Yoma 61

A hairy dilemma.

Most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as average, but many laws are written for an imagined “average person.” Today’s daf asks: What do we do when the laws are written for an “average” person but actual people are more complicated than that? 

Numbers 6 describes the case of someone who chooses to dedicate themselves to God as a nazirite for a specific period of time. While a nazirite, a person is forbidden from cutting their hair (among other prohibitions!); but at the end of their nazirite period, the Torah says that: “at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolizes their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering.” (Numbers 6:18)

Here the Torah makes one very important assumption about the “average” nazirite — that they have hair! But that’s not all of us. According to the National Institutes of Health, 2% of the general population experiences alopecia areata (an autoimmune disorder that causes partial or total hair loss) at some point in their lifetime. And as I’m sure some of you know all too well, many people lose hair as a natural part of the aging process. So what if someone with a more polished pate wants to dedicate themselves as a nazirite? Today’s daf discusses whether this is possible. 

It was taughtFor a bald nazirite, Beit Shammai say: He must perform the act of passing a razor (over his head) anyway.

Beit Hillel say: He need not perform the act of passing a razor. 

On the face of it, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel seem to agree that a completely bald person can in fact dedicate themselves as a nazirite. Beit Hillel insists that only people with hair have to cut it; and the bald nazirite sits out the ritual of hair-cutting. Beit Shammai’s position is that hairless nazirites must symbolically “cut” their hair anyway at the end of their nazirite period. This symbolic act reinforces the notion that the “average” person for whom the laws are written does indeed have hair. 

A later Babylonian rabbi, Rabbi Avina, then interprets Beit Shammai even more restrictively:

When Beit Shammai say “must,” they mean he must do so, but since it is impossible, he has no remedy.

According to Rabbi Avina’s reading of Beit Shammai, a nazirite must actually cut their hair when their period of dedication is over. Someone with no hair therefore has only two options: not to dedicate themselves as a nazirite, or to stay a nazirite forever. And those who have hair when they dedicate themselves as nazirites had better hope that they don’t develop alopecia or age-related hair loss during their nazirite period, or else they’ll be stuck as nazirites indefinitely!

In almost all disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the rabbinic ruling followed Beit Hillel, and this is no exception. While the nazirite ritual described by the Torah assumes an “average” person with hair, the Gemara insists that rituals can and do take different shapes for different people. 

Read all of Yoma 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 11th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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