Talmud pages

Nedarim 10

The ultra righteous.

From time to time, the rabbis of the Talmud refer to the practices of the hasidim harishonim, “the first pioufs ones,” a group of individuals from the dawn of the rabbinic era who often went the extra mile in order to fulfill a religious obligation. We met this group at the dawn of our Daf Yomi study, back on Berakhot 30b where a mishnah taught:

One may only get up to pray the Amidah from a place of seriousness. The hasidim harishonim would wait one hour and then pray, so that they would focus their hearts toward their Father in Heaven.

These righteous individuals would pause for an entire hour before praying in order to ensure that they were in the appropriate state of mind. Considering that these folks prayed two or three times a day, they committed a significant amount of time to the preparation, let alone the prayers themselves.

The meticulousness of the hasidim harishonimshows up in a different way on today’s daf:

Rabbi Yehuda says: The hasidim harishonim would desire to bring a sin-offering but did not have the opportunity to do so because the Holy One, Blessed be God, does not bring about a stumbling block through them, and they would not sin even unwittingly. 

As Rabbi Yehuda tells it, the hasidim harishonim wanted to be able to serve God in every way possible, including through the bringing of a sin-offering. But they had a problem. As a result of their high level of commitment to religious practice, they did not sin (moreover, as the texts suggest, God protected them from finding themselves in situations in which they might sin). So what would they do? 

They would rise and volunteer naziriteship to God in order to be liable to bring a sin-offering of a nazirite to God.

A nazirite is one who consecrates themselves to special service of God, vowing to abstain from alcohol (and, indeed, any grape products), let one’s hair grow, and avoid defilement by contact with corpses. One becomes a nazirite by taking a special vow and one concludes one’s naziriteship with a sin-offering (and a shave). This gave the hasidim harishonim what they were looking for: A way to become obligated to bring a sin offering without having to sin.

There was one serious drawback to this clever work-around. As Rabbi Shimon reports, contra Rabbi Yehuda’s claim, members of the hasidim harishonim did not, in fact, take the nazirite vow because doing so did, all on its own, incur some measure of sin:

One who would want to bring a burnt-offering would volunteer and bring it; one who would want to bring a peace-offering would volunteer and bring it; and one who would want to bring a thanksgiving-offering and its four types of bread would volunteer and bring them. However, they did not volunteer naziriteship in order that they not be called sinners, as it is stated about the nazir: And he shall make atonement for him, for that he sinned against the soul. (Numbers 6:11)

If one of the hasidim harishonim wanted to bring a sacrifice to God, they had many options to choose from: burnt-offering, peace-offering or thanks-offering. But, according to Rabbi Shimon, they would never become nazirites because the fact that a nazir brings a sin-offering at the end of their service implies that the nazir’s self-denial is a sin in and of itself (we’ll dig into this more in Tractate Nazir). And, according to Rabbi Shimon, no member of the hasidim harishonim group would ever intentionally do something that could be understood to be sinning.

This reads more as an academic debate about how a somewhat mythologized group of early rabbinic Jews would have enacted their exemplary piety than as a record of what was actually done. We have no way to know if the hasidim harishonim habitually took the nazirite vow, or even if there was uniformity of thinking about how to manage the desire to bring a sin-offering. Be that as it may, the difference of opinion between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon raises an interesting question. Rabbi Yehuda suggests that a person who is meticulous about their religious observance and desires to experience their religion to the fullest might have to err on purpose in order to be able to practice rituals of atonement. Yet, as Rabbi Shimon points out, doing so undermines their commitment to serving God and staying on the right path. Which is the better option? The Talmud leaves this question open for us to ponder.

Read all of Nedarim 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 4th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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