Think back to the last time you washed your hair. If yours is long like mine, it’s likely that in the process of rinsing and detangling, a few hairs inadvertently came loose even though the intent was to clean the hair — not pull it out. While this might be little more than an inconvenience for us today, it was a serious concern for the nazirite, who was commanded not to cut her hair. The concern is highlighted in two brief mishnahs on today’s daf.
Here’s the first:
A nazirite may shampoo and separate hair (by hand), but may not comb it.
In a subsequent mishnah, we find this clarification:
Rabbi Yishmael says: A nazirite may not shampoo with earth because this causes the hair to fall out.
According to the first mishnah, the rabbis allowed the nazirite to wash and finger-comb hair, even though that could inadvertently result in a few hairs coming loose. But Rabbi Yishmael bars the use of earth as a shampoo, which in the rabbinic period was evidently used as a sort of hair care exfoliant. Because earth could cause hair to fall out in violation of the nazirite vow, Rabbi Yishmael prohibited its use as a hair care product.
The Gemara, commenting on these two mishnahs, is interested not only in the specific question of nazirite hair care, but in a more general distinction between intent and impact. It asks:
Who says a nazirite may shampoo and separate? It is Rabbi Shimon, who says: An unintentional act is permitted. However, he may not comb; we have come to the opinion of the rabbis.
Way back in Tractate Shabbat (22b), we learned that an act such as moving furniture that might create grooves in a dirt floor is permitted on Shabbat. Even though making grooves is prohibited, that was not the intent of moving the furniture but an unintentional consequence of moving a chair or table across a room. That principle is now at work here: Shampooing and finger-combing is permitted because the intent is not to remove hair. Using a comb, though, is forbidden because everyone knows (now as well as then) that a comb will almost certainly catch some hair in its teeth. Ditto for the use of dirt as shampoo, which brings the rabbis to discuss what type of earth is forbidden for this purpose and what type — if any — is permitted.
A dilemma was raised: Do we learn: Because it removes hair. Or do we perhaps learn: Because of that which removes hair?
Some types of earth do not, in fact, remove hair. So is it prohibited for the nazir to use those kinds of earth too? The dilemma is rooted in how one understands the mishnah.
If you say that we learned “because it removes hair,” then where we know it does not remove hair it is fine to use it. However, if you say “because of that which removes hair,” it would mean a nazirite may not shampoo with any earth at all.
If the mishnah is read to say that a nazirite can’t shampoo with earth because it removes hair, then presumably a type of earth that is known not to remove hair wouldn’t be a problem. But if the mishnah is read to say that earth is prohibited as shampoo because it is a type of material that is capable of removing hair, then presumably all types of earth, even those known not to remove hair, would be prohibited. So which is it? Ultimately, the Gemara is not able to come to a conclusion and leaves the dilemma unresolved.
Maimonides, however, does make a ruling in this regard. In the Mishneh Torah, Naziriteship 5:14, he states that the nazir should not scrape the head with earth because that will certainly remove some hair. If the nazir does so, she is liable for a punishment of lashes.
We see many examples of this juxtaposition of intent and impact throughout the Talmud. Here, we learn that something permitted (washing the hair) is allowed only if it’s plausible that nothing forbidden (hair loss) will ensue. If the nazir knows that an action is likely to result in hair coming loose, that action is forbidden too.
Read all of Nazir 42 on Sefaria.