Nazir 38

Science and Health

This Torah presents the nazirite’s prohibition from eating grapes as follows:

Throughout their term as nazirite, they may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin. (Numbers 6:4)

The final phrase of the verse, which could also be translated “from seeds to skin,” appears to be emphasizing the total ban: A nazir can’t eat any part of the grape, from center to surface, even the parts you might ordinarily discard. But to the rabbis, no phrase in the Torah is included for mere emphasis — there must be an additional lesson to learn here. 

And there is. The rabbis derive a general prohibition from the first part of the verse and a specific prohibition from its end. Doing so doesn’t change the fact that nazirites can’t eat grapes, but it does potentially put them on the hook for a double violation if they eat skins or seeds:

Abaye says: A nazirite who ate a grape seed is flogged twice. Likewise, if they ate a grape skin they are flogged twice. If they ate a grape seed and a grape skin they are flogged three times.

Rava says: They are flogged only once if they ate a seed or a skin because one is not flogged for violating a general prohibition.

Abaye holds that each violation, both general and specific, earns the nazir a set of lashes: If they ate grape seeds, they receive one set of lashes for violating the general prohibition against grape products and one for violating the specific one about grape seeds. Rava, however, holds that a nazirite who eats a grape seed is only flogged once to enforce the specific violation, and not the general.

Rav Pappa brings an objection to Abaye’s position (flogging for both the specific and general violations) based on a teaching of Rabbi Eliezer:

Rabbi Eliezer says: “A nazirite who ate grapes and raisins, grape seeds and grape skins, and squeezed a cluster of grapes and drank the juice is flogged five times.” If Abaye’s opinion is accepted, let him be flogged six times, to include one more for transgressing “anything that is made of the grapevine.” (Numbers 6:4)

In other words, by stating that the nazirite is flogged five times and not six, says Rav Pappa, Rabbi Eliezer is teaching that we do not add on a set of lashes for the general violation. This poses a challenge to Abaye’s position.

In situations like this, the Gemara usually makes one of two moves: (1) find another tannitic source to support Abaye or (2) explain how Rabbi Eliezer’s statement could be read so that Abaye’s opinion can coexist with it.

In this instance, the Gemara chooses the latter, exploring the possibility that Rabbi Eliezer was only giving a partial list and that he’s aware of other prohibitions (like the general one) that he did not mention.

But before the conversation goes further, Rav Pappa throws a curveball:

Actually, Rabbi Eliezer did not teach anything about five sets of lashes.

Hold on a second. Rav Pappa’s objection to Abaye was based on the fact that Rabbi Eliezer holds that a nazirite who who violates their vow in five ways gets five sets of lashes, but now Rav Pappa says that Rabbi Eliezer did not actually make reference to the number of lashes in his teaching!?

Rav Pappa explains that he was under the impression that Abaye’s ruling was an individual opinion, not based on a received tradition. And so, Rav Pappa creatively added a detail to the beraita so that it would contradict Abaye’s position, hoping Abaye would retract his position in response. But, as it turns out, Abaye was unmoved by the doctored beraita, and so Rav Pappa concluded that Abaye’s opinion was also based on received tradition. 

I wonder, by adding a new detail to the beraita, was Rav Pappa being intentionally manipulative in order to push Abaye’s opinion out of the debate? Or was he trying to help Abaye find a way to gracefully exit a dispute in which his opinion did not have a clearly established precedent? Whatever the case, Rav Pappa’s admission seems to resolve the matter for the Gemara, although the tradition on which Abaye bases his opinion is not cited. And given that in a debate between Rava and Abaye, the law follows Rava, not knowing Abaye’s source does not have a practical impact on the matter at hand.

On a number of occasions, we’ve seen the rabbis rewrite the language of a mishnah or a beraita when logic suggests that the text, in the form that they have it, does not make complete sense. But it is rather unusual to see a rabbi intentionally modifying the text of a beraita in the heat of argument.

Read all of Nazir 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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