My high school class had 68 students, eleven of whom were named David. It was ridiculous. Even using last initials didn’t really help. David H? Yes, but which David H? Today, we’ll take a look at another situation where uncertainty brings with it the potential for consequences more serious than just who has to stay after class.
The mishnah that kicks us off is rooted in the biblical story of Samson. This figure from the Book of Judges might be the most famous nazir of all time, his incredible strength attributed to his refusal to ever cut his hair or drink wine. (As you might recall, he loses his superhuman powers when his wife Delilah betrays him to the Philistines and shears his tresses, effectively breaking his vow.) The mishnah teaches:
If one said, “I am hereby like Samson, like the son of Manoah, like the husband of Delilah, like the one who tore off the doors of Gaza, like the one whose eyes were gouged out by the Philistines,” — he is a nazirite like Samson.
Continuing its discussion of what particular declarations constitute vows of naziriteship, the mishnah on today’s daf states that if someone declares they are like the biblical Samson, they become a Samsonesque nazir, a particular type of nazir we’ll learn more about in the next mishnah. But the full text here is quite a long and descriptive statement. And the Gemara naturally wants to know why it’s necessary.
These specifications are necessary because if one said only: “I am hereby like Samson,” I would say another Samson. It therefore teaches us: Like the son of Manoah.
And if the tanna had taught: “Like the son of Manoah,” I would say there is some other person who is called that. Therefore it teaches us that he adds: “Like the husband of Delilah.” Or: “Like the one whose eyes were gouged out by the Philistines.”.
The Gemara explains that all the mishnah’s descriptors are necessary to be sure the speaker is referring to the particular Samson in the Bible. And while the Sefaria translation uses the word “or” to imply that even one of these phrases is adequate to constitute a vow, the Hebrew text could be translated differently, to suggest that all the parts of the statement are necessary.
Think that’s a bit over the top? So did many of the later commentators. The Rid (one of the Tosafot), among others, thought this was excessive and that a shorter statement would suffice. The Jerusalem Talmud and the Tosefta are even more extreme, concluding that substitute names for Samson like Shimshok, Shimshor, and Shimshotz are binding. It’s quite a long ways from requiring five separate descriptors of Samson to saying that even a casual nickname suffices. In any event, the post-talmudic consensus as codified in the Mishneh Torah is that this whole elaborate paragraph isn’t necessary, which likely influenced how the Gemara’s text made it into English as disjunctive rather than conjunctive.
So if that’s the case, and you don’t actually need the whole litany set out in the mishnah to complete the vow, what if a person really did mean a different Samson? Citing the Radbaz, Rabbi Moshe Isserles submits that if a person vows that they will be like Samson and says nothing more, the presumption is they’re talking about the biblical Samson, which seems reasonable. How many other nazirs named Samson are they likely familiar with? But if the speaker specified a different Samson who presumably fits the description — or perhaps, if it’s clear from the context they’re talking about someone else — then they aren’t held to the same standards as the Samson we all know and love.
Samson might not be as common a name as David was in my high school. Nevertheless, a degree of specificity helps us to be sure of expectations. And when the burdens are as onerous as naziriteship, you really want to be certain of what you’re getting into — and in whose steps you’re following.
Read all of Nazir 4 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 27th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.