Nazir 34

Schrodinger’s Koy.

Of all his accomplishments, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger is probably best known for his feline-inspired quantum physics thought experiment. Imagine a cat locked in a chamber with a bit of radioactive material. There is a 50/50 chance that one atom of the material will decay in the course of an hour, in which case the cat will die. But until the chamber is opened, the cat remains unobserved and we don’t know whether it is alive or dead. Under the most common interpretation of this scenario, the cat — and the state of the radioactive material — are, for all intents and purposes, both alive/undecayed and dead/undecayed in superposition until opening the chamber reveals the truth of their state.  

Today, we meet the talmudic equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat: the koy.

What’s a koy? It’s a kosher animal (the exact species is lost to us) whose status as domesticated or undomesticated is variable. On today’s daf, the mishnah lays out nine statements a person could make upon seeing a koy:

1. I am hereby a nazirite if this is a non-domesticated animal; 

2. I am hereby a nazirite if this is not a non-domesticated animal; 

3. I am hereby a nazirite if this is a domesticated animal; 

4. I am hereby a nazirite if this is not a domesticated animal. 

5. I am hereby a nazirite if this is a non-domesticated animal and a domesticated animal;

6. I am hereby a nazirite if this is neither a non-domesticated animal nor a domesticated animal. 

7. I am hereby a nazirite if one of you is a nazirite; 

8. I am hereby a nazirite if not one of you is a nazirite; and

9. I am hereby a nazirite if all of you are nazirites. 

Every single one of these seemingly contradictory statements, the mishnah concludes, makes the speaker a nazirite. Why? Because, not entirely unlike Schrodinger’s cat, the koy is simultaneously domesticated and non-domesticated, domesticated/non-domesticated and not-domesticated/not-non-domesticated. And because the koy’s status has not yet been determined, it reflects all its possible statuses simultaneously. 

But are we really talking about a case where nine separate people see a koy and each makes one of the statements described above? According to the Gemara, there’s at least one source that indicates that is exactly the case here. 

It is taught in one beraita (that this case involves a total of) nine nazirites, and it is taught in the other beraita, nine sets of naziriteship. Granted, one can understand the beraita that says that there are nine nazirites, for example, if there were many people who associated their naziriteship with the status of this koy.

Yes, the Gemara affirms, if each statement was uttered by a separate individual, each person would have taken a nazirite vow. But there’s also a version of this teaching that suggests not nine nazirites, but nine naziriteships — all falling on one person. How could that be the case? The first six statements could plausibly have been said by one person, but what about the final three? From the use of the word “you,” it seems clear that this speaker isn’t one of the initial six. So how can it be that one person assumes nine naziriteships?

Rav Sheshet said: Where nine people issued the statements mentioned in the mishnah, and someone said: I am hereby a nazirite and the naziriteship of all of them are upon me. 

So according to Rav Sheshet, it is possible in a case where nine separate people made the statements outlined in the mishnah and then one of those nine endorses the vows of the others and adds their own personal vow. In that case, one person could be obligated in nine naziriteships. 

While we’re on the subject of the koy’s indeterminate status — that it is domesticated,  non-domesticated, both and/or neither, at the same time — this is a framing that can be helpful in thinking about Jewish identity. Are Jews a religious group? Ethnic group? Race? Nation? People? Culture? Civilization? Depending on time, geography and the individual, the answer to each of these questions could be yes, no, both yes and no, and neither. None of these categories have a permanent and universal claim. 

So let’s hear it for the koy. It’s a great reminder that matters as diverse as Jewish identity and quantum mechanics are complex and messy. Figuring out how everything fits together allows us to embrace the inherent contradictions of the world — and who we are.

Read all of Nazir 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 26th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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