Talmud

Nazir 55

The wrong question.

Often in the Talmud that the initial question we confront isn’t exactly the question we end up addressing and answering. Today’s daf brings another illustration of the rabbis digging a little deeper to get at the core of a disagreement. 

On yesterday’s daf, we encountered a mishnah that taught us that the entire world outside the land of Israel is impure, yet even so a nazir who travels there is considered only temporarily impure and is not required to shave as a consequence. This in turn raised a question: Is it the earth itself that is impure, or is even the air above it impure? The rabbis try to suss this out with reference to a specific situation:

Let us say this is parallel to a dispute between tanna’im, as it is taught: One who enters the land of the nations in a chest, a box, or a cabinet, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi deems him impure. And Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, deems him pure. 

What, is it (not correct to say that they disagree in this regard): Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi with regard to the air, and Rabbi Yosei holds with regard to the earth? 

This passage lays out two possible positions. On the one hand, we have Rabbi Yosei, who says that a person traveling outside of Israel in some kind of container is pure, indicating that the ground can pass along impurity but not the air above it. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi finds the person ritually impure, implying that air is, in fact, a contaminant.

But the Gemara disagrees with this framing. The question isn’t whether the air carried impurity, but rather whether the container qualifies as a tent. As we know, a person can contract impurity from being in proximity to something impure, which the rabbis refer to as tent impurity. The question therefore is whether the container in which the person travels is considered a tent that would protect them from contracting impurity from the ground. We encountered a version of this very dispute back on Eruvin 30b, with Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Yehuda staking out similar positions. 

This critique leads to a reframing of the question. The rabbis apparently agree that a normal mode of transport like a wagon would result in the nazir becoming impure, and they disagree only on whether an unusual mode of transport, like a box or a cabinet, is effective in protecting against impurity. But in case you don’t like this framing, the Gemara offers a third — and frankly more persuasive — way to understand the disagreement. 

Here they disagree about if he removed his head and the majority of his body into there, (i.e., the foreign land). And it is taught that Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: One who enters the land of the nations in a chest, a box, or a cabinet is pure, unless he actually removes his head or the majority of his body. 

So here we have it: Rabbi Yosei says that sticking your head or most of your body outside the container would render you impure. If you stay entirely inside, you’re good. Rabbi Yehuda apparently assumes that a rider will, at some point, stick their head or the majority of their body out of the container, so he concludes that impurity is inevitable and attaches from the start.  

It took us a little time, but we eventually get to the crux of the issue and understand exactly what was in dispute. And it’s a great reminder that sometimes the issue you’re presented with at first isn’t actually where you need to be putting your attention.

Read all of Nazir 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 19th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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