Saturday, 31 October 2015

Sota 6: Forbidden Relationships; When Women Cannot Partake of Teruma

Before beginning a new Mishna, the rabbis discuss when a woman is forbidden from her husband and when she is not.  If the wife of a Kohen is raped, she is forbidden to her husband.  If the wife of an Israelite or a Levi is raped, she is allowed to her husband again.  However, if the wife of an Israelite or Levite is adulterous - consenting to intercourse with a man other than her husband - then she is not permitted to her husband.  In fact, other men are encouraged to avoid marrying women who were divorced due to adultery.

Our new Mishna teaches that there are a number of things that forbid a woman from partaking of teruma:

  • When a woman tells her husband that she has been defiled to him and witnesses agree to her adulterous behaviour
  • When a woman refuses to drink the bitter waters after having been secluded and defiled
  • When a husband refuses to allow his wife to drink the bitter waters though she has been accused of adultery
  • When the couple have intercourse on their way to the Temple to drink the bitter waters
The Gemara notes that the test of the sota only takes place when there are no witnesses to the adulterous act.  If witnesses are present, the husband divorces his wife without paying her ketuba.  Drinking the bitter waters is required only if a woman denies adultery although she was warned and was then witnessed moving toward seclusion with a forbidden man with enough time passing for her to have had intercourse.

The Gemara continues its questioning of this Mishna, now regarding the timing of witnesses reports and the possibility of a woman having intercourse partially through the ritual.  If a witness brings forward his/her report after a woman has given her offering, the offering might be considered to have been made "in vain", which is another punishable offence.  Further, a woman should be accompanied at all times to ensure that she has no opportunity to have intercourse while there.  But can she be held by the shoulders by one of the younger priests at all times?  She could sneak away to urinate and than take advantage of the opportunity to have intercourse with one of the young priests!

The notion of 'false witnesses' is discussed at some length.  How do we know if witnesses are lying about what they have seen?  There are a number of circumstances that do not require witnesses.  However, it people are found to be false witnesses, they are subject to the liability that was at question: death if the death penalty was a possibility; monetary compensation if a financial reward was to be assigned.

We also learn that women would sit together and weave in the moonlight, discussing news and community gossip.  If a woman's behaivour or status were to come up at these circles, it could also affect the process and the outcome of an investigation into the woman's conduct.

We witness an underlying fear of the power of women's sexual desire in today's daf.  It was powerful enough to stand up to censure and punishment, to push a husband to controlling behaviour and a crush to rape.  A woman's sexual desire is strong enough corrupt a priest in the holy Temple.  

The discussion of women's desire and men's control with such clinical detachment is challenging to read.  What about the emotion involved?  What about the feelings of insecurity, fear and desperation that these women would have felt - whether or not they had been adulterous?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Nazir 4: How Long Does Defilement Take?; Hand Washing, Adultery and Pride

So how long does it take for a wife forbidden from secluding herself with a particular man to actually be defiled?  The rabbis debate what defilement entails - full intercourse?  Partial intercourse?  Simply genitals touching each other?  Clearly they lean toward the minimal contact required, for their suggestions of how long defilement will take are extremely short.  

The rabbis suggest different amounts of time: the time it takes to roast an egg, to circle a palm tree, to lift one's hand to her teeth, to remove a loaf of bread from a basket... and so on.  Why didn't any one rabbi suggest that it might take the amount of time required for a woman to lift her skirts and remove her undergarment? 

The rabbis include appeasement in their measures of time, too: this is the amount it takes to convince a woman to have intercourse and to touch genitals.  In the end, Rabbi Akiva's suggestion is our halacha: the amount of time it takes to defile oneself while in seclusion is the same amount of time it would take to roast and swallow an egg.

The rabbis had quoted from Psalms 6:26 regarding the example of a loaf of bread.  That verse teaches that "For on account of a harlot, a man is brought to a loaf of bread".  This is interpreted to mean that harlotry leaves one needy.  The conversation turns to handwashing.  We learn that Rabbi Elazar believes that one who is contemptuous toward the handwashing ritual is uprooted from the world.

The rabbis go to some length discussing the manner in which hands should be washed.  They are washed for two reasons.  The first is to remove ritual impurity, which is said to be contracted on one hands.  The second is for reasons of hygiene.  This section of today's daf read like a how-to for people struggling with OCD.  We wash our hands twice, once to remove impurity and the second to remove any lingering impurity.  We hold our hands in a position that ensures no cross-contamination. We ensure that all spots that were wet in the first wash are wet again during the second wash... and so on.  OCD is often characterized by symptoms including excessive hand washing... it is difficult to imagine a more authoritative source for this debilitating disorder.

We end our daf with a discussion of the dangers of arrogance.  Much of today's conversation included  connections to harlotry.  It seems that our rabbis might link the experience of an adulterous woman with those of women who  engage in prostitution.  The notion that a wife might be coerced into seclusion and intercourse with a 'forbidden' man seems to be unimportant at this point in Masechet Sota.  We'll find out whether or not that is a question as we continue to learn.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Sota 3: The Spirit of Jealousy; What Precedes Us to The World To Come

In daf 2, our first Mishna teaches some of the basic rituals involved in drinking the bitter waters.  It begins with jealousy coming over a man; he believes that his wife might be adulterous with a particular person.  He must warn her not to seclude herself with that person, and witnesses must be present.  If a witness attests that the wife then secluded herself secretly and then defiled herself with that man, the main rituals of sota are enacted.

Today's daf questions some of those basic assumptions.  Is he overcome by the spirit of jealousy or the spirit of purity?  Is he feeling jealous or pure because of his wife?  Or is he taken over by a spirit of jealousy or purity before he places blame for that feeling upon his wife and then warns her?  What does seclusion entail?  How can we know that she was defiled while secluded?  How much time would it take for a couple to have intercourse while secretly secluded?  

Is warning his wife mandatory, or is it simply an option?  The rabbis consider other situations where actions are mandatory.  One of these regards priests who are normally forbidden to become tamei, ritually impure.  There is a requirement that they become tamei,when they experience the death of a close family member.  Another example is the competing requirement to enslave Canaanite bondspeople forever and to never enslave one's brethren, fellow Jews, forever - even if they are one's slaves.  

Rabbi Chisda says that both licentiousness and anger in a home are like a worm in sesame   The Gemara clarifies  while this applies to both women and men, the directive is to women, whose punishments are much greater for such behaviours.  The rabbis elaborate:  before we sin, the Divine presence is with us always.  After we sin, It departs.  As well, acts of righteousness precede us to the World to Come, while transgressions wait for us on the Day of Judgement.  Rabbi Elazar notes that our sins cling to us like a dog.  He looks to Joseph who turned away from the Queen's advances, refusing to "lie with her" nor to "be with her".  According to Rabbi Elazar, lying with her refers to the sins of this word, while being with her suggests a clinging to sin for eternity.

Our daf ends with a conversation about a husband's ability to divorce his wife because he finds something unseemly about her.  It would be relatively simple to divorce one's wife at any time.  The Gemara notes that there is some degree of stringency regarding the number of witnesses required.  Again, the rabbis seem concerned that we understand their hesitancy to condone divorce based on a husband's whim.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Sota 2: A Cautious Introduction

After its first  Mishna, Masechet Sota begins with a discussion about why we are learning Masechet Sota.  Why is it placed at this point in Nashim?  How is it related to Masechet Nazir, which we just finished?  Are the rabbis implying that a person who partakes in a part of the sota ritual should become a nazirite?

The Mishna states that a man might warn his wife not to seclude herself with a specific man.  If his wife then secludes herself with the man specified, she is brought to drink the "bitter waters"; to determine whether or not she has been adulterous through a magical ingestion of water that has held a Torah verse.  

The Gemara wonders about how many witnesses are required in each part of this process.  Are no witnesses, one witness or two witnesses present when the husband issues his warning?  How many people are required to have witnessed the wife in seclusion with this specifically forbidden man?

A number of points jump out at me over the course of this very long first daf.  One is the fact that this marriage might end in divorce for a number of reasons:

  • if the husband chooses to divorce his wife at any time
  • if drinking the bitter waters makes the woman ill
  • if even one person witnesses a seclusion long enough for cohabitation with a particular person following a husband's warning about that seclusion
There are other disincentives to divorce, including the fact that a husband who has himself been unfaithful will also suffer if his wife is forced to drink the bitter waters.

The rabbis are offering multiple options for couples to choose to stay together.  While this might not be ideal in cases where individuals preferred divorce, there are advantages to this system.  People are given the opportunity to think about what they are doing before making such life-altering decisions.  We are learning about a time when women were likely in extremely dire circumstances if they were without the financial support of a man.  Further, the accusation of adultery could destroy a woman's life.  Men were encouraged to think before they used such dangerous words.

Another point of interest is that a woman is forbidden to return to her husband if she has been adulterous.  Thus a husband must be extremely careful about his accusations if he is interested in staying married.  

In our first daf, a strong theme of caution emerges regarding the application of sota rituals.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Nazir 66: Ending on Impurities of Semen, Samuel as Nazirite, Shalom Rav

Before introducing the final Mishna of Masechet Nazir, we listen to the rabbis' conversation regarding the impurity of a zav's semen.  The rabbis understand that while semen is tamei, a zav's discharge carries a particular form of tumah.  This tumah is transferred through 'carrying' if a zav's seminal emission occurs within a short time period following his discharge.    

The rabbis discuss this at some length.  This is one of the only times learning Talmud that I have understood the rabbis' hesitance to share Talmudic learning with women.  Not because I am uncomfortable with the notion of semen as tamei, but because of the continual examination of the discharge that might contaminate one's semen.  Enough to turn my stomach, if only a bit.

The final Mishna of Nazir reminds us that both Samson and the judge Samuel were subject to the declaration that a mora would not touch their heads.  Mora might mean razor.  Then again, it might mean 'fear of flesh and blood'. And so both men may have allowed their hair to grow long, never allowing a razor to touch them and becoming nazirites.  Or was Samuel not to be afraid of people in some context?  

The very end of our Masechet explores two ideas.  The first is the value of responding "amen" to a blessing.  Is that even more important than actually reciting the blessing itself?  There is value to listening without speaking; there is value in the act of affirmation.  The rabbis conclude that saying 'amen' is more important, but that the person reciting the blessing will be rewarded first in the world to come.  

The second idea is what Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Chanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, for it is said "and all of your banayich, children, shall be taught of the Lord, and your children will have great peace" (Isaiah 54:13).  Instead of reading Isaiah's word banayich, children, read it as bonayich, builders.  We can take this to mean that Torah scholars build peace for the future generations.

What a lovely note upon which we end our masechet.  Perhaps self-serving, but lovely.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Nazir 65: Leniencies re: Tumah

Almost at the end of our masechet, we discuss three different Mishnaot regarding uncertainties of tumah, ritual impurity.  The first regards found corpses.  Secondly, we learn about instances where tzaara is uncertain.  Finally we are told about times when the status of a zav is uncertain.  Overall, our rabbis are attempting to address the difficulties that face nazirites when they come into contact with ritual impurity.

Corpses are primary sources of tamei.  We have previously learned that any indication of uncovering a graveyard leads to rulings of tamei and resulting difficulties.  Today, we learn that there are a number of situations that allow people to assume that they have not found a graveyard.  For example, bodies buried in sitting positions or with their heads between their knees are assumed to be Gentiles and do not impart tamei unless under a tent or touched directly.  Thus they are deemed to be of no threat - the corpses can be removed.  Other cases of uncertainty can be removed along with three fingerbreadths of surrounding dirt and/or wood chips.

Our second Mishna teaches that tzaara, skin diseases, are uncertain if we do not know whether a hair was white before or after the appearance of a white spot on the skin surrounding the hair.  In addition, if two people are isolated following the appearance of a possible spot of tzaara and one week later both are the same size, both people are considered to be ritually pure, tahor.  As long as there is uncertainty as to which blemish grew, we are uncertain as to the status of both - and both are understood to be 'safe' in the community.

Last, a Mishna teaches us about zavim.  There are seven questions asked of a potential zav: a man with penile discharge.  These are whether or not:
1) he has eaten or drunk something unusual
2) he has eaten or drunk too much
3) he has lifted a heavy burden
4) he has jumped 
5) he suffers from an illness
6) he has thought of something arousing (described as sexual intercourse)
7) he has witnessed something arousing (argued to be a sexy woman, an act of intercourse, or another sight).

These questions are asked after the first discharge.  At this point his status may be uncertain.  If he is held for a day and emits a second discharge, he is called a zav.  But if that discharge is determined to be due to one of the above external factors, he will not be held to the same standards than a woman at this point - after two discharges of blood, she is called a zava and faces the full consequences of that status.  A man might still be allowed to participate in the community following a second discharge. 

These 'uncertainties' allow us to understand the dilemmas facing our rabbis.  They could not be too stringent, and risk disruption of societal functioning, nor could they be too lenient and allow Jewish practice to dissolve.  We continue to face these same questions, albeit with different issues, in our daily Jewish lives.  We can hope that the leaders in our community have the wisdom to recognize how to best help maintain a thriving Jewish community.

Nazir 64: Tahor in the Water; Miscarriage

Yesterday's daf discussed the ritual impurity that might result from finding a corpse in the water.  Today's daf begins with further arguments about that point.  If a corpse is found floating in the water, does it transmit tuman?  What about a creeping animal?  What about a creeping animal sitting on a corpse, or a creeping animal lying on another creeping animal?   What about a creeping animal in a vessel in the water?  Ostensibly this will help the rabbis understand when and why a nazirite is permitted to approach the Temple in purity with his/her offering, thus ending his/her nazirut.

The rabbis consider the differences between solid and liquid sources of tumah. Believe it or not, they question when the tumah of semen might be considered to be a solid due to its viscosity.

Amud (b) introduces a few novel ideas.  First, the rabbis wonder about whether or not a nazirite has completed his/her purification if the sun has not yet set on their day of immersion (the last day of and the last step in purification).  When is a person considered to be "lacking" when it comes to purification? 

The example used to illustrate this difficulty is a woman who is bringing an offering after having given birth to a girl.  She then miscarries on the 81st day.  Is she fully tamei, ritually pure?  Does she bring an offering for the miscarried fetus and for the birth of a girl?  A baraita teaches that if she miscarries before the fulfilment of her purification, she brings only one offering: the offering for the birth of her baby.   But what if she has two miscarriages after her childbirth but before the fulfilment of her ritual purity?  

The rabbis share different opinions about what should be done if a woman miscarries during her tumah following childbirth.  One says that she should bring only an offering for the childbirth - unless the miscarriage occurs on the very last day of her purification.  Rav Kahana suggests that she cannot bring an offering in this case because she is "lacking" when it comes to purification.

I take a number of points from this commentary:

  • offerings could be brought to the Temple for miscarriage
  • women miscarried frequently, sometimes twice immediately following the birth of a child (though I'm not clear on how one would become pregnant while tahor)
  • men were interpreting when women could bring offerings following miscarriage
Miscarriage may not be the same thing as losing another loved one, but it can be a very significant event.  It is comforting to think that the experience of miscarriage was given its own ritual.  Had I possessed a ritual to use when I was suffering after a miscarriage, I believe that my next pregnancy would have been much more smooth.

A new Mishna teaches that if a corpse is found on its own, it can be dislodged along with at least three fingerbreadths of earth surrounding it and reburied elsewhere.  If two bodies are found, the same halacha applied.  If three bodies are found near each other in rows, though, the site is assumed to be a ceremony and the builders must search for other bodies within a 20 cubit radius.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Nazir 62: Slaves and Women

The rabbis debate whether or not Gentiles can vow to be nazirites.  In today's daf, they focus on verses that include Gentiles in obligations other than nazirut.   When a verse uses the word "man", does it include Jews and non-Jews?  Does it include Gentiles of all ages?  At what age does a Gentile become a man?  And is that 'man' obligated in the halachot of nazirut?  Of course this raises larger questions about who is obligated in the laws revealed at Sinai, vows in general, and the Noahide laws.  The rabbis also note that vows of nazirut specifically include women.

A new Mishna teaches that there is greater stringency regarding the vows of slaves than the vows of women, for men can nullify their wives vows on the day that they are heard.  Such a nullification is permanent, even if she is divorced or widowed.   If a man tries to nullify his slave's vow, the slave is permitted to complete his nazirut once he is freed.  

The Gemara examines when a person is permitted to limit his slave's vows and when he is not.  

A final Mishna is offered where Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosei disagree about the fate of a slave who runs away from his owner after his vow has been interrupted by the owner.  Is he forbidden to drink, for his vow of nazirut takes effect (he is free), or is his prohibited from drinking, as his vow's status is still in effect (put on hold by his owner until he is emancipated)?

The Gemara looks to Shmuel, who teaches that a slave once freed is not required a "bill of manumission".  Thus shouldn't a slave be permitted to continue his nazirut once free, too?  The rabbis want to ensure that Rabbi Yosei agrees with Shmuel. They explain that he must assume that the slave will return to his owner.  In that case, he should not restart his observance of nazirut unless he is emancipated.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Nazir 61: Can We Take On Mitzvot That Are Obliged to Others?

Before beginning Perek IX, our daf shares the Gemara's conclusions concerning our last Mishna.  

  • a leper shaves before immersion and again before the blood is sprinkled
  • an impure nazirite shaves after immersion and again after the blood is sprinkled
  • if hair is removed for the sake of the mitzvah of shaving, a depilatory is permitted
  • if hair is removed for the sake of removing hair that grew in a state of tumah, a depilatory is permitted
  • thus all four acts of shaving discussed are done for the sake of the mitzvah of shaving
Perek IX shares a new Mitzvah:  Gentiles cannot be nazirites.  Women and slaves can both be nazirites.  Women are more stringent than slaves in their nazirut, for slaves can be forced to break nazirut but women cannot.  

The Gemara picks this apart.  First, why aren't Gentiles nazirites?  The Gemara refers to Numbers 6:2, which says "Speak to the children of Israel", excluding others from the obligation of nazirut.  Second, why are slaves included?  The verse continues with, "And say to them, when a man or woman clearly utters a vow...".  We know that women's obligations are applied to slaves as well.   

Another verse that teaches about the exclusion of Gentiles using those same words is Leviticus 27:2, which refers to valuation vow, which are required of Gentiles in limited ways.  Thus perhaps Gentiles are included in modified vows of nazirut?  Finally, the Gemara points to the conclusion of that verse, which speaks of a person not defiling himself for his father, mother, sister or brother.   The Gemara wonders: do Gentiles even have fathers at all?  They are bound by different rules of inheritance than Jews.  Further, this concerns ritual purity, which does not apply to Gentiles at all.  The Gemara argues that Gentiles are only bound to their own laws regarding valuation.  And because Gentiles cannot end their vows of nazirut through meaningful purification rituals, they are not obliged in nazirut.  

An interesting argument: can a person meet the requirements of rituals that do not apply to them?  We can use this same system of thought to understand arguments against women's participation in traditionally male, time-bound obligations.  If a woman is not bound by those obligations, why would she have any motivation to do them with awe, reverence, or meaning?  And what would be the consequence if she were to do one of the mitzvot incorrectly?  

Perhaps this suggests a mode of thought that is based on punishment and reward.  Do some rabbis imagine that women might not hold ourselves to stringent practice because we are already breaking with tradition to observe in the first place?  And/or are they concerned about their recourse if we were to do a mitzvah incorrectly that was formerly punishable by karet?  If we are not obliged to do the mitzvah in the first place, how can we be held accountable if we mess up?

I understand that this is only one argument against egalitarian participation in religious leadership roles and traditionally male mitzvot.  Usually I am aware of the argument against taking on a role that is not ours; women have our own roles and mitzvot to follow and we are not permitted to take on the obligations of others.  And more...

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Nazir 60: Uncertainly Impure Nazirite and Uncertain Leper: When Can I Drink?

Yesterday's daf ended with a Mishna describing the case of a nazirite who immediately becomes impure as a matter of uncertainty and also is a confirmed metzora, leper, as a matter of uncertainty.  A leper has to shave at the start and end of his/her week long purification process.  A nazirite cannot shave at all.  A leper cannot eat sacrificial food, but a nazirite can.  The Mishna teaches that this particular nazirite can partake of sacrificial food sixty days after becoming impure.  S/he shaves after thirty days for the tzaarat, leprosy, and s/he must wait another thirty days to end his/her purification by shaving again.  At that point s/he is a purified leper who is permitted to eat sacrificial food.  

Drinking wine is another matter.  S/he must wait 120 days to end his/her naziriteship.  This is because of the uncertainties: If s/he was impure from a corpse, thirty additional days are required in nazirut because shaving after ninety days was required for the impurity.  The final thirty days of nazirut are done in purity as a full nazirite.  We also learn that if the tzaarat is certain, the nazirite can shave after seven days and then shave again after fourteen days.  Certain leprosy allows its rituals to override those of nazirut.  But in uncertain cases, a person with leprosy must wait until the thirty days (minimum time of nazirut) to shave at all.

Today's Gemara focuses on the details of this detailed Mishna.  What if the naziriteship was one year?  A long naziriteship would offer fewer opportunities for the nazirite to shave, stretching this entire process out by years.  And which sin-offerings, burnt-offerings, guilt-offerings or offerings of purity should be brought at the end of this naziriteship?  The rabbis suggest a number of ways that different birds might play more than one role should the nazirite require different offerings due to uncertainties.  

The Gemara continues in this vein, counting the number of days that might be required in a number of different situations.  From shaving to eating sacrificial food to drinking wine to removing hair to  sprinkling blood to bringing offerings to immersing, the rabbis are exacting in their examination of when a nazirite/uncertain leper is permitted to complete each ritual.

Again, the notion of tumah, ritual impurity, reminds me of the cooties, and it is a struggle for me to picture entire communities following these halachot.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Nazir 59: On Armpit Hair and Testing One's Students

In amud (a), the rabbis continue to discuss whether or not men are permitted to shave their armpit hair.  In particular, whether or not nazirites can shave under their arms when they shave their heads.  Today's arguments begin with the prohibition: "A man shall not put on a woman's garment" (Deuteronomy 22:5).  A woman is also forbidden from putting on a man's garment.  Either action is considered to be an abomination.  But noone is wearing a garment!  We are learning about shaving one's armpits, not wearing gendered clothing.  The Gemara explains that women and men are not permitted to wear each others' garments and then sit among members of another sex.  

Rabbinic law teaches that men may not adorn themselves with the cosmetics/ornaments of women, either.  Women are not permitted to go out to war with weapons, which are associated with men's adornment.   We are told the story of a man who was to be flogged for a transgression.  When he removed his shirt, all could see that he did not shave his armpit hair.  His flogging by Rabbi Ami, for he was considered to be "meticulous in observance of mitzvot".  Thus even if men are permitted to shave their armpits (due to pain if the hair grows too long or due to local custom, for example), men who are stringent will not shave their armpit hair.

Rabbi Yochanan forbid nazirites to shave their armpit hair, but his colleagues noticed that he himself had no armpit hair.  Rabbi Yochanan explained that his armpit hair fell out due to old age.

Before moving on to a new Mishna, the rabbis wonder whether or not one can remove armpit hair through rubbing with one's fingers or through rubbing at one's armpit with fabric.  And is this permitted during prayer?  The Gemara teaches that we can never touch the armpit directly during prayer, as it is considered to be a unclean part of the body.  

Amud (b) brings us back to our initial question in Perek VIII: if one of two nazirites becomes tamei and we do not know whom, who brings which offerings?  A twist: what if one of those two nazirites dies before we know whether or not s/he was tamei.  Which offering should be brought to the Temple by the remaining nazirite?  S/he must bring an offering that is required for purification, indispensable  permitted in cases of uncertainty, and so on.  A bird sin-offering is one possibility and a bird burnt-offering is another.

The Gemara notes that Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that the nazirites bring their offerings in halves, or in stages, only to sharpen the minds of his students and not to suggest such a halacha.  For this, he is teased by Rav Nachman - what will Rabbi Yehoshua do with the spoiling intestines of his offerings while he waits thirty days between the slaughtering and burning of those animals?

Finally, another new Mishna:  we are introduced to a nazirite who is impure by contact with a corpse, though uncertainly.  He is also a confirmed tzaara as a matter of uncertainty.  He is permitted to partake of sacrificial food sixty days after becoming impure.  He must wait 120 days after becoming impure to drink wine and become impure from the dead.  He cannot shave twice (after seven days and then again after another seven days) as a leper because the shaving of leprosy, a positive mitzvah, overrides the prohibition of shaving for a nazirite only when the tzaara is definite.  


Did all women shave under their arms?  Was it painful?  Did they shave their pubic hair?  Were they thought of as 'unfeminine' or worse, 'behaving like a man', when they did not shave?  Just a few of many, many thoughts...

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Nazir 58: When a Positive Mitzvah Overrides a Prohibition; Sex and Body Hair

In their discussion about rounding the corners of one's head, the rabbis discuss the competing mitzvot.  Numbers 6:5 teaches that "...No razor shall touch his head... He shall be sacred, he shall let the locks of his hair grow long" [regarding a nazirite].  Might this refer to a metzora, a leper, as well?  We learn that  "He shall shave all his hair; his head" overrides the mitzvah of Numbers 6:5 when it comes to a metzora.  And what about a nazirite who is also a metzora?

To figure out whether a positive mitzvah overrides a prohibition in this sort of complicated case, the rabbis first look at the prohibition regarding mixing diverse kinds (Deuteronomy 22:11) and the tallit.  While we are prohibited from mixing wool and linen, we are also commanded to put include a dyed sky-blue thread to the fringes of each corner of the tallit.  Fringes are permitted to be of diverse kinds - wool and linen.  However, the tzitzit should also be of the same material as the corner of the garment - we are both prohibited from and permitted to mix diverse kinds in the case of a tallit.

Does a positive mitzvah override  a prohibition and a positive mitva together?  Sometimes one's status will determine whether or not this is the case.  Priest sometimes are held to different stringency than others. 

The rabbis discuss some of the difference between destroying, hashchata and shaving, giluach.  A razor meets both definitions.  However, tweezing hair and using depilatories will destroy hair without shaving it.  We learn about hair removal through the use of a pumice stone, as well. While the rabbis use their arguments to better understand the halachot of metzorim and nazirites when it comes to removing the hair from their heads, I am more interested in another argument.

The rabbis mention that men cannot remove the hair from under their arms nor can they remove their pubic hair.  This is because of a rabbinical extension of the prohibition in Deuteronomy (22:5) "A man shall not put on a woman's garment."  We learn that some rabbis believe that men are permitted to "lessen [their] burden[s]" by removing all other body hair via use of a razor.  Others believe that men should be flogged for rebelliousness regarding a rabbinic prohibition.  Through this interpretation we can make a number of assumptions:

  • one's body hair is akin to one's garments
  • women removed the hair under their arms and around their genitals
  • removal of underarm and pubic hair was considered a 'feminine' behaviour and/or adornment
  • flogging for such a transgression implies a serious attempt to manage such behaviours
  • flogging of a man who recently shaved would be particularly cruel punishment
  • we do not know if similar halachot would apply to those considered to be a tumtum or an androginos
As the rabbis were very concerned with creating strict categories to manage the behaviour of all Jews, halachot regarding gender are some of the most hotly debated.  What were the rabbis afraid of?  Perhaps our mitzvot meant to distinguish only the clothing of men and women for the sake of safety or health purposes in a certain context.  Why did the rabbis find it necessary to interpret differences in sex with such sharp precision?  Did they believe that these threads might pull apart the web of Torah?  Or were they unconsciously recreating a societal structure that seemed to be 'normal' and 'right'?  Their decisions, while potentially a useful tool of societal order and control, have caused tremendous pain for countless individuals and families.

Nazir 57: Men and Women Rounding One's Head, Shaving the Corners of One's Beard

We begin Perek VIII with a new Mishna about uncertain impurity.  If someone sees two nazirites together and one of them has become impure but the witness is not sure which one, both must shave and together they must bring an offering.

The Gemara wonders where this requirement comes from.  It seems that Masechet Sota teaches us that a private uncertainty results in impurity and a public uncertainty results in purity.  This makes sense in the context of Sota, where a woman has been accused of adultery.  If she was secluded with a man who was not her husband, a question about her status results in the conclusion that she is now impure.  

The Gemara also wonders how this requirement can be met at all.  To shave one's head in an uncertain case directly contradicts the prohibition against shaving the corners of one's head other than for the certain requirements of a nazirite.  

The Gemara suggests that the nazirites in question might have been women, for they are exempt from the commandment to leave the corners of one's hair uncut.  The rabbis also teach us that minor boys are exempt from this mitzvah.  In fact, the commandment states that men are forbidden from cutting the corners of their heads, or shaving the corners of their beards.  This cannot be referring to women, and thus the rabbis argue about whether or not women are actually permitted to cut the corners of men's hair.

It is always interesting to note when the rabbis decide that women are included in our mitzvot and when women are understood to be excluded.  As an aside, I wonder what the halacha should be for women who have beards.  Are we excluded because we are women, or included because we have beards?  And even if we are excluded, how many hairs are woman permitted to remove from our cheeks and chins?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Nazir 55: Does Air and/or Land Transfer Ritual Impurity?

Does air transfer tumah?  Or does earth transfer tumah?

Given that my understanding of the transfer of ritual impurity is very limited, I will walk through what I can.  Contact with a corpse transmits ritual impurity.  To a different degree, contact with a person who has tzaarat, sometimes called leprosy or a skin disease, or a zav/a, someone who has unusual genital discharge, also transmits ritual impurity.  A nazirite must not come into contact with any source of ritual impurity.  If that happens, then the nazirite must shave, bring offerings, and then continue his/her count of nazirut. 

A person might enter other lands, "the land of the Nations", under some sort of tent.  Rabbi Yosei ben Yehuda believes that tents serve as barriers against the tumah of the other lands.  Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi asserts that tents do not protect a person from tumah. might have the power to The rabbis consider whether  a moving tent is actually a tent.

The Gemara questions whether or not a box of utensils placed on a corpse in a moving tent might affect the protection of the tent or not.  It also asks about a person who enters the land of the nations in a box, a chest, a cabinet; a wagon, or a raft/boat.  The rabbis seem comfortable with considering such a person tahor, ritually pure, unless the person's head - or the majority of his/her body- was sticking out of the container.

We end with a very short amud (b).  We learn that if one's nazirut is interrupted by impurity (and then purification and offering and shaving), and at least thirty days are remaining of his/her vow of nazirut,  the nazirite is permitted to continue counting his/her days.  As long as thirty days of hair growth remain, the nazirut need not be extended.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Nazir 54: Transferring Tumah

The rabbis are concerned about how not just a corpse but a grave imparts tumah, ritual impurity.  Their concern is based on Numbers 19:18, where the grave is included in a list of items that impart tumah.  This discussion is followed by another conversation about how to purify oneself after becoming tamei.

A new Mishna tells us about noticing hanging branches and stones that project over a corpse.  Anything that covers a corpse, including a stone that covers the cave/gravesite impart tumah to some groups of people but not others.  Some contact will make a nazirite tamei but will not require him/her to shave, ie. to discontinue his/her nazirut.

The Gemara looks to define some of the terms used in the Mishna.  It ends our daf with a conversation about the transmission of tumah: is ritual impurity transferred through the air or through the ground?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Nazir 53: How Much of a Skull, a Spine, a Corpse

We learn even more about when a nazirite has to shave because s/he has been in contact with tumah, a source of ritual impurity.  Today's daf focuses on how much of a substance is required to impart tumah.  A quarter-log?  A half-kav?  A barley-grain-bulk?  How do the requirements differ for blood, for bone, for segments of the spine or the skull?  Amud (b) discusses the case of a found, severed limb.  If that limb was attached to a person still living and if that limb could be theoretically reattached, it can impart impurity through carrying or contact but not while under a tent.

This incredibly lengthy examination of tumah with regard to nazirut is quite overwhelming.  Why did the rabbis choose to stay on this particular issue for so long?  There are so many issues that could benefit from the rabbis' attentions - why did they focus on how a nazirite would end his/her nazirut?

Perhaps this is simply an opportunity to discuss tumah.  The rabbi often focus on the lines that separate light from dark, this from that, ritual impurity from ritual purity.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Nazir 52: Contact With Creatures That Impart Tamei

A skink is one of the eight creeping/swarming animals spoken of in Leviticus 11:30.   It might be a snail without a shill or  it might be a reptile with few or no limbs.  The rabbis explore how much of a creature must be touched or ingested to impart tamei, ritual impurity - must it have all of its limbs?  Must it be larger than a lentil bulk?  must it have a soul?  What if its spine and skull are not attached? What if its ribs are missing?

A story about a box of spines teaches us that spines do not impart tamei unless they are intact.  Todos the doctor and other doctors inspected the box and confirmed that there was no problem.  

There are six items that Rabbi Akiva says are tamei and the Rabbis say are tahor, ritually pure.  These are:

  • a limb from a corpse that is together with:
    • two corpses
    • a severed limb from a living person/that comes from two living people
    • a half-kav of blood  that comes from two corpses
    • a uarter-log of blood that comes from two corpses
    • a bone that is a barley-grain-bulk even from only one body that is divided into two parts
    • the spine and skill from two corpses
The rabbis state their disagreements with Rabbi Akiva.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai have a disagreement about this as well.  Beit Shammai say that the quarter-kav of bones that impart tamei under a roof must come from more than one bone.  Beit Hillel say that the quarter-kav of bones must  come from the same body either from the majority of the structure of the body (two shins, two thighs, lower body) or from the majority of the 248 bones in the body.  Rabbi Yehoshua says that these schools actually agree with each other:  Beit Shammai's 'more than one bone' can refer to two sins and one thigh or two thighs and one shin.  That is the majority of a body's height.  Beit Hillel's majority of bones include the hands and feet.  Shammai includes a bone from the spine or skull.  The rabbis disagree, as Beit Shammai is stringent.

Today's daf ends with a discussion about a quarter-kav of bones that come from a spine and a skull.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Nazir 51: Imparting Tamei: The Dust of a Corpse; Two Bodies Buried Together

A nazirite has to shave and bring offerings if s/he comes into contact with a source of ritual impurity. One of those sources of impurity is at least two handfuls of dust from a corpse.  The rabbis suggest a number of different situations to better understand the limitations of this guideline.

The rabbis question the source of the dust.  If a person was wearing a shroud or any clothing whatsoever, the dust could come from that source, too.  If a person was buried alongside another person, the dust could be from either corpse.  The rabbis question the significance of a mixture of two or more different sources of dust, including hair or nails ready to be cut.  They also consider dust from the heel, which was thought of as different from other parts of the body as its callous allowed it to tolerate pain.  

Futhur, the rabbis wonder whether a pregnant woman who dies is counted as two bodies buried together or whether the fetus is considered to be "like a women's thigh," and only one person.  One of the arguments understands that the fetus is not part of the woman's body because it will eventually leave the womb.  The other argument understands the woman's body as the 'creator' of the fetus and thus the fetus is part of her body.  The rabbis even ask whether a woman buried with semen in her body creates dust that does not impart ritual impurity, for her body contains a foreign substance.  And what about spittle and phlegm?  Are they external to a person's body.

The rabbis note that a corpse can be free of any additional matter in one way:  one would have to consume palm water as a powerful laxative, use a depilatory, and then soak in the hot springs of the Tiberius just after death to remove his skin.  As well, a copse chopped into small pieces would not impart ritual impurity through it's dust.  A corpse that was missing a limb cannot impart ritual impurity, either.  

As much as this material is macabre and disturbing, it raises questions about the process of Talmudic discussion.  First, how many corpses of dust were known by the rabbis?  Next, were any of these heinous scenarios - the skin being removed from a corpse, for example - actually based on true events?  And if not, did the rabbis encourage each other to use their imagination to create unusual scenarios?   It would be wonderful to understand which parts of these conversations were based on experience and which were based on conjecture.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Nazir 50: What Constitutes a Corpse?

If a nazirite comes into contact with a corpse, his/her nazirut is interrupted and s/he must shave and bring offerings.  His/her nazirut must be repeated.  The rabbis are aware that nazirites would be loathe to come into contact with a corpse.  Today's daf looks at what constitutes a corpse.

Here are some bodies that do not count as corpses:
  • a miscarried fetus where the limbs have not yet attached to the sinews;
  • where less than the majority of the number of bones in the body are present
  • where the majority of the structure of bones - the shins, thighs, and spine - is not present
  • perhaps where the bones present equal less than a half-kav of matter
  • when less than an olive bulk of bones is present
  • when less than an olive bulk of liquid is present
  • where than liquid has not congealed (for it could be spittle or phlegm and not inner fluid)
The rabbis then consider whether similar rules apply regarding contact with the corpse of an animal.  They also wonder about when a corpse or its liquids no longer impart ritual impurity.  Once an item will no longer be consumed by a dog, it can no longer impart ritual impurity.  

The rabbis also consider the transmission of tamei liquid from one vessel to another.  Pouring does not transfer ritual impurity. Apparently liquid that is more viscous, like honey from Zif and like batter with honey, reverts back to the bowl when poured from above.  It does impart ritual impurity.  

Finally, we learn that dust from a corpse, even that held in the palms of two hands, does not impart ritual impurity.  Nor does melted liquid from a body.  

This daf, though sometimes grotesque, imports significant information for those who consider themselves observant kohanim.  It is imperative that they avoid contact with corpses, or even parts of corpses. But how much of a corpse?  Today's daf can help to reassure kohanim that they can safely access public settings that otherwise might be considered off-limits.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Nazir 48: Including Mothers - Superfluous?

The rabbis continue to compare the similarities and differences between the nazirite and the Kohen Gadol, the high priest.  Both are permitted to become tamei, ritually impurein order to do a met mitzvah, where they come across a dead body and bury it because no one else is available to complete the burial.  They find the prooftext for the Kohen Gadol's permission.  They search for the prooftext for the nazirite's allowance to become tamei for a met mitzvah.

One of the questions asked in today's Gemara is why "and for one's mother" is included in the text.  If a verse states that one may become tamei for one's father, isn't speaking of one's mother superfluous? This question is particularly interesting given that women are only sometimes included when mitzvot or restrictions are placed upon men.  In my reading, it is not at all obvious that mothers would be included when we learn about fathers.  

The rabbis deconstruct a number of verses piece by piece. One of their questions is whether or not the met mitzvah might refer to people or to animals, as well.  After all, nazirites are forbidden to be close to  a nefesh met, a dead soul (Numbers 6:6).  Animals could be included in this definition. The rabbis walk through a number of reasons that the nefesh met refers specifically to the body of a person.

The rabbis wonder about the distinct differences between halachot of nazirites, the Kohen Gadol, and common priests.  To be honest, I found much of today's reading somewhat tedious.  Perhaps it is just difficult for me to focus, or perhaps the topic is less than intriguing.  Probably the former, for every page of Talmud seems to hold fascinating intellectual arguments if not easy-to-find, enlightening spiritual meaning.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Nazir 47: Who Should Become Tamei?

We end Perek V with a final Mishna: if one is partially through the ritual of purification and becomes impure, shouldn't his/her nazirut be completed?  The Mishna shares the story of Miriam of Tarmod, who left part way through her purification to be with her daughter who was mortally ill.  On arriving home, her daughter died, and so she became ritually impure via contact with a corpse.  The rabbis agree Miriam of Tarmod should be permitted to return with her remaining offerings and complete her purification.

Perek VI focuses on a more detailed comparison between the halachot of nazirites and those of priests and High Priests.   In particular, if there are situations that require that one of these two groups of people should become tamei, ritually impure, who should become impure?  A Mishna tells of a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest, and a nazirite who come across a met mitzvah, a Jewish corpse with no one available to bury it.  Which one should become tamei?

The rabbis argue that a nazirite should become tamei.  This is because the nazirite will be forbidden from becoming tamei only temporarily.  What about those for whom nazirut is perpetual?  The rabbis suggest that kohanim are born into these halachot/restrictions.  

One of the examples that the rabbis use to clarify their thinking regards a kohen who is anointed for battle and a deputy Kohen Gadol.  Both are forbidden from becoming tamei in perpetuity.  The rabbis argue that the deputy Kohen Gadol is required to be tahor, ritually pure, specifically if this function is needed because the Kohen Gadol is unable to perform his duties.  However, the anointed kohen is required for the morale, the leadership, and the ultimate success of Israel's warriors at a time of war.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Nazir 46: When Does One's Nazirut End?

A new Mishna teaches that the nazirite cooks and overcooks the sin-offering, and then the priest puts the ram's foreleg, one unleavened loaf from the basket, and one unleavened wafer onto the nazirite's hands, waving them.  After this the nazirite is allowed to drink wine and to contract ritual impurity via a corpse.    Rabbi Shmuel says that all is permitted after the blood of the offering is sprinkled. The rest of the ritual is superfluous.  

The Gemara asks an interesting question.  Numbers 6:20 specifies that nazirites can drink wine "after that."  But after what?  Is the verse referring to all of the actions mentioned or just one of them?  And what is the waving that the Mishna describes?  What does it mean if it is essential - or not?

If a man has no palms, he cannot wave - thus waving is not essential.  If a man has no hair, he can still swipe the razor over his head, though, and so shaving is still essential.  Similarly, if he is missing the thumb or big toe where blood is placed, that blood can be applied to the skin where the thumb or toe would have been.  But this is argued, too.  The rabbis consider when there is no remedy; when a nazirite cannot participate in the required rituals to end his/her nazirut.

Another Mishna wonders about what to do when a nazirite's shaving is invalid, either because of its own practice or because of an error regarding one of the three offerings.  As long as one of those offerings is valid, the shaving is also considered to be valid.  One of the more important considerations is whether or not the shaving accompanied the nazirite's voluntary peace offering or another offering.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Nazir 43: On Corpses, Body Parts, and Ritual Impurity for Kohanim

The rabbis are in the middle of a conversation about the transfer of ritual impurity.  They note that one who enters a place that is ritually impure contracts that ritual impurity.  Even putting one's hand or one's nose in that space is enough to make the entire body ritually impure.  The rabbis discuss whether a person must be actually dead to impart ritual impurity.  If a nazirite or kohen enters a home that houses a dead body, certainly s/he becomes ritually impure.  But should that nazirite or kohen also be penalized for becoming ritually impure for touching the corpse when s/he has already incurred ritual impurity from simple entering the house?  

The rabbis discuss another unsavoury topic - how nazirites or kohanim might be affected if the corpse has been dismembered in some way.  They speak of a son who is travelling and his father is killed; his father's head is dismembered.  Shouldn't the son help to collect and bury the body even if it would make him ritually impure?  We learn about a met mitzvah, a positive commandment concerning death, where a priest who otherwise is liable to be lashed if he touches a corpse is permitted to bury the dead.  A met mitzvah is allowed in the case of a Jew found where no one else is able to bury the body and in the cases of the death one's close relatives. 

We learn that even a priest does not become ritually impure through the act of burying a limb or another body part from a corpse.  Nor does s/he become ritually impure from burying an olive-bulk of fluid or a spade of dust from a corpse.  

As much as these conversations seem morbid and grotesque, there exists an underlying theme of compassion.  One who has lost a close family member will be - and should be - preoccupied with the immediate burial of that family member.  Ritual impurity is a concern, but not one that should stop a priest from attending to the very emotionally and practically important tasks involved in burial of the dead.  

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Nazir 41: Positive Mitzvot Override Negative Mitzvot; On Razors and Mixed Fibres

We learn about how to balance contrasting positive and negative mitzvot.  Nazirites are commanded to grow their hair and to shave their heads following their nazirut - these are positive mitzvot.  Lepers are commanded to shave all of their hair at the conclusion of their time away from community - another positive mitzvah.  Men are commanded to avoid cutting the corners of their hair and the corners of their beards - these are negative mitzvot. 

What should nazirites or lepers do when they are commanded both to cut their hair and to leave their hair to grow without being cut?

The rabbis explain the principle of "aseh docheh lo ta'aseh", a positive mitzvah overrides a negative mitzvah.  Of course if it is possible to accommodate both mitzvot, one should attempt to do so.  But when a nazirite is meant to shave his head, that positive mitzvah overrides the prohibition against cutting the corners of the hair on his head.

The rabbis look at these prohibitions against cutting the corners of one's head or beard in greater detail.  They also examine the differences implied between cutting hair with a razor or with other tools, such as a plane or a tweezer.  The fact that the razor is mentioned specifically in a number of circumstances helps the rabbis determine that the razor itself is important; the prohibition against cutting the corners of one's hair and beard does not extend to other instruments.

Our daf ends with the origin of the principle of aseh docheh lo ta'aseh.  The tallit, prayer shawl, is commanded to be made of one fibre; wool and linen should not be combined in its construction.   At the same time, the tzitzit, fringes of the tallit are commanded to be made from wool and blue dye.  Thus the negative commandment regarding combining two fibres can be overridden by the positive commandment to fashion tzitzit from wool, which very well may combine with a linen tallit.