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Nazir 63

Who knows?

The mishnah that opens today’s daf describes a situation in which a nazirite completed their entire nazirite period and has already shaved, only to discover that at some point during their vow they were exposed to corpse impurity. Does this poor nazirite have to start all over again to fulfill their vow?

According to the mishnah, it depends on the nature of the impurity:

If it was a known impurity, he negates it (i.e. he has to start all over again). And if it was ritual impurity from the deep, he does not negate it (and can count his vow as completed).

Corpse impurity can either be impurity from the deep (meaning it is hidden for some time and only later discovered) or known, with serious implications for this poor nazirite. We discussed ritual impurity from the deep back in Tractate Pesachim.. Today, we’re going to find out exactly what it means for an impurity to be known. 

The Gemara cites beraita, an earlier tradition, which distinguishes between impurity from the deep and known impurity. 

Any corpse of which no one is aware, even at the end of the earth. But if one individual is aware of it, even if that person is at the end of the earth, this is not impurity in the depths.

For an impurity to be considered known, all it takes is a single person who passed through at some point in time and observed it. Even if that person isn’t in town anymore. Even if they did not tell anyone what they saw. This definition leads to an obvious question: How on earth is a nazirite supposed to know — retroactively no less! — whether a recently discovered corpse is a known impurity or an impurity from the deep? 

The beraita gives us context clues: 

Concealed in hay or in pebbles — this is impurity from the deep. In water or in a dark place or in the clefts of the rocks — this is not impurity in the depths.

The beraita says that if a corpse has been buried under loose natural materials, it is considered unknown. But if it was possible that it could be seen by passersby (carrying a torch, maybe, or while hiking), then it is considered known. To be honest, I find this counterintuitive. One might think that if a corpse was buried under natural materials like hay or pebbles, then someone saw that they had died and tried to cover the body, while a corpse just floating in the water has not yet been discovered by anyone — after all, wouldn’t anyone who saw them try to bury them? The beraita just gives these two categories, but doesn’t explain the underlying logic — leaving that task to later readers and commentators. 

The medieval commentator Rashi reasons that anyone properly burying a corpse wouldn’t do it with pebbles and straw, which wouldn’t protect it from the elements and animals. He suggests that hay or pebbles heaped on a body are more likely the result of  a sharp wind or rockfall, which might bury a corpse without anyone seeing or knowing. Maybe this is even how the person died. If a body is completely covered in a way that isn’t obviously done intentionally by humans, perhaps it was a tragic accident. But a body that is even partially visible — like one stranded in the cleft of a rock or floating in water — must be assumed to be known. 

I can’t help but reflect on the implications of this discussion: The rabbis and Rashi lived in a world where dead bodies were not infrequently lurking in unexpected places. And sometimes they were seen but nonetheless left in the water, or in the dark, or between rocks. 

There are certainly times when, for safety’s sake, a body cannot be recovered, but we live in a time when agencies and resources are largely in place to respectfully remove human remains. This was also an ideal for the rabbis, even if they didn’t have the same resources. One might remember that, according to Megillah 3b, the burial of the dead is so great a mitzvah that even the high priest — who is not allowed to contract corpse impurity, even to bury a close relative — is obligated to do it if no one else is around. And more recently, we saw that the mitzvah of met mitzvah, burying an unclaimed corpse, supersedes even the nazirite’s vow not to contract corpse impurity.

Now we see a practical implication of this commitment to honoring the dead — and a reminder: The best way to avoid known impurity being retroactively discovered is to commit to burying the dead and marking their graves whenever possible. 

Read all of Nazir 63 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 27th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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