Nazir 52

“If he changed his opinion after he died, I can’t comment on that.”

A few pages back, we learned in a mishnah that contact with certain parts of a dead body renders a nazirite impure, requiring them to shave, purify and restart their naziriteship. This led to a multi-page discussion about impurity resulting from contact with parts from a dead body. This discussion continues on today’s daf, where we find the following beraita:

Rabbi Yehuda says Rabbi Akiva deems six items impure that the rabbis deem pure, and Rabbi Akiva retracted his opinion. 

And an incident occurred in which they brought a box full of bones to the synagogue of blacksmiths, and they placed it in an open airspace. And Todos the doctor entered and all the other doctors with him, and they said: There is not a full spine from one corpse here.

The juxtaposition of Rabbi Yehuda’s teaching about Rabbi Akiva changing his mind and the story of the box of bones implies that this story illustrates one of the six things that Rabbi Aviva initially deemed pure. At issue here is whether a spine’s worth of bones from two or more corpses are impure or not. This is apparent from the text itself, but we learn from from a more complete version of this story that appears in the Tosefta (Ohalot 4:2), which continues as follows:

They said: There are those who declare these to be impure and there are those who declare these to be pure. Whose opinion should we uphold? They began with Rabbi Akiva, who declared them to be pure. They said: Since you were the one who declared these to be impure and you just purified them, they must be pure. 

Having heard from Todos and his team of forensic experts that the box contains material from more than one corpse, and aware that there are two opinions about the status of such a collection of bones, the blacksmiths are uncertain about how to handle them. So they go and ask Rabbi Akiva who, as the beraita indicates, reverses his original opinion. Given that he was the one who first declared the contents of the box to be impure, the blacksmiths are happy to follow his updated ruling. With the bones now declared pure, the blacksmiths no longer need to be concerned that they would cause them to become impure and they can dispose of them accordingly.

Or can they? 

Rabbi Shimon says: Until the day he died, Rabbi Akiba declared a spine that comes from more than one corpse to be impure. And if he changed his opinion after he died, I can’t comment on that.

Unlike the beraita on our daf, Rabbi Shimon does not include this incident on the list of things Rabbi Akiva changed his opinion about. So which is it?

The Tosefta records two versions of how this dispute is resolved, an anonymous one and one in the name of Rabbi Shimon, which suggests that early on there were already multiple traditions about what occurred. The Gemara today cites a text that is similar, but not identical, to the Tosefta and is truncated. Is that because it assumes we know the full story or that it was working from a variant tradition that did not contain all of the details in the Tosefta?

Answering these questions can be difficult. Much is lost in the fog of time. Just as the blacksmiths needed an expert to help identify if the bones in the box came from one source or two, we would need our own scholars to help us sort out how many versions of the story we are dealing with. Given the limited number of appearances of this anecdote in the talmudic record, there is probably not enough evidence to rule one way or the other in this case. But one benefit of the digital age in which we live, it has never been easier to find parallel sources that shed light on one another. 

Read all of Nazir 52 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 16th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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