We know that corpse impurity is a highly contagious form of impurity that nazirites and others (like priests) are forbidden to be around. Today’s daf asks a question that might seem obvious: Exactly when does someone start emitting corpse impurity?
The obvious answer, of course, is at the time of death. Today’s daf cites two biblical verses as possible sources for this ruling. The first comes from Leviticus 21:4, where we learn that a priest is forbidden to attend the funeral of anyone outside his immediate family lest he “profane himself.” The anonymous opinion reads this verse as saying that profaning only happens at “the time that he dies.”
The second verse comes from Numbers 6:7, which states regarding the nazirite: “Even if their father or mother, or their brother or sister, when they die, they must not become defiled for any of them.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi reads this verse to mean that the defiling takes place only at the moment of death.
Both opinions tell us that priests and nazirites, categories of people who cannot contract corpse immunity, must not be around dead bodies from the moment of death. But now the Gemara wants to know why we need two opinions for the source of the same law.
Rabbi Yohanan says: The interpretation of the meaning is (the difference) between them.
In other words, the only difference is which verse the rule is derived from. But whenever Rabbi Yohanan expresses an opinion, Reish Lakish is never far behind.
Reish Lakish said: (The difference) between them is a dying person. According to the one who says “to profane himself,” even a dying person. According to the one who says “when they die,” once he dies, yes. A dying person, no.
Reish Lakish argues that the two opinions disagree about something really practical: whether priests and nazirites can come into contact with a dying person who is not actually dead yet. According to Reish Lakish, if you derive the rule from the verse in Leviticus, a dying person can transmit corpse impurity and priests and nazirites have to steer clear. But if you derive the rule from the second verse, there’s no problem coming into contact with a dying person.
But there’s a problem with Reish Lakish’s interpretation: The first opinion explicitly reads Leviticus as saying that impurity spreads only “at the time that he dies” — not when dying. So what does Reish Lakish do with this opinion’s interpretation?
He requires it for that which was taught by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. As it is taught that Rabbi says: when they die he may not become impure. However, he may become impure from their leprosy or from their gonorrhea-like discharge.
According to Reish Lakish, the first opinion thinks that the first half of the verse in Leviticus teaches us that these sanctified classes are prohibited from being near a dying person, and the second half teaches that these sanctified classes are only prohibited from contracting corpse impurity — not other forms of bodily impurity.
The Gemara ultimately concludes that a person transmits corpse impurity only once dead, but that a priest is still prohibited from being near a dying person (just in case?). Which leaves us with two insights from today’s discussion. First, a person only becomes a corpse when they die. And second, even when two opinions ostensibly agree with each other, further study may reveal differences that are really important to the lives of the people they are talking about.
Read all of Nazir 43 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 7th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.