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Nazir 53

A ruling from the prophets.

On today’s daf, we find this teaching:

Rabbi Eliezer said that some of the early elders would say: A half-kav of bones and a half-log of blood impart ritual impurity in all forms. But a quarter-kav of bones and a quarter-log of blood, they do not impart impurity in all forms. And some (of the early elders) would say that even a quarter-kav of bones and a quarter-log of blood impart impurity in all forms. 

There are two ways of contracting impurity from a corpse: direct contact and so-called “tent” impurity. The latter means occupying the same space as the body without having direct contact. As the name implies, it can mean being in the same tent as the body; it can also mean hovering over the body or being located directly under the body. At issue in this debate is whether a quarter-kav of bones or a quarter-log of blood imparts corpse impurity in all forms — through both direct contact and in a tent — or only through direct contact. Unfortunately, there was no clear majority ruling since the elders were split and the debate was not settled in their generation. So how would later courts rule?

The court that followed them said: A half-kav of bones and a half-log of blood impart ritual impurity in all forms. A quarter-kav of bones and a quarter-log of blood impart impurity only with regard to terumah and offerings, but not with regard to a nazirite. And similarly, one who performs the ritual of the paschal offering.

Left without an answer as to whether a quarter-kav of bones and a quarter-log of blood imparts impurity in a tent, a later court split the difference, declaring that these volumes of corpse material impart impurity in a tent to a designated offering (invalidating it for the altar) but not to a nazir or a person poised to perform the paschal offering (which must be done in a state of purity). This means that the nazir who finds themselves accidentally in a tent with a quarter-log of blood or a quarter-kav of bones does not need to shave, purify and restart their vow.

Is this a reasonable compromise? Perhaps, but the Gemara is opposed to later generations imposing such a ruling on earlier generations:

Now consider, the decision of the third opinion is not considered a decision. 

This is a principle repeated a few times in the Talmud (see also Pesachim 21a, Bava Kamma 116a, and Chullin 137b). What it means is not entirely clear. One interpretation is that the rabbis do not like later courts inventing a compromise between two unresolved opinions based on factors not raised by those earlier sources. Neither Rabbi Eliezer nor any of the sages of an earlier generation hinted that the nazir might be special when it comes to contracting corpse impurity from a quarter-kav of bones or a quarter-log of blood. Therefore, it is inappropriate for a later court to invent this compromise on their behalf. Another understanding is that it refers to the opinion of sages in the third generation down from the original dispute. But either way, the Gemara would rather a court of a later generation decide to follow someone’s opinion than invent a compromise position that is not grounded in the original sources and that aligns with neither. 

So where does that leave the later court? With two opinions and no clear guidance about the quarter-kav of bones or the quarter-log of blood. Luckily, the Gemara manages to rescue the compromise position:

Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi said: This ruling was not stated as a compromise. Rather, they said it from tradition, from Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. 

Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi positions this ruling not as a novel compromise, but an ancient decision, tendered by none other than the last of the prophets. It may not be halakhah from Moses at Sinai, but this gives it more than enough authority in its own right.

Read all of Nazir 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 17th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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