Talmudic pages

Nazir 51

The dead fetus.

Is a fetus a part of the pregnant person or an independent entity? How we answer this question has important implications — morally, legally and ritually. Most of us are used to hearing this question asked in the context of modern abortion debates. But the rabbis of the Talmud also asked, and answered, this very question in another context entirely. 

On today’ daf, that context is corpse impurity. We have already learned that to transmit corpse impurity, there must be a minimum of a ladleful of dead human matter from a single corpse. If the ladleful of dead matter is a mixture of material from different corpses, it does not transmit corpse impurity, which prompts the following question:

Rabbi Yirmeya raised a dilemma: Does a fetus in its mother’s womb (combine) into a mixture or not? 

If a pregnant woman dies, does her fetus count as part of her body (and therefore help make up the minimum measure of dead matter that causes corpse impurity)? Or does the fetus count as a separate body (and therefore the dead matter is a mixture)? What are the two sides of the argument?

Since the Master said a fetus is the thigh of its mother, it is therefore her body and it does not form a mixture with it. Or perhaps since it will ultimately emerge, it is separated from her. 

One could reason that since the fetus is currently inside the woman’s body, perhaps it is considered a part of it for the purposes of calculating dead matter. On the other hand, in a normal situation the fetus is meant to leave the woman’s body. Perhaps then it is already considered separate from her and thus can combine into a mixture.

The rabbis next explore whether other things found inside a dead woman — like semen, spit or food — count as separate for the purposes of calculating a mixture. Ultimately, the discussion concludes that all of these count as separate from the dead woman’s body. That means that it is actually pretty hard to find a ladleful of corpse dust that is from a single corpse, halakhically-defined. 

Here’s where it can be helpful to remember that the rabbis didn’t live in the modern world. Sometimes that is obvious to us as we read, but at other times, we can forget in our very real search for answers and inspiration. 

Many of us may be reading this text (and others like it) trying to understand what the rabbis think about abortion. But the rabbis of Sasanian Babylonia aren’t talking about abortion. They are very specifically trying to determine the likelihood that a ladleful of dead matter can transmit corpse impurity. If the fetus is a separate being that would form a mixture with the body of its mother, that would preclude a ladleful of this mixture from transmitting impurity — which, for those who are trying to avoid corpse impurity, would make it a lot easier to move through the world. But if the fetus is a part of its mother’s body, then this ladleful would not be a mixture and would transmit corpse impurity — meaning the living would have to be especially careful around it. 

What does this mean for rabbinic attitudes towards abortion? Apparently, absolutely nothing. And interestingly, even the most popular medieval commentators, who often drew analogies to tangentially related talmudic texts to answer the questions of their day, did not connect the discussion on today’s daf to abortion. Sometimes a discussion about corpse impurity is just a discussion about corpse impurity.  

Read all of Nazir 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 15th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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