We learned yesterday that one who makes a vow, and then delays in fulfilling it, violates the biblical prohibition stated in Deuteronomy 23:22: “When you make a vow to your God do not put off fulfilling it, for your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt.”
Delaying fulfillment of a vow assumes the vow has already come into effect — after all, if you vow that at some future point you’ll do something, you’re not liable for not yet doing that thing. So when exactly do vows come into effect? Today’s daf looks at a case of someone who makes one particular kind of vow in one particular kind of situation — a Nazirite vow in a cemetery.
As we’re going to discuss extensively in the next tractate, one who takes a Nazirite vow is prohibited from becoming impure with corpse impurity (with exceptions only for some members of their immediate family), which means that they can’t be hanging out in cemeteries. So if someone takes a vow to become a Nazirite while standing in a cemetery, does the vow take immediate effect, or does the vow take effect only when they leave the cemetery and purify themselves of the corpse impurity they were exposed to?
Didn’t Mar bar Rav Ashi say naziriteship applies to him immediately?
According to Mar bar Rav Ashi, a Nazirite vow made in a cemetery takes immediate effect. But now we have another problem. A Nazirite is prohibited from being impure with corpse impurity, and now this new Nazirite is standing in a cemetery! At the very least, isn’t this a case of delaying the fulfillment of a vow?
According to the Gemara, it absolutely is. To be a Nazir is to be in a state of ritual purity (among other things). Taking a Nazirite vow in a cemetery, even if the vow takes immediate effect, causes a delay in being pure. And that’s a violation of the biblical command.
The Gemara goes on to discuss other ways a Nazirite might be liable for delaying fulfillment of their vow — by pushing off shaving or delaying to offer the concluding sacrifices. But before we move on, it’s worth spending another moment thinking about the person vowing to become a Nazirite while in a cemetery.
After all, the likely reason someone is in a cemetery at all is because they are either at a funeral or visiting the graves of loved ones. Moments of profound loss often make us think about our lives, our relationships to God, and the kind of people we want to be moving forward. It makes sense that at least some people in that situation might be moved to vow to become a Nazirite for a set period of time, to experience a heightened state of purity and a more intentional way of being in the world.
But it’s also true that moments of profound loss can cause us to make rash decisions that we might regret later when our emotions are less fraught. There’s a cliche that people often get radically different hairstyles after a breakup but then come to regret it (at least until their hair grows out). Perhaps someone who takes a Nazirite vow in a cemetery will realize later that they don’t actually want to live in that heightened state for any substantial period of time. Could this kind of vow be dismissed by what modern American courts term temporary insanity?
For the Gemara, the answer is no. Through its discussion of the Nazirite vow, today’s daf takes these fraught emotional moments seriously, seeing them as meaningfully transformative. Taking a Nazirite vow in a cemetery does work, and comes with all the rules, regulations, and urgency of actually being a Nazir.
Read all of Nedarim 4 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.