I’ve taken a lot of students on tours of Israel. One of the highlights has always been a trip to the Dead Sea. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood on the shore, watching my students float on the salty water, while I hold a bag with cellphones in one hand and a bag with jewelry in the other. Because while all water is obviously bad for electronics, the high salt content of the Dead Sea (in Hebrew Yam HaMelach, the Salt Sea) is particularly bad for metal. And that matters a lot — not only to my students but also on today’s daf.
The mishnah on today’s daf explores what a woman should do if she takes a nazirite vow, sets aside the necessary animals for the sacrifices she will owe at the end of her naziriteship, and then her husband annuls the vow. Since the animals have been set aside for a sacrifice but are no longer going to offered, the question is: What happens to them? Once they have been consecrated, they cannot go back to being regular farm animals. The mishnah explains that if the animals belonged to the woman:
The sin-offering must die and the burnt-offering is sacrificed as a burnt-offering. The peace-offering is sacrificed as a peace-offering.
Burnt offerings and peace offerings can be offered whenever someone feels like it, so those animals are offered up, just no longer in connection with the completion of a term of a naziriteship. But sin offerings are only applicable in specific situations, and in this case she has (hopefully) no need of one. So that animal is neglected until it dies, so that consecrated property is not used inappropriately.
But what if the woman had set aside not animals, but money with which to purchase them? In that case the, money for the peace offering and the burnt offering can be used to purchase the relevant animals. But the money for the sin offering?
The money for the sin-offering is cast into the Dead Sea. One may not benefit from it or misuse it.
Since the money has been designated for a sacrifice that will never be, but is still consecrated and can’t be used for anything else, it must be thrown in the sea.
The idea is biblical. Micah 7:19 prophesies that, in the future, God “will cover up our iniquities … hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.” God will remove the stain of sin and transgression, sinking it below the surface of the water. The sea becomes a place to dispose of or hide things that bring shame and distance from God.
The rabbis take this tradition and specify that when they talk about throwing things into the sea, they mean the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea wasn’t the most convenient place to dispose of useless consecrated coins — even for the rabbis of the land of Israel but especially not for the rabbis living in Babylonia. The closest seas to the mishnaic rabbis were the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. But the uniquely high salt content of the Dead Sea meant that metal would corrode relatively quickly — and if you’re trying to dispose of some mistakenly consecrated coins without personally using or damaging them, it’s a great way to do it. By specifying the location, the rabbis turn the idea of throwing something into the sea from one of hiding it to one of passively destroying it.
Before you get inspired to get rid of all kinds of things by throwing them into the Dead Sea, it’s worth noting that the high salt content also means that things float on the surface of the water, a phenomenon that continually delights visitors. So while the Dead Sea might be a great place to dispose of coins, I wouldn’t try to hide a body there.
Read all of Nazir 24 on Sefaria.