Nazir 54

Science and Health

We’ve by now spent quite some time on the issue of a nazir who accidentally contracts corpse impurity. We’ve discussed shaving the consecrated hair the nazirite was growing — which has now become impure and can no longer be offered — and the week-long purification ritual to reverse the corpse impurity of their body. This is punctuated by sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer on days 3 and 7. We’ve looked at the dilemma over whether the nazir’s purification resumes on day 7 or 8, based on an ambiguity in Numbers 6:9. And, we’ve also worked through questions of what human bodies or body parts can impart corpse impurity to the nazir — from bones, to fluids, to fetuses. 

Partway through today’s daf, we encounter a new mishnah that lists doubtful or secondary circumstances of contact impurity for which the nazir does not shave their head, even though they are considered temporarily impure for the purposes of naziriteship.

However, the nazirite does not shave for these: Hanging branches (over a corpse) and projecting stones (from fences in a place of uncertain purity) and a place that contained a grave and was plowed (therefore the exact location of the bones is now uncertain, though they are in the vicinity) and the land of the nations (i.e. outside the land of Israel) and the grave cover and the grave walls and a quarter-log of blood (from a corpse) and a tent and a quarter-kav of bones (of a corpse) and vessels that are touching a corpse … and he does not negate the earlier days of his naziriteship and he starts counting immediately (after his purification) and he has no offering.

These are all incidents in which the contact with the corpse was either doubtful or more removed. Under these circumstances, the nazir does need to pause the clock on their vow and purify by sprinkling ashes of the red heifer on days 3 and 7, but they do not need to shave their head or offer the sacrifices that a nazir who had more certain or direct contact with a corpse does. They also do not need to start their vow over again; they can pick up with whatever day they left off.

Of these examples, I find most interesting the case of the eretz amim (literally, the land of the nations), meaning lands outside of Israel, all of which are presumed to be inherently impure with respect to corpse contact because we never know where there might be an unmarked grave.

The Gemara asks an interesting question about how contracting secondary corpse impurity in the eretz amim works:

A dilemma was raised before the sages: Did the sages decree the land of the nations impure with regard to the air? Or perhaps they decreed it impure with regard to the earth?

When a nazir sets foot outside of Israel, do they contract impurity by stepping on the ground (impure with regard to the earth)? Or even by passing through in a carriage which means they never set food on the ground (impure with regard to the air)? On tomorrow’s daf we learn that according to one sage, the nazir contracts ritual impurity even by riding in a carriage and keeping their feet off the ground, though if they enclose themselves completely in a box for the entire journey then they can avoid this impurity. However, this opinion is disputed.  

Tosafot, the medieval scholars descended from Rashi, explain that the talmudic sages made this ruling in an effort to prevent a nazir from leaving the land of Israel to go abroad. From a reading of other talmudic commentators, it appears that the sages presumed lands outside of Israel to be corpse-impure by default; though corpse impurity by mere travel through the open air of eretz amim is a marginal case that doesn’t entail a nazir’s full interruption of nazir status, the Talmud still wants to prevent the nazir from such interruption.

We leave this daf and the nazir’s travels abroad in the diaspora with some intriguing questions: Does the Talmud forbid the nazir to travel out of protectiveness for the nazir’s holiness, a fierce love for the holy land, or both? And what backstory could we imagine lies behind a person so self-secluding out of dedication to God who nonetheless ends up “flying through the air” of another country?

Read all of Nazir 54 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 18th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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