Monday, 31 August 2015

Nazir 10: A Talking Cow and a Talking Door

Today's daf focuses on a new Mishna that raises a number of issues.  The rabbis aren't sure of the meaning of the Mishna, which states: If a speaker says that "This cow said 'I am hereby a nazirite if I stand up'" or if he says, "This door says, 'I am hereby a nazirite if I am opened", Beit Shammai says that he is a nazirite and Beit Hillel say that he is not a nazirite.  Rabbi Yehuda explains that Beit Shammai are referring  to the person who says that the cow is forbidden to me as an offering if it stands up, which means that the vow may take effect but the person is not going to be a nazirite.  

The Gemara walks us through our rabbis' examinations of this Mishna.  It seems that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that the vow of nazirut is suggested by the person telling this tale.  But why?  The words of the Mishna suggest that the cow would become a nazirite given certain conditions!  But a talking cow?  Or a talking door?  Even more ridiculous.  

Because the words of the Mishna are so challenging, the rabbis agree that the Mishna must be referring to something other than the vows of a cow or a door.  Perhaps the cow is being held up as an conditional offering.  Perhaps the speaker is suggesting that the cow thinks it will not stand and if it does stand on its own accord, the speaker will not consume cow flesh.  

The speaker's turpeih, intention, is the same as the main part of his statement - similar to the toref of a document.  The rabbis decide to interpret according to the speaker's turpeih rather than by the actual words of the Mishna.  But it is unclear how one might determine the speaker's turpeih.  Both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai use their understanding of the speaker's turpeih to construct and defend their interpretations.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Nazir 9: An Unusual Vow

Perek II begins with a new Mishna.  We learn that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about whether or not a vow of nazirut is valid.  If a person says, "I am a nazirite and I will not consume figs or fig cakes", Beit Shammai say that the vow of nazirut is valid and Beit Hillel say that it is not valid.

The Gemara asks a number of questions.  A nazirite is forbidden from consuming grapes, wine, etc., but figs are not forbidden.  Do we consider the person's intention, which was likely to be a nazirite in this case?  Because the person stated "I am a nazirite" initially, do we consider this person bound by the halachot of nazirut regardless of the error in her/his secondary statement?   Do we consider the vow to abstain from figs to be valid on its own? 

Different rabbis interpret the Mishna differently.  Perhaps Beit Shammai held that this person is not a nazirite while figs are forbidden to him and Beit Hillel believed that no vows were valid at all.  The Gemara continues with a discussion about atypical vows.  Further, the rabbis share their thoughts about other offerings and how they might inform us about how we are to manage atypical consecrations.  This is meant to help us understand how to interpret a statement like the one that begins our daf.  In some cases, words are added to a person's vow to ensure that it makes sense.  In other cases, the intention of the person making the vow is of primary importance.

Again, it is fascinating to note that even our most respected rabbis were able to give themselves permission to interpret difficult passages with both creativity and logic.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Nazir 8: Terms of Nazirut

We end Perek I with further thoughts regarding terms of nazirut.  A Mishna tells of people who make specific, somewhat bizarre statements.  In each case the rabbis argue about the meaning of their words.  In general, Rabbi Shimon argues that any questionable term should be treated with stringency and longer terms of nazirut should be observed.  Rabbi Yehuda, however, believes that vows of nazirut should be treated with leniency and the smallest possible terms are observed.

One example is a vow that one will be a nazirite if a pile holds greater than a kor of figs.   Another example is a vow that one is a nazirite in accordance with the capacity of a basket or a house.  “In accordance with the days of a solar year” and “from here until such and such a place” are two other vows of nazirut examined.

Each of these somewhat odd cases is deconstructed by the rabbis.  What if the pile of figs disappears before they are counted?  How much can fit in a basket – are we counting mustard seeds or gourds and cucumbers?  Does a person take a vow of nazirut  for 365 terms or 365 vows when 365 days are specified?  Are we counting the measure from one place to another in days, or another measure? 

We end our daf with a short examination of counting terms of nazirut.  Interestingly, Sumakos teaches that if the word hen is added to a number, it suggests Greek numbers.  The Gemara even walks through the numbers one to five in Greek to explain Sumakos’s words.  The same baraita teaching this also taught that a house can only be leprous if it has four walls – a three-walled or round house cannot become leprous. 

Ultimately, we confirm that there are three forms of nazirut.  A short, long, or unspecified term of nazirut is thirty days.  A permanent term of nazirut allows the nazirite to trim his/her hair and bring offerings regularly within their term.  Beyond these terms there is nazirut like that observed by Samson, where one can even become impure due to contact with a corpse but one does not trim her/his hair nor does s/he bring offerings.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Nazir 6: Counting Days: The Importance of the Specifics...?

The rabbis persist with their questions about the length of an unspecified vow of nazirut.  30 days?  29 days?  Does the final day count as a day of nazirut?  Is hair shaving done on the last day of one's status as a nazirite or after the term has been completed?  And if one waits, how long is the wait?  The following day?  Perhaps one should wait seven days, or two days, or the period of time it takes for the top of one hair to reach its root when folded over.    

The rabbis go on to discuss the rounding of numbers, for example from 29 to 30 days.  The intention is to ensure that a person who takes a vow of nazirut should not have to worry that her/his vow has not been completed properly.

Again, in our times, the consequences of such an unintentional error would be minimal.  We might feel badly that we did not accurately fulfil a promise.  But in the times of the Talmud, errors like the improper completion of a vow was punishable by lashes or even karet.

The compassion within which I practice Judaism does not allow for the harsh punishment of small errors.  Errors are to be acknowledged and then either corrected or accepted for what they are.  I cannot fathom practicing a Judaism that insists on 'perfection'.  And I cannot imagine the G-d that I know caring about those details.  There might be something G-dlike in attempting to create and practice rituals in particular ways, but I cannot believe in a G-d that would actually care about what is actually practiced.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Nazir 5: Thirty Days

Amud (a) walks us through the rabbis' understandings of the word yamim.  Does it refer to years? Weeks?  Perhaps two days?  Or 'a specified amount of time'?  Absalom, one of King David's sons, was a permanent nazirite.  We learn that he asked to fulfill that vow when he was 40 years old.  Permanent nazirites are permitted to cut their hair intermittently.  Absalom would cut his hair annually - or was it weekly, or at some other interval - as his hair would become heavy on his head.  

A Mishna teaches us that nazirut without a specified amount of time will be a thirty-day commitment.   A temporary nazirite is to grow his/her hair for the amount of time specified followed by a complete removal of his/her hair.   The thirty-day period of time might have been chosen because of the gimatriya, the numerical value, of the word 'yehiye', will be, as in Numbers 6:5 "He (a nazirite) shall be holy". Yehiye equals thirty.  Or perhaps when we count the number of times certain words are quoted, we find the number thirty (or thirty-one, or twenty-nine).  If a person states that s/he will be a nazirite when s/he has already taken that same vow, an additional thirty-day vow of nazirut is added to her/his original vow.

Our daf ends with a deeper discussion of the number of days required of a nazirite if s/eh does not specify the number of days s/he intends to devote to her/his vow.  When does the actual vow end, on the thirtieth day?  Or the thirty-first day?  At the start or at the end of the days? Is there a consequence fore ending one's nazirut slightly early, or is that acceptable?  And if one is serving two thirty-day terms of nazirut, does s/he shave his/her hair on both the thirty-first day and the sixty-first day?

This debate reminds me of my realization that numbers are imprecise.  When I was six years old, my friends were counting the number of days until their birthdays while looking at a calendar.  I could point out my birthday, but was it 10 days away or 11 days away?  When do we start our count of "one" and where does each "one" end?  And can we truly shave down something like time so that it has a precise moment to measure?  

Our rabbis use texts to help them understand the measurement of time.  Perhaps their considerations would have been helpful to me as a young child, too.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Nazir 4: Declarations, Ritual Impurity, Intention

The rabbis establish that nazirites are not allowed to consume wine.  If a person makes an oath regarding drinking wine - as is required since Mount Sinai - and then vows to become a nazirite the following day, his/her vow overrides his/her oath.  Thus wine is prohibited.  The rabbis debate whether or not an olive bulk's worth of grapes or seeds, skins, etc is required for a nazirite to have breached his/her restriction.

The rabbis discuss possible differences between wine and other 'strong drink'.  Even fermented fruit might cause drunkenness, disallowing Temple service.  However, the rabbis discuss differences in drunken service. Wine is in its own special category.  If a priest performs Temple services while he is drunk from wine, he is liable to death and his services must be repeated. However, if the services are performed by a priest drunk from strong drink, he is liable to lashes.  His services done in the Temple need not be repeated, however.  

The next Mishna says that if a person claims that s/he is like Samson, or like the son of Manoah, or like Delilah's husband, or like the one who's eyes were gouged out by the Philistines, or like the one who tore off the doors in Gaza, then s/he is a nazirite and is subject to all nazirite laws.  The Gemara does not challenge this Mishna.

Later in time, the rabbis explain, nazirut comes in two forms: permanent nazirut and nazirut like Samson.  Our next mishna questions what the differences might be between these two states.   It explains that a permanent nazirite can cut his/her hair with a razor (perhaps monthly, perhaps annually, but always without the use of scissors, a usual instrument for haircutting) if the hair becomes too heavy.  As well, s/he can then bring sin, peace and guilt offerings to the Temple.  S/he can become impure and the regain status as someone who is ritually pure.  A nazirite like Samson is more 'pure' and can do none of these things.

The Gemara first focuses on impurity.  How might a nazirite become impure?  How would this be different for Samson?  The rabbis consider aspects of ritual purity in relation to the declaration of nazirut.  One of their conversations questions Samson's contact with dead bodies as we learn in Judges that he smote thirty men and took their clothing.  How could this be if Samson did not become impure?

The Gemara moves on to focus on the first-born.  The first born of any animal belonging to a Jew is to be consecrated to G-d.  It is presented to the priest, who will sacrifice the animal if it remains unblemished, or who will use it as any other animal might be used if the animal develops a blemish within its first year.  The first born is consecrated to G-d just as a nazirite is consecrated to G-d.  But the nazirite should state the vow of nazirut aloud.

This leads the rabbis to a story we have learned before, that of Shimon HaTzadik.  A young man appeared before him wishing to become a nazirite.  How could such a beautiful young man cut off his hair at the end of the the nazirut process?  The visitor insisted that he had seen his reflection and his narcissism led him to seek connection with G-d, which lasts, rather than connection with his flesh, which will one day rot with maggots.  This is said to be the truest calling of the nazirite.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Nazir 3: All or Nothing?

Each of the circumstances in yesterday's Mishna is put to the test: which statements determine that someone is in fact a nazirite?  The rabbis turn to different verses.  Those verses help the rabbis understand the meanings of different words.  For example, they learn that 'curled hair' means 'hair that has been allowed to grow' by noting that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's maidservant used specific words with specific translations.

What is most interesting to me in today's daf - beyond a reference to the respect accorded to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's maidservant - is what we learn about societal practices through today's daf.  We learn that men's hair - especially that of priests - was generally kept short, for 'curly hair' meant the same thing as 'hair allowed to grow'.  We learn that women's body hair was sometimes treated with lime derived from chalk deposits.  Body hair was considered to be a flaw in women and they would even burn their skin in efforts to remove that hair.

Through examination of a number of verses, the rabbis determine the principle that one does not associate the object of one's vow with something that is juxtaposed to it in a verse.  

In discussing the notion of birds and the juxtapositioning of verses and vows, we learn in a note about the purification of cured lepers and leprous houses.  Two unblemished kosher birds, usually sparrows,  were collected.  One was killed over a vessel of spring water and the mixture of water and blood was sprinkled over the leper or on the house.  The live bird was dipped in the water and then freed, releasing it from consecration completely.

The rabbis discuss oaths and the use of one's right hand; the use of one's left hand.  They find verses that link 'right' with faith.  If a person uses the word yamin, right, while speaking of an obligation, s/he has made an oath to fulfil that obligation. The same may be true for the left hand.  

A new Mishna teaches us that when a person says, I am a Nazirite and I will not benefit from grape seeds, grape skins, shaving or impurity, s/he is a Nazirite.  However, s/he must commit to all laws of the Nazirite, not simply the one abstention mentioned.  The Gemara reminds us that Rabbi Shimon disagreed - shouldn't a person be obliged to only their specific vow?  The rabbis defend the Mishna.  All aspects are accepted when one declares oneself a Nazirite.   

At the very end of our vow, the rabbis begin a discussion about grape seeds, skins, and the consecration of wine for havdala and kiddush. 

Nazir 2: Intimating Nazirite Vows

Our first Mishna starts us off with a great debate.  What does one have to say in order to be a Nazirite?  The Sages disagree with Rabbi Meir, who says that one is a nazirite if s/he says that s/he:
  • is a nazirite
  • will be a nazirite
  • will be beautiful, na'a
  • is a nazik
  • is a nazi'a
  • is a pazi'a
  • is growing her/his hair
  • is a hair-curler
  • is obligated to grow his/her hair
  • is obligated regarding birds
The Gemara begins by establishing why Masechet Nazir is in the order of Nashim.  We learn that abstaining from wine is significant regarding the halachot of Sota, which is our next Masechet.  The Gemara continues with a conversation about intimations.  There are a number of places where direct statements, such as "I am a nazir," are not the only ways to establish one's status.  Saying something indirect can also assume a new status.  But why is this the case?  Isn't such lenience open to misinterpretations? 

Could it be that a new principle is at hand?  The rabbis question situations where intimations or substitutions take place after statements and where statements or actions take place before intimations/substitutions.  At its core, the rabbis understand that we are speaking about intention.  Does someone intend to state that they will be nazirites when they state one of these vows?  If so, they are obliged to be nazirites.

When people say the vows above or make other intimations to claim the status of nazir, they are also admitting to previous transgressions.  It seems that one claims this status as a way apologizing for past wrongs.

Nedarim 91: Do We Believe A Woman Who Says That She Has Been Raped?

Our last daf of Masechet Nedarim focuses on how to manage claims of rape.  Because I did not blog about daf 90 on Shabbat, I will summarize a few points here: the new Mishna teaches that three women will receive their ketubot even if they are divorced against their husbands’ wills.  These are:

1) the wife of a priest who says “I am defiled to you”, meaning that she was raped;
2) a wife who says “Heaven is between me and you”, meaning that her husband is impotent  - which cannot be independently proven
3) a wife who vows that she is “removed from the Jews”, meaning that she cannot benefit from intercourse with any Jew including her husband

The Sages then retracted their words, believing that women might become enamoured with other men and use these excuses to leave their marriages.  They say that in the first case, she must bring proof that she was raped.  In the second case, she must request a divorce through the court.  In the final case, the husband must nullify the vow that pertains to him so that she may still engage with intercourse with him. However,  her vow will hold and she will not be permitted to have intercourse with anyone else should he die or divorce her.

The rabbis discuss many of the details surrounding these suggested halachot.  The differences between the wives of Israelites face different consequences for extramarital intercourse than those faced by wives of Priests.  We learn that a woman married to an Israelite who willingly has sex with another man loses the right to her ketuba but does not become forbidden to her husband.  Similarly, if she was raped, she is permitted to her husband and she maintains rights to her ketuba.  If married to a priest, a woman who is raped must leave her husband.  She still receives her ketuba.

There is a good amount of effort spent on when a woman is believed.  Would she blatantly and brazenly lie?  In front of her husband?  Outside of her husband’s presence?  When might she be embarrassed to speak falsely?  When would her husband know if she were lying?  An example is when a wife might say that her husband “does not shoot like an arrow”.  This is a euphemism for impotence, where a husband would not know whether or not his ejaculation is powerful enough but his wife might be able to feel the difference.  Of course, the assumption here is that a man would not ejaculate outside of his wife’s body at any time and thus no one could know if there is a problem or not. 

Our masechet ends with a number of stories of women who may have been unfaithful to their husbands.  The stories are both laughable and disturbing.  In most cases, women are found to be lying when the rabbis walk through their theoretical situations.  Clearly, the rabbis have focused on men's experiences of a woman's experience of rape.  

Interestingly, the Sages' initial responses were very sympathetic to Jewish women who claimed that they were raped, that their husbands were impotent, or that they did wished to abstain from intercourse.  The rabbis responded to that sympathy with defensiveness.  Why was it so difficult to stay with the possibility that women were telling the truth?  

I imagine that some women were lying about rape, impotence or the 'righteous reasons' for naziriteship.  However, our rabbis do not consider why a woman might want to avoid intercourse.  Instead, they jump to the notion that women wish to have intercourse with men other than their husbands. 

How have these interpretations affected the lives of women over the past 2000 years?  It is amazing to see that our understanding of women’s experiences continues to focus on men’s interpretations of our experiences.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Nedarim 89: Vows of Widows, Orphans and Divorcees

We conclude the Mishna that began in daf 88.  What about a divorced woman or a widow?  Should any future-based vow be subject to nullification by her husband or father once she is removed from the authority of her husband?  If she says that she is a Nazirite after thirty days and then she marries, her husband cannot nullify her vow.  If she took the vow while she was married, he can nullify the vow for her. At that moment in time only, however, he is permitted to nullify her vow.  If she was divorced and remarried to her husband on the same day as taking that vow, he cannot nullify her previous vows once divorced.  The principle: Once a woman has entered her own jurisdiction, even for a single hour, none of her vows from her first marriage, even with the same husband, can be nullified by her second husband. 

The Gemara begins with an argument between two rabbis.  If a widow or divorcee says I am hereby a nazirite for when I get married, and she was married Rabbi Yishmael says that her husband can nullify her vow and Rabbi Aviva says he cannot.  If she says the same for when she will get divorced, and she gets divorced – Rabbi Yishmael says that her husband cannot nullify her vow, and Rabbi Akiva says that he can. 

Rabbi Yishmael quotes Numbers 30:10, explaining that every vow of a widow and of divorced women shall be upheld against them.  Thus each vow can then be nullified only after it takes effect – and at that time there is no husband to nullify the vow.  Rabbi Akiva maintains his position, believing that the binding of the vow takes place at the time of her widowhood or divorce.  Other rabbis add to this discussion.

We are reminded of a principle: betrothed young woman requires that her husband and her father are present to nullify her vows.  Thus sending messengers is not enough.  And another principle: A husband cannot nullify vows made previous to their marriage.

We learn a new Mishna: Nine young women’s vows are upheld and cannot be nullified.  She must have taken these vows:
1)   as a grown woman and an orphan
2)   as an orphan
3)   as a young woman who has reached majority and an orphan
4)   as a young woman you has not reached majority and is an orphan
5)   as a grown woman whose father has died
6)   as a young woman whose father died and then she reached majority
7)   as a grown woman and father is alive
8)   as a young woman who became a grown woman and her father is alive
9)   as added by Rabbi Yeduda: as a minor daughter who was widowed/divorced and returned to her father while she is still a young woman by age

The rabbis clarify: three young women cannot have their vows nullified: a grown woman, an orphan, and an orphan in her father’s lifetime.

A last Mishna for today: A woman might vow that deriving benefit from her father or father-in-law is konam for her if she prepares anything for her husband.  Her husband can nullify this vow.  Rabbi Natan disagrees: she is obligated to prepare food for her husband, and so this vow cannot be nullified because the vow is void.  The rabbis say that her husband can nullify her vow.

The baraita continues: Rabbi Natan says that a husband cannot nullify his wife’s vow if she promises to remove herself from the Jews – to abstain from sexual intercourse with anyone – if I have intercourse with you.  She is obligated, says Rabbi Natan, and so her vow is void.  The rabbis disagree with this as well.

We end our daf with an example of a similar vein.  A man claimed that he should receive no benefit from the world if he marries a woman before he has learned halachot.  He did not learn halachot, though he climbed a rope up and down.  Rabbi Acha bar Rav Huna erroneously told him that his vow would not come into effect, and so the man married.  Tomorrow’s daf will tell us what happened to this poor soul….

Nedarim 88: On Context

Our daf begins with Rava teaching us about the importance of context.  Using the example of a person brought into a forest and a person striking another person, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir argue about whether or not a blind person can be held fully responsible for the accidental death of another person and thus be subject to karet. 

A new Mishna teaches us that if a father vows that his son-in-law should not benefit from him, he must be careful in how he gifts monetary gifts to his daughter.  He must say to her, “This money is hereby given to you as a gift, provided that your husband has no rights to it; only what you pick and place in your mouth”. A physical action?  A food in particular?

The rabbis speak about their interpretations of “what you pick up and place in your mouth”.  Without saying “do as you please” with that gift, the gift automatically reverts back to her husband, for a wife’s monetary gifts belong to her husband.   

Rabbi Meir states that “the had of a woman is like the hand of her husband”.  Like a slave, a woman has no right to acquisition.   A ruling from Masechet Eiruvin 73 is used to better understand when a husband’s rights are transferred to others.  To merge courtyards with an alleyway (to facilitate carrying on Shabbat in a shared domain), he can designate possession of a barrel of eighteen meals of food to his wife, adult daughter or son, slave, or maidservant.  This creates a kosher eiruv, though the husband himself did not take the required action. 

Rav Zeira argues: is not the wife still within the domain of her husband in this case?  Rava points out that Rabbi Meir would agree in this case that a woman’s hand is like the hand of her husband for her intention is to acaquire the eiruv for others from her husband’s hand.  The purpose of her action carries power in this situation.

Countering Rav Zeira’s list of designates, Ravina argues that a wife cannot in fact acquire an eiruv on behalf of others.  Nor can  a minor son or duagher, or a Canaanite slave or maidservant. 

Rav Ashi brings us back to the notion of context.  In the Mishna at hand, the rabbis are discussing a courtyard that belongs to a woman!  Thus she is the person acquiring the eiruv for others.

I loved today’s daf – it began and ended with a conversation about the importance of context.  Our rabbis often quote out of context when that suits a larger argument.  To remind themselves about context is a lovely reminder to all of us – we should be checking and rechecking and rechecking whenever we believe that we know what someone else has said.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Nedarim 87: Rending Garments; Splitting Vows

The rabbis wonder whether we can learn anything applicable from the halachot regarding the rending of garments upon learning that one is in mourning.  One might rend his garment upon learning that a close relative died.  Different halachot apply if one learns that it was his father but he thought his son had died; if one learns that it was his son but he thought his father had died.   So we know that specificity matters. 

Timing matters as well.  For example, if a person rends his garment immediately after learning that his father died and then, within the time it takes to speak a three-word sentence, he learns that it was his son who died, he need not rend his clothing again.    Another example involves a similar situation.  If a person saw someone faint – fall into a coma, perhaps – and believed that victim had died, he might rend his clothing immediately.  If the person in fact died very shortly after that moment of rending one’s clothing, the clothing need not be torn again.

We learn that a short pause is considered to be like dibur damei, continuous speech.   Continuous speech allows us to immediately retract what we have just said – whether that is a vow, an insult, a promise – whatever.  Except for four things:  blasphemy or idol worship – which are both punished by death by stoning – and betrothal or divorce – which are both impossible to retract without paying out the ketuba.

A new Mishna teaches us two separate rules.  First, if a woman says that grapes and figs are konam for her and her husband only ratifies one of those fruits, the entire vow is ratified.  If he only nullifies one of those fruits, his nullification is void unless he includes both fruits.  Thus nullification of a vow must be specific to each part of that vow.  However, the second part of this Mishna says that if a woman says that tasting a fig and tasting a grape are konam for me, each fruit is a separate vow requiring individual nullification.

The rabbis argue about the importance of using the word ‘tasting’ twice verses using  the word ‘konam’ twice.

We learn a new Mishna at the end of amud (b).  A man might say that he has learned that his wife or daughter has made vows but he does not know whether or not he can nullify them because they might not require nullification, because he does not know how to nullify them, or because he believes it is too late to nullify them.  Rabbi Meir says that he cannnot nullify these vow.  The rabbis disagree and say that he can nullify these vows on the day that he understand that they can nullify them.

The Gemara notes that in Numbers (25:33), we learn that a person who is blind is excused from punishment for killing someone accidentally.  Rabbi Yehuda teaches this based on the words “not seeing” in that verse.  Rabbi Meir disagrees, saying that a blind person is not different from anyone else, and if he kills someone accidentally, he too should be exiled. 

The Gemara uses this to prove that Rabbi Meir does not distinguish between different types of lack of knowledge.