Back on Yevamot 3, the Gemara began talking about whether and how a specific positive commandment can override a general prohibition. On today’s daf, the rabbis are still at it. As part of the conversation, the text turns to a conflict between communal health and individual religious obligations.
For context, it helps to be familiar with the concept of a nazir (also known as nazirites), someone who voluntarily vows to refrain from certain activities, including contact with dead bodies and the consumption of grape products. (There’s actually an entire tractate of Talmud dedicated to nazirites that we’ll begin learning early next year.)
As part of their constraints, a nazir isn’t permitted to cut the hair on their head. Numbers 6:5 is pretty clear about this: “Throughout the term of their vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch their head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of their term as nazirite of God, the hair of their head being left to grow untrimmed.”
In potential conflict with this, Leviticus 14:9 requires someone with leprosy to shave their body hair: “On the seventh day all hair shall be shaved off — of head [literally, “his head”], beard, and eyebrows. Having shaved off all hair, the person shall wash those clothes and bathe the body in water — and then shall be pure.”
As we can see, there’s a general commandment — to shave all hair — and then a couple of specific examples. In this list, the phrase “of head” (or “his head”) is the focus of the rabbis’ attention:
What is the meaning when the verse states: “His head”? As it is stated: “No razor shall come upon his head.” (Numbers 6:5) I would derive that even a leper who is a nazirite (is prohibited from shaving his head upon purification). Therefore, the verse states: “His head.”
Let’s unpack this. The rule in Leviticus concerning lepers says “all hair” must be shaved. So what’s the point of including “his head” specifically? If the text had only made a general statement about hair — and not specifically mentioned the hair on the head — the specific rule prohibiting a nazir from shaving their head might be seen as taking precedence over the general requirement for a leper to shave, potentially undermining public health needs and putting others in danger. Therefore, this teaching suggests, the Torah added a specific additional requirement to require even a leper who is a nazirite to shave their head.
The Gemara agrees that a nazir with leprosy has to shave, but it rejects this logic, noting that the requirements for a nazirite in Numbers 6:5 include not one, but two commandments — one positive and one negative: Don’t let a razor touch the head and let the hair on the head grow unimpeded. Even if we say the specific commandment for lepers to shave their heads overrides the specific prohibition barring nazirites from shaving their heads, can it override both a specific prohibition and a specific positive commandment? That would seem a bridge too far.
Fortunately, there’s another justification for having the leprous nazir shave:
One cannot learn from a nazirite, as a leprous nazirite can request to have his nazirite vow dissolved. So too, there is room to refute the proof from the halakhah of a nazirite that a positive mitzvah overrides a prohibition, as he can request to have his vow dissolved.
In other words, the nazir’s vow is dissolvable. So we can resolve any conflict between the two verses simply by releasing the nazir from their vow not to shave their head. Faced with this, the Gemara rejects the nazirite example as proof that a positive commandment overrides a general prohibition.
With that out of the way, the debate meanders on, tumbling through the rest of today’s daf and on to the next (and the next and the next), leaving one repudiated text after another in its wake. I won’t spoil the plot, but the sheer complexity, number of external references and length of this discussion highlights the impressive undertaking that studying Talmud truly is.
Read all of Yevamot 5 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.