Nazir 48

Gritty holiness.

A met mitzvah is one who dies with no one to bury them. Yesterday, we began chapter 7 of this tractate with a surprising mishnah about the met mitzvah:

A high priest and a nazirite may not become ritually impure for their relatives. However, they become impure for a met mitzvah.

As we now know, the high priest and the nazir are both forbidden to contract corpse impurity. The rabbis make an exception for both in the case of an exposed corpse that has not been claimed by someone else for burial. In that case, the mitzvah of respectfully burying the body overrides the prohibition against contracting impurity from the corpse.

On today’s daf, the rabbis explain how this law is derived, starting with the case of the high priest, about whom the Torah states:

He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself for his father or mother. (Leviticus 21:11)

For the rabbis, the redundancy in this phrasing is instructive. Though the first clause has already stated the general prohibition of corpse contact, the second clause’s mention of dead kin is not superfluous — it comes to teach us that the prohibition for the high priest excludes the met mitzvah, whom they are not only permitted but indeed commanded to bury.

Having demonstrated that the met mitzvah exemption for the high priest is rooted in the Torah’s words, the Talmud now sets out to derive the exemption for the nazir from scripture as well. Here is the verse about the nazir:

Throughout the term that he has set himself apart for God, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. If his father or mother or his brother or sister should die, he must not become defiled for any of them… (Numbers 6:6–7)

The Gemara now cites a beraita that makes a similar argument to the one we saw for the high priest:

Rabbi Yishmael says: It states, “He shall not come near,” indicating that the verse is speaking only of bodies that render people and items ritually impure through going in (i.e. corpses); “his father or mother” teaches that a nazirite may not become impure (for family), but he may become impure for a met mitzvah.

Like the high priest, Rabbi Yishmael teaches, the nazir’s corpse prohibition extends to his family, but not to contact with a met mitzvah.

This might have been the end of the discussion. But today’s daf then devotes a great deal of attention to presenting and disproving that the met mitzvah impurity exemption for the nazir can be derived from the logic of kal va-homer, inferential reasoning from a lesser to a greater case. No less than four times, the argument from logic is rejected in favor of a series of interpretations of Numbers 6:6–7 that finely parse each seemingly superfluous phrase in the verses. Each reading makes clear that the nazir may become ritually impure for the sake of burying the met mitzvah.

Along the way, we also learn that everyone, the nazir and high priest included, must even forego the obligations of brit milah for their sons and offering the paschal lamb in order to attend to the met mitzvah. This is true despite the fact that failure to fulfill either of these commandments would, under any other circumstance, incur the penalty of karet, spiritual excision.

Why is burying the met mitzvah such an extraordinary exception to the very serious prohibition against contracting corpse impurity placed on the nazir and the high priest? Care of a met mitzvah is a hesed shel emet, the truest act of kindness and one which can never be repaid. The obligation to care for a met mitzvah is so important it is derived from God’s words in the Torah, not from mere human reasoning. Even, and especially, the high priest and the nazir must remove themselves from their highest states of elite ritual holiness to fulfill it. They too must do the work of gritty, pedestrian holiness involved in caring for those who have no one else to care for them.

Read all of Nazir 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 11th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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