was teaching us a rule, he was really teaching us an exception to it.

This reread brings Rav Hisda in line with the mishnah: Just as gold is superior to silver, so too are black bulls superior to white (just not Karmanian ones). But is this really what Rav Hisda meant? It’s hard to say, as Rav Hisda only has two things to say about bulls: that which was quoted above, and this statement, which appears elsewhere on our page:

And Rav Hisda said: A black (bull is good) for its hide; a red one for its meat; a white one for plowing.

As before, it seems that Rav Hisda’s statements are speaking about bulls in general. But that doesn’t sit well with the Gemara, which needs black bulls to be better than white ones in order to support its understanding of the mishnah. It may be that the plain meaning of Rav Hisda’s insights into animal husbandry are superior, but in the end they are reversed in order to support legal logic.

Read all of Nazir 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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