Have you ever seen two people from a distance and couldn’t immediately tell who was whom? This situation of mistaken identity underpins the mishnah on today’s daf, and since the two people in question are both nazirs, the consequences are more serious than simple embarrassment at the confusion.
Regarding two nazirites, where one said to them: “I saw one of you become impure, but I do not know which of you it was,” (they must each complete their naziriteship terms), shave their hair, and bring an offering of ritual impurity and an offering of purity.
In this case, two nazirites are together, and a third person sees one of them become impure (perhaps from walking near a dead body) but can’t tell which of the two it was. This is a problem, because as we have learned previously, if a nazir becomes impure in the midst of their term of naziriteship, they have to shave, undergo purification rituals, bring sacrifices and then start all over. If it’s doubtful which of them it was, then according to the mishnah, both nazirites have to do this.
Not only does this confusion mean that both must bring sacrifices of ritual impurity (in case they were near a corpse) and purity (in case the other person was), but shaving, too, has consequences. The Gemara asks:
But why are they permitted to shave? Perhaps both of them are not impure, and therefore one of them violates the prohibition against rounding the head.
In Leviticus 19:27, we learn the prohibition against shaving the corners of one’s hair and beard. (This is why some Jewish men wear peyot, the long locks of hair that grow when sideburns are never shaved). Here, we have a significant dilemma: If the person who shaves all their hair off is a nazir who has become impure, doing so is a mitzvah. If the person has not been rendered impure, then shaving is a serious transgression of that same mitzvah. What to do?
One solution comes from the sage Shmuel, who suggests:
The mishnah is referring to a woman or a minor boy.
Neither of these folks would be implicated in a transgression if they shaved mistakenly, since neither grow beards.
The Gemara disagrees, and offers another possibility:
And let Shmuel establish the mishnah as referring to a male who reached majority, and the reason it is permitted is because rounding the entire head, not merely its corners, is not called rounding (as prohibited by the Torah). From the fact that he does not establish the mishnah in this manner, conclude from it that Shmuel maintains that rounding the entire head is called rounding.
The Gemara offers a creative solution to this dilemma that lets the unaffected nazir off the hook for having shaved “just in case.” Since the mishnah refers only to “rounding” and not shaving, this is not the type of hair removal that the Torah is talking about in Leviticus and therefore is not a transgression.
The Gemara then goes on to talk about a situation in which a minor boy’s peyot are, in fact, shaved — with dire consequences:
Rav Huna said: An adult who rounds the head of a minor boy is liable to punishment.
Rav Adda bar Ahava said to Rav Huna: And with regard to your sons, who shaves them?
Rav Huna said to him: Hova my wife does it.
Rav Adda bar Ahava exclaimed: Hova will bury her sons!
During the years that Rav Adda bar Ahava was alive, Rav Huna’s children did not survive.
Here the Gemara brings a story that underscores the importance of following the mitzvah not to round the corners of one’s own hair — or that of their minor sons. Rav Huna disagrees that minors aren’t implicated, and expresses the opinion that although boys are not liable to punishment for transgressing mitzvot until the age of 13, a parent who commits a transgression on their behalf is liable instead. Rav Adda bar Ahava presumably notices that Rav Huna’s sons have the corners of their heads rounded and asks who cuts their hair. When Rav Huna reports that his wife Hova does it, Rav Adda bar Ahava exclaims worriedly that doing so will cause their death. Sure enough, the Gemara tells us, their children did not survive.
Whether or not this morality tale is true, it’s certainly meant to emphasize the importance of this mitzvah, which brings us right back around to the dilemma brought in the mishnah: What are we to do when a nazir is suspected — but not proven — to have been exposed to impurity? Although we aren’t told here, Maimonides rules (Mishneh Torah, Naziriteship 9:15) that both nazirs bring sacrifices, and neither of them shave.
Read all of Nazir 57 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.