Talmud pages

Nazir 50

Deconstructing impurity.

Today’s daf is not for those with weak stomachs. When a nazirite becomes impure as a result of contact with a corpse, they are required to reverse the impurity by shaving their hair and getting sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer on days three and seven after exposure, and then begin their vow anew. But not every bit of a corpse imparts impurity. For instance, as we will learn on today’s page, spittle that has been expelled from the corpse’s mouth does not really count as part of the body. The mishnah on yesterday’s daf provides a list of types of corpse material that cause impurity:

A nazir shaves for the following items that impart impurity: a dead body, an olive’s bulk of a dead body, an olive’s bulk of fluid from a dead body, a full ladle of dust from a dead body, the spine of a dead body, the skull of a dead body, the limb of a dead body, a limb severed from a living person (provided there is a fitting quantity of flesh on it), a half-kav of bones from a dead body, and a half-log of blood from a dead body.

This mishnah, and even more so the discussion of it on today’s daf, is graphic and reflects an intimate awareness of the ways in which a dead body decomposes. The rabbis’ intimate knowledge of what happens to a body after death reminds us of the reality of their era. Whereas today most people die privately in a care facility, in their day death was a more public phenomenon (and there was no refrigeration).

Because the mishnah talks about “an olive’s bulk of fluid from a dead body,” the Gemara’s discussion today centers on congealed fluids and liquified fats that come from a corpse — tissues that began in a liquid state and solidified, or the reverse — in an attempt to determine when these items transmit impurity and when they do not. The graphic conversation leads (thankfully) to a more general one about the unique nature of liquids and how they transmit impurity. We’ll jump now to that discussion.

One of the ways that impurity can be transmitted is by direct contact, under the right conditions, between a pure object and an impure object. In other words, impurity can be contagious between objects. But when liquid is involved, the notion of “coming into contact with” is not completely straightforward. For example, if you are pouring a liquid from a pure vessel into an impure vessel, the liquid that is transferred becomes impure because its new container is impure. But does the stream of liquid transfer the impurity backward, to the pure vessel above?

One could argue that the impure vessel transmits impurity to all the liquid and the liquid transmits the impurity to the vessel from which it was being poured, making the whole system impure as a result. Or, one could argue that the liquid is not impure until it comes into contact with the lower vessel, and therefore there is no transfer to the pure vessel. This is actually the correct answer, according to a mishnah (Makhshirin 5:9) quoted on today’s daf:

Anything that is poured remains ritually pure.

In other words, impurity does not travel backward so if you stop pouring mid-stream, both the liquid that is left in the vessel and the vessel itself remain pure. But of course there are exceptions:

This is the case for all liquids except for zifim honey (a very thick type of honey) and batter. Beit Shammai say: Even the stream of a stew made of crushed and broken beans or of whole beans also connects two items because it returns backward.

Thick liquids — zifim honey, pancake batter, thick bean stews — unlike “regular” liquids, do make a connection that allows impurity to transfer backwards. Perhaps this is because, in the rabbis’ understanding of the world, their viscosity makes them more like a solid than a liquid. Or, as Beit Shammai suggest, because as the pouring comes to an end, some of what has already been poured returns back to its points of origin (and brings the impurity back with it).

It’s quite a journey, on today’s daf, to go from flux to food. What stands out from the page is the sheer earthiness and physicality of these discussions, as well as the commitment of the rabbis to explore details of halakhah by venturing into a close examination of the physicality of their world, whether nauseating or nourishing. I’m grateful, at least, that this discussion landed not on congealed fluids from a corpse, but on honey and bean stew.

Read all of Nazir 50 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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