Nazir 6

Seeing the editor's hand.

The mishnah on yesterday’s daf taught that when a person doesn’t declare a specific timeframe for their period of naziriteship, they are obligated to observe nazirite restrictions for 30 days. The Gemara that follows presents a debate between Rav Mattana, who believes that naziriteship lasts the full 30 days (with the rituals that dissolve it occurring on day 31) and Bar Padda, who holds that it lasts 29 days with dissolving rituals performed on day 30. 

Today, the Gemara suggests that this debate might be rooted in an earlier one based on several possible understandings of Numbers 6:5: Until the days are complete, in which he consecrated himself to the Lord, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.

The least amount of “days” is two. Therefore, the verse states: He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. There is no significant growth of hair in less than 30 days. — This is the statement of Rabbi Yoshiya.

According to Rabbi Yoshiya, since the verse specified “days,” one might have inferred that it meant the least possible number of days — that is, two. Therefore the verse added the second part, which specified that the period of naziriteship must last until the hair grows long, which Rabbi Yoshiya maintains is at least 30 days. 

Against this view is Rabbi Yonatan, who argues as follows:

This proof is not needed, as the verse says: Until the days are complete. What are the days that require completion? You must say this is the days of a month: 30

On first glance, it appears Rabbi Yoshiya and Rabbi Yonatan agree that the standard length of a naziriteship is 30 days and differ only in the way they read the verse to get there. However, the Gemara implies this is not the case: It is only Rabbi Yoshiya who says 30 days, while Rabbi Yonatan allows for 29. If so, that suggests Rabbi Yoshiya’s position could be a precedent for Rav Mattana, while Bar Padda’s position is based on Rabbi Yonatan.

How does the Gemara get there? Rabbi Yonatan derives his position from the length of a month. But as we know, the months of the Jewish calendar are not all the same length. Some months are 30 days, but some are only 29. 

If so, this in turn shifts our understanding of the debate between Rav Mattana and Bar Padda, which had seemed to turn on whether the 30-day term of naziriteship includes the day on which the concluding rituals are performed. Now it seems that the debate is a rehashing of an earlier one about whether the default term of naziriteship is based on the days of the month or the amount of time it takes for hair to grow long. 

One could argue that the mishnah can be understood either in line with Rav Mattana or Bar Padda — but not both. If so, one of those positions is left without a precedent, which seems to make the Gemara uncomfortable. Rooting their disagreement in an earlier one among rabbis of greater standing solves this problem by providing each opinion with a precedent to lean on. Yet doing this potentially distorts how we understand the earlier debate, which may well have been simply about how to set aside the reading of Number 6:5 that suggests a nazarite period can last as little as two days.

It’s not uncommon that the Gemara, when citing a text for a particular purpose, changes our understanding of that text from what it might have been in another context. Noticing this exposes the power of the Talmud’s editors to shape the meaning of the sources it uses and helps the modern reader be more aware of the role they played in determining what the texts they cite have come to mean.

Read all of Nazir 6 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 29th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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