Over 2,000 British and American soldiers died in the Battle of New Orleans. The battle is famous not only because it was the last major battle of the War of 1812, but also because it took place on January 15, 1815 — two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the war. But Ghent is in Belgium, and New Orleans is, well, not, and news of the end of the war had not reached New Orleans when the fighting began there.
In the days before cell phones and emails, it could be hard to get timely information about global events. And a lack of information could sometimes lead to disastrous consequences.
We see a less fatal version of this problem in the mishnah on today’s daf. The year was 70 CE. At some point in the past, a number of Jews living in Babylonia had decided to take nazirite vows. Now at the conclusion of their vows, they travel together to Jerusalem to offer the required sacrifices, except, unbeknownst to them, the Temple has been destroyed! Arriving in Jerusalem with the animals or money already set aside, these nazirites have no idea what to do. Must they now be nazirites forever?
Nahum the Mede said to them: If you had known that the Temple would be destroyed, would you have taken a vow of naziriteship?
They said to him: No.
And Nahum the Mede dissolved the vow for them.
According to rabbinic literature, Nahum the Mede was a first-generation rabbinic judge. Though he was called “the Mede,” he actually lived in Jerusalem, up close and personal to the destruction of the Temple. When these Babylonian nazirites turn to him unsure what to do, he releases them from their vows because they took the vows without knowing the Temple would be destroyed.
But we know that the rabbis don’t agree with Nahum the Mede because the Talmud introduces the whole story by saying “and this is the mistake that Nahum the Mede made.” And so the story doesn’t end with Nahum the Mede’s ruling.
And when the matter came before the rabbis, they said: Whoever took a vow of naziriteship before the Temple was destroyed is a nazirite. After the Temple was destroyed, he is not a nazirite.
The rabbis decide that someone who took a nazirite vow while the Temple is standing made a valid vow that cannot be nullified now simply because circumstances have changed. But someone who took a vow thinking the Temple was standing and later found out that it hadn’t been made a vow based on an erroneous assumption, and such a vow can be nullified. So whether these particular vows can be dissolved depends on exactly when they were made. And if they can’t be dissolved, then these Babylonian Jews will have not only just discovered that the Temple has been destroyed, but on account of their standing vows of naziriteship, will be unable to mourn at the graves of the dead (due to their inability to contract corpse impurity) and drink wine to forget (because a nazir can’t drink wine.)
The Talmud records several rabbis proposing different ways to annul these Jews’ vows, but all are eventually rejected. While we often take today’s instantaneous communication and newsgathering for granted, today’s daf reminds us of their important political, military and yes, even religious implications.
Read all of Nazir 32 on Sefaria.