I love a great pastrami sandwich on toasted rye, and my favorite part is smearing deli mustard on the bread. Those delicious mustard seeds are small enough to pack a punch, but not too big to overwhelm.
The rabbis loved mustard seeds as well. In addition to enjoying them as a pungent condiment, they used them to measure especially small volumes. Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century work that explicates the 613 commandments, states that pious people do not destroy anything, even a seed of mustard (529:2). The rabbis of the Talmud used mustard seeds to measure the smallest particle of menstrual blood (Niddah 40a) or semen (Niddah 13b) that would render a person ritually impure. And on today’s daf, the mustard seed is improbably used to measure time.
The mishnah on today’s daf is long. Here is the first part:
If he vowed: “I am hereby a nazirite like the hair of my head,” or, “like the dust of the earth,” or, “like the sand of the sea,” — he is a nazirite forever. And he shaves his hair once every 30 days.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: This nazirite does not shave his hair once every 30 days. And who is the nazirite who shaves his hair once every 30 days? One who says: “It is hereby incumbent upon me to observe naziriteships like the hair of my head,” or, “like the dust of the earth,” or, “like the sand of the sea.”
If a would-be nazirite poetically vows that their term of naziriteship will be expansive like the hairs on their head, the dust of the earth, or the sands of the sea, this is taken to mean that the naziriteship will last indefinitely. But it is possible to view this either as one long term of naziriteship or an indefinite number of 30-day terms of naziriteship. If the latter, they can shave their head every 30 days.
The mishnah continues:
If he said, “I am hereby a nazirite in accordance with the capacity of the house,” or, “the capacity of the basket,” one checks with him what he had in mind. If he said: “My intention was to take a nazirite vow for one long term,” he is a nazirite for 30 days. And if he said: “I took a nazirite vow without specification,” one views the basket as though it were full of mustard seeds, which are extremely small, and he is a nazirite for his entire life.
The rabbis must translate this nonsensical vow about volume into one about time. Since there is no obvious conversion, the first step is to check with the one who made the vow to understand what they had in mind. Saying he meant to take a “long” vow only obligates him to the minimum nazirite period because, as we learned from a mishnah on yesterday’s page, the terms “long” and “short” are not meaningful in the context of the nazirite vow (perhaps because they are not specific enough).But if he says that he took the vow without specification, the rabbis supply a conversion from volume to time as follows: however many mustard seeds could fill the basket (or house, depending on what he vowed), that is how many days he must serve — in other words, a lifetime.
The Gemara raises the question:
But why does one view the basket as though it were full of mustard seeds? Let us view it as though it were full of cucumbers or gourds?
Hizkiyya said: It is taught as a dispute, and the mishnah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who said: A person places himself in a state where the resulting uncertainty is more stringent than if there were certainty.
Because this person did not specify a time period for their naziriteship, and then answered a follow-up query with the cryptic response, “I took a nazirite vow without specification,” we must rule stringently, committing them to a lifetime of naziriteship. But it seems the rabbis think this is not really what he wanted, and it was his poor choice of words that locked him into a lifetime of naziriteship. He might never be able to drink wine again, but at least he can still enjoy a deli sandwich with mustard.
Read all of Nazir 8 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 31st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.