Talmud

Nazir 66

Amen.

Today we wrap up Tractate Nazir, and with it our study of how to achieve a more elevated spiritual status by vowing to abstain from hair-cutting, grape products and contracting corpse impurity. While only Israelite men of certain lineage could join the priesthoodnaziriteship was open to everyone — women and men and even some minors and slaves, making it a unique spiritual opportunity for the entire community.

We’ve primarily studied the halakhic requirements for naziriteship, both under typical circumstances and in cases when things go awry. But while it hasn’t been the main focus of the rabbinic conversation, along the way we’ve been able to intuit reasons that one might choose the elevated sanctity of naziriteship despite its burdens: A nazirite vow might be an expression of gratitude or remorse, or come from a desire for personal growth. It might be a rash decision made in anger or a desperate attempt to move God to grant a blessing, like a much-wanted child.

These days, few of us are or meet nazirites. It is a Jewish practice that has largely fallen out of use (though not entirely) and can therefore be difficult to relate to. But for many, the appeal of adopting a spiritual discipline is not.

As we close the tractate, the Talmud turns away from halakhic concerns to a final mishnah that answers a very basic question about the Bible: Was Samuel a nazirite? The Tanakh tells us that his mother vowed no razor would touch his head, but it doesn’t actually use the word “nazir” in connection with the great prophet who appointed the first kings of Israel. In the mishnah, Rabbi Nehorai concludes decisively that he was.

Since this mishnah requires no halakhic discussion, the Gemara that follows is free-wheeling. Likely picking up on the final statement of Rabbi Nehorai in the mishnah, the Gemara brings another discussion in which he features strongly, though on the surface it has nothing to do with naziriteship:

Seize and recite a blessing (i.e. the Grace After Meals). And similarly, Rav Huna said to his son, Rabba: Seize and recite a blessing.

Is this to say that one who recites a blessing is preferable? But isn’t it taught that Rabbi Yosei says: The one who answers amen is greater than the one who recites the blessing? And Rabbi Nehorai said to him: By Heavens, it is so. Know that this is true, as the military assistants initiate the war and the mighty follow them and prevail. 

In ancient times, much as they did for Kiddush and Havdalah, the rabbis recited Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) over a cup of wine. (Some Jews still do this.) Here we learn that Rav Huna taught his son Rabba that when a meal was reaching its conclusion, he should grab the cup on the table and begin offering the Grace After Meals. Why? Because being the one who makes the blessing is preferable to the one who recites amen.

But an earlier teaching of Rabbi Yosei argues against this, stating that it is preferable to be the one who recites amen. And Rabbi Nehorai supports this view by pointing out that the first troops to enter a field of battle merely start the war; it is the more talented troops that follow who ultimately rout the enemy. It’s a jarringly militaristic image, but it does certainly portray the amen as not just ancillary but necessary to the success of the blessing.

In the first pages of this tractate, there was a brief debate about whether a nazir could drink wine in order to fulfill the mitzvot of making Kiddush and Havdalah. The conclusion of the rabbis was that the nazir may not (because making Kiddush is a rabbinic mitzvah and abstaining from wine is a mitzvah from the Torah, and therefore takes precedence). A nazir, therefore, would not be permitted to recite Birkat Hamazon over wine for a group of fellow diners. The nazir must instead be part of the chorus that responds with amen. In some ways elevated, the nazir is also in some ways marginalized.

The Gemara does not offer us a definitive conclusion as to whether it is better to make the blessing or recite amen — the next few lines bring a beraita that argues against Rabbis Yosei and Nehorai, showing preference for the one who hurries to recite the blessing over the one who says amen. 

Similarly, this tractate never gives us a definitive evaluation of the nazir, the one who rushes to make a battery of special commitments to God. Are they preferred to the rest of the community, who simply follow the usual set of commandments? Or are they viewed suspiciously?

Perhaps this question is unanswerable because the community benefits from both: We need those who seize the cup of wine to make the blessing, and those who cannot because they’ve made another vow. And we also need that chorus of amens.

Read all of Nazir 66 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 30th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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