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Nazir 41

Love is greater than fear.

On yesterday’s daf, we learned from a mishnah that three types of people are required to shave: nazirites (upon completing their term), Levites (upon initiation) and people with tzara’at (who shave after their affliction). The mishnah also stated explicitly that these three must shave using a razor. The Gemara notes that in the case of the nazir and the Levite, it is obvious that they must shave using a razor and not some other implement: In both cases, the Torah says “razor” (Numbers 6:5 and Numbers 7:8, respectively). But how, asks the Gemara, does the tanna of the mishnah know that the person recovering from tzara’at must shave their hair with a razor, and not some other implement? The Torah does not explicitly say “razor” in that instance.

This turns out to be a tricky question. It occupied the second half of yesterday’s daf and the first chunk of today’s. There turn out to be two right answers, but the one we’re going to focus on today is this: The person with tzara’at must use a razor to shave because of what the Torah says about destroying one’s beard. Let’s explain:

Leviticus 14:9 states of the person who is recovering from tzara’at: “On the seventh day all hair shall be shaved off of his head, and his beard…”  The rabbis draw an analogy to the general prohibition, incumbent on all Israelite men, in Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.” The key word in this second verse is “destroy” — tashchit. Because the verse speaks about destroying (and not cutting) the beard, the rabbis understood from this that the prohibition is on cutting the hair down to the follicle. Trimming with scissors? Fine. Shaving with a razor — that’s the problem. This is why many Jewish men have beards, but keep them trimmed.

The rabbis understand the word “beard” in the verse about the person recovering from tzara’at to be signaling to the word “beard” in this verse forbidding Israelite men from destroying their facial hair. It is through this signaling that they understand that the person purifying themselves after affliction with tzara’at must in fact shave with a razor.

But, asks the Gemara, what happens if a nazirite, who has taken a vow not to shave, is required to do so in order to purify himself from tzara’at? In that case, can we permit him to use some other shaving implement — like a plane or tweezers — so that he does not violate his nazirite vow? The answer to this is no, and Resh Lakish reminds us of a general principle:

Any place where you find a positive mitzvah and a prohibition (that clash with one another), if you can find some way to fulfill both, that is preferable. If that is not possible, the positive mitzvah will come and override the prohibition.

According to Resh Lakish, he should shave — with a razor — because the positive commandment that the person recovering from tzara’at should shave overrides the prohibition on the nazir against shaving. (Another example of this principle that the positive commandment overrides the negative is one Daf Yomi reader have studied at length: levirate marriage. A man is not ordinarily permitted to marry his brother’s wife, but in the case of levirate marriage his fulfillment of the commandment to raise up seed for his brother takes precedence.)

The sugya continues down our page, where it gives Rabbi Eliezer’s very different derivation for the mishnah’s rule that a person recovering from tzara’at must shave with a razor. But we’re going to stop here today with Resh Lakish’s principle, because it’s a classic yet the rabbis never explain why a positive commandment overrides a negative one. That job is left to the commentators, and Nahmanides gives a beautiful explanation in his comment on Exodus 20:8, the verse that tells us to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” We’ll let him have the last word:

“The attribute of ‘remembering’ is alluded to in a positive commandment and issues forth from the attribute of love to that of mercy, for he who does his master’s command is beloved of him and his master shows him mercy. But the attribute of ‘observing’ is alluded to in a negative commandment, which goes to the attribute of justice and issues forth from that of fear, for he who guards himself from doing anything which does not please his master does so out of fear for him. It is for this reason that a positive commandment is greater than a negative commandment … love is greater than fear.”

Read all of Nazir 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 4th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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