Nedarim 19

Subtle support.

Ten years ago, the UK-based nonprofit Alcohol Change created Dry January, a public health campaign that promoted abstaining from alcohol for 30 days at the start of the calendar year. The campaign has spread around the world and grown in popularity, with millions of people participating, and the term Dry January (and its cousin Dryuary) becoming part of the cultural lexicon. Participants report improvements to their physical and mental health, and for many it leads to a sustained reduction in alcohol consumption.

The campaign pushes against the visible messages about alcohol in British (and other) society —  it is the norm, it is cool, it is necessary to socialize or have a good time — and has created a new narrative about sobriety. Now it is commonplace, a badge of honor even, to observe Dry January.

What does Dry January have to do with our tractate? Well, one might say that it is the contemporary version of taking on a vow of naziriteship — making a commitment to abstain from alcohol and haircuts for a specified period of time. In general, there is a good deal of rabbinic ambivalence about naziriteship, but on today’s daf a small detail suggests to us that making such a commitment can be understood as something very positive.

The idea arises amidst a discussion about what to do when there is a lack of clarity in someone’s expressed vow. The mishnah on yesterday’s page teaches that when there is uncertainty regarding a vow, the situation is treated stringently, and the vow is considered to be in effect. But a mishnah in tractate Taharot 4:12 states that uncertainty with regard to naziriteship is treated leniently: If there is uncertainty surrounding the vow to become a nazirite, the vow is not considered to be in effect. Now we have a contradiction between these mishnahs, with one claiming that uncertain vows are treated stringently, while the other claiming that uncertain nazirite vows are treated leniently.

The Gemara attempts to resolve the contradiction by attributing two positions to two different sages. But things only get stickier because this attempt surfaces an apparent contradiction between two positions of the same sage:

It is taught (in a beraita): If someone says, “I am hereby a nazirite if there are in this heap of grain one hundred kor,” and he went to measure the heap and found that it was stolen or that it was lost and cannot be measured, Rabbi Yehuda permits (him to perform actions forbidden to a nazirite) …

… Did Rabbi Yehuda actually say that a person does not enter himself into a state of uncertainty? And (the Gemara) raises a contradiction from the mishnah, where Rabbi Yehuda says: Unspecified terumah in Judea is forbidden but in the Galilee it is permitted…

What’s the problem? In the case of the nazirite and the heap of grain whose volume cannot be determined, Rabbi Yehuda seems to be saying that the uncertain vow is treated leniently and does not take effect. In the case of terumah, however, Rabbi Yehuda seems to be saying that uncertain vows are treated stringently, and do take effect. 

Rav Ashi resolves the contradiction as follows: In the beraita where Rabbi Yehuda treats the uncertain vow of naziriteship leniently, he is not stating his own opinion, but rather that of Rabbi Tarfon. How do we know this? From another beraita, of course:

It is taught (in a beraita): If a number of people wager on the truth of a statement, and they stipulate that whoever is correct will be a nazirite, Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rabbi Tarfon: None of them is a nazirite, because naziriteship was given to take effect only through explicitness of intent.

What are we to make of these people and their wager? According to Rashi’s interpretation, which has come to be the accepted understanding of this passage, it is the winner of the bet — not the loser — who becomes a nazir.

This read casts naziriteship as a prize, not a punishment: The winner of the bet is rewarded by taking on this practice. The beraita is subtly supportive of the practices of the nazir, suggesting that there is something to be gained in embracing its demands. And indeed, by abstaining from drinking, the nazir separates himself from a substance that impairs judgment and can result in regrettable, or even dangerous, behavior; in eschewing haircuts, he eliminates an element of personal grooming that, for many, encourages vanity. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this beraita is a public service announcement for naziriteship, and I’m pretty sure that we won’t be seeing Naziruary any time soon. But by holding up naziriteship as the prize for winning a bet, it invites us to view abstention not as deprivation, but as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Not unlike Dry January.

Read all of Nedarim 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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