Nazir 37

Just a taste.

As we know, the nazir is forbidden from consuming grape products. The mishnah on which today’s conversation is based first attempts to quantify the minimum amount of grape products that, if consumed by the nazir, would trigger punishment. Next, it considers mixtures, quoting Rabbi Akiva who notes that even if the nazir only ate bread on which a few drops of wine had fallen, that trace amount of wine is a violation of his naziriteship.

Normally, a trace amount of a forbidden substance, when accidentally consumed, is not a violation. So why is there an exception for the nazir and the grape juice? Rabbi Akiva cites the specific language of Numbers 6:3 which prohibits a nazir from drinking “anything in which grapes have been steeped.” 

Today’s daf picks up the question of whether trace amounts of wine on their own or in combination with other foods would constitute a violation. Now the scenario is not bread on which a few drops of grape juice have landed, but cooking permitted food in a vessel that contains a grape flavor (because grape products were previously cooked in it). Is consuming that food a violation of naziriteship? 

Rav Aha, son of Rav Avya, said to Rav Ashi: According to Rabbi Akiva, who establishes the verse “neither shall he drink anything soaked” (Numbers 6:3) as referring to the principle that the permitted combines with the forbidden, from where does he learn that flavor is like the substance itself?

He derives this principle from the prohibition of meat cooked in milk. Is it not the case that it is merely the taste (of milk absorbed in the meat), and yet the mixture is prohibited? Here too it is no different.

The rabbis compare the problem of cooking food in a grape-flavored pot to a more familiar set of laws, those of kashrut. Famously, Exodus 23:19, which states “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” serves as the foundation for the law prohibiting the mixing of dairy products and meat products. This prohibition includes not cooking meat stew in a pot that has absorbed the flavors of milk. Similarly, Rav Aha understands Rabbi Akiva to be teaching that even the taste of grapes — as imparted by a vessel previously used to cook them — renders an entire dish prohibited to the nazir. 

And how about consuming something that merely came into contact with grapes? Is that also a problem? 

We do not derive other prohibitions from meat cooked in milk, as that prohibition is a novelty. Rather, the novelty is that if one soaks meat in milk all day, it is permitted, whereas if one cooked meat in milk, the mixture is forbidden.

In other words, the rabbis say, we do not learn anything about Jewish law in general from unique cases, such as cooking meat in milk. For them, the novelty is not the fact that they are mixed together that renders meat and milk forbidden, but the act of cooking. (As an aside, the rabbis are saying that soaking meat in milk all day is not biblically prohibited, as the Torah verse specifies that the prohibition is “cooking” a kid in its mother’s milk. It is prohibited by the rabbis, who derive a wide spectrum of kosher laws from that one verse.)

On what, then, does Rabbi Akiva rely to make his ruling? The Gemara tries again with another example about cooking:

Rabbi Akiva derives the principle from the vessels of gentiles that require purging. As the Merciful One states, “Everything that passes through the fire, you shall make it pass through the fire.” (Numbers 31:23)

That is to say that the vessels of gentiles that require purging are forbidden (until purged). Isn’t mere taste absorbed (i.e. there is no actual forbidden food left in the vessels)? And these vessels are forbidden (until purged). Here, too, it is no different.

Numbers chapter 31 describes what must be done with the spoils of war with the Midianites. The Torah rules that Midianite vessels can’t be used until they’re purified by passing them through a flame so that the taste of forbidden food is completely expunged (another ruling that has practical application today in the way in which certain utensils can be made kosher). Does this work to shore up the view of Rabbi Akiva? Nope, says the Gemara:

There the halakhah of purging vessels of gentiles is also a novelty. As with regard to all dietary laws in the Torah, anything that gives flavor that renders the food tainted, is permitted. 

Getting closer to the bottom of the matter, the Gemara cites a general principle: If the taste added by the forbidden food does not enhance the permitted food, it does not render that food forbidden. But if it does — as in our case with the taste of grapes — the nazir is prohibited from consuming it. And so, it really is about taste.

Read all of Nazir 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 1st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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