Torah

Masechet Nazir 50a-56b

May 8, 2008

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, The Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Nazir 50a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, there are several different situations where a person is considered to have become tamei met – ritually defiled by his contact with the dead. Among the cases of tum’at met that are considered significant enough to force the nazir to shave and begin his nezirut from the beginning is the case of melo tarvaad rakav – “a spoon full of putrid flesh.”

Unlike the other cases of the Mishnah where the units of measurement have fairly clear definitions (e.g. kezayit, the size of an olive or ke-se’orah, the size of a grain of barley), the term tarvaad, which means “a large cooking spoon” lacks a clear definition. This leads the Gemara to try and clarify the size of this unit of measurement. Two possibilities are raised in the Gemara –

  • Chizkiya says that it means me-lo pisat ha-yad – the size of the palm of one’s hand
  • Rabbi Yochanan says me-lo chofnav – the palm and fingers of one’s hand.

The expression me-lo chofnav is a term that appears in the Torah in the context of the amount of ketoret (incense) taken by the Kohen gadol as he prepares to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (see Vayikra 16:12). In that case, however, it is clear that me-lo chofnav does not refer to an objective amount, rather every Kohen gadol would take a handful, each according to the size of his hand. Nevertheless, we know that many of the objective units of measurement have their source in the size of parts of the human body, and, over time, those measurements came to have objective standards based on the average size of a finger or a foot. In our case, the Gemara works with the assumption that for a halakhah that is described in the Mishnah, there must be some standard measurement.


Nazir 51a-b

As we discussed on yesterday’s daf, one case of tum’at met – ritual defilement that stems from contact with a dead body – that disqualifies a nazir is melo tarvaad rakav – “a spoon full of putrid flesh.” This is one of several situations where the nazir is considered tamei met – ritually defiled by his contact with the dead.

Our Gemara asks what appears to be a very odd question. Rabbi Yirmiyah asks whether rakav that comes from the akev – the heel- will make someone tamei met. In the end the Gemara concludes by saying teiku – there is no clear ruling in this case.

The commentaries have a very difficult time explaining why a dead person’s heel should be treated any differently than the rest of his body. The Me’iri – who appears to have a variant reading in the text – suggests that Rabbi Yirmiyah is not referring specifically to the heel, rather the question is about any part of the body that a person can survive without, and we are discussing a case where that body part is cut off of the person and buried.

The direction taken by most of the rishonim is that the term akev really does mean a heel, and the question is whether the heel, which has less active functions in the body than other limbs, would have the same rules and regulations with regard to the issues of tum’at met.

In truth, the flesh and skin of the human heel are markedly different than most of the rest of the human body. This difference manifests itself in the blood vessels and nerves, as exhibited in the fact that we find that there is much less sensitivity to pain and injuries. This fact has led important contemporary scholars to suggest that the entire physical development of the heel differs from that of the flesh of the rest of the body.


Nazir 52a-b

The Gemara teaches that with regard to the issue of tum’at met – ritual defilement – many of the unique cases presented in the last Mishnah (49b) will only take effect if we have the entire body of the dead person. If a limb is missing, then some of the laws will not apply. This ruling leads the Gemara to discuss other situations where a creature that has died is no longer whole – will that creature still be considered significant enough to make someone tamei? (Note that this discussion is not about tum’at met but tum’at sheretz, i.e. the lower level ritual defilement that comes with contact with a dead animal.)

In an attempt to respond to this question, the Gemara quotes a baraita that compares two words in Sefer Vayikra (11:31, 32) – ba-hem, which seems to indicate coming into full contact with the animal will create a situation of tumah, and me-hem, which seems to indicate that even coming into contact with part of the animal will create tumah. The baraita‘s suggestion is that even part of an animal will create tumah if its size is large enough to have been an entire creature. This minimal size is fairly small – ke-adasha – the size of a bean – which the Gemara says is the size of a homet when it is first born.

The homet is one of the eight types of crawling creatures that are listed in the Torah as being tamei (see Vayikra 11:30), but it is not clear to us what its proper identification is. Two different traditions have developed over the years in identifying it.

  • The Aruch, Rashi and others suggest that it is a snail. This identification works well with our Gemara, since a newly hatched snail is the size of a bean.
  • Rav Saadiah Gaon and others suggest that it is a chameleon.

In Modern Hebrew the name homet is used to describe a gecko (sp. Scinus).


Nazir 53a-b

As we have seen, the last Mishnah (49b) teaches that there are many different cases where a nazir who becomes tamei met – ritually defiled – will be forced to conclude his nezirut by cutting his hair and undergoing the process of taharah – purification – after which he will begin his nezirut again from the beginning.

Our Gemara notes that the Mishnah repeats the statement al elu aha-nazir megale’ah – “on these situations the nazir will have to shave” twice, and suggests that the first statement comes to exclude the case of an etzem ke-se’orah – a situation where the only part of the dead body is a bone the size of a barley grain. In such a situation, only actual physical contact with the bone or actually carrying the bone will lead to tum’ah severe enough to force the nazir to shave. If, however, the nazir walked into a house in which such a bone was present – a situation of tum’at ohel that usually would create a situation of ritual defilement – the nazir would not become tamei.

The second statement of al elu aha-nazir megale’ach is understood to exclude the case of even ha-sekhukhit.

Although the term sekhukhit is usually understood to be another version of the word zekhukhit – glass – in our case it appears to be related to the words sikukh and kisuy – meaning “covering” – and to refer to a stone that is held over the body as a type of tent.

Rashi offers two other suggestions, either that it refers to an even misma – a heavy rock that is placed on the dead body, which would not transfer tumah to the nazir even if he sits on it, or else it is a rock that is carried by the nazir on his back that passes over a dead body.

The Shittah Mekubetzet quotes the Rosh as suggesting that the term even ha-sekhukhit really does mean “glass” and that it refers to a transparent rock that does not bring about tumah.


Nazir 54a-b

In the last Mishnah (see 49b) we learned that although a nazir cannot allow himself to become tamei met – ritually defiled through contact with the dead – not all situations of tum’at met will force him to begin his nezirut anew.

The Mishnah on our daf lists cases where the nazir may formally become tameh met, but he will not need to begin his nezirut over again, rather he will have to wait a week  and undergo the process of taharah – purification – after which he will be allowed to resume his nezirut at the point where it was interrupted. Similarly, he will not have to shave his head like a nazir tamei.

Among the cases that appear in the list are a gollel and a dofek, both of which are connected with traditional burial practices, and are, apparently, parts of the tombstone itself.

The commentaries disagree about the definition of gollel and dofek. Rashi explains that the gollel is the cover of a casket, while the dofek refers to the stones upon which the cover rests. Tosafot point out that in several places the Gemara discusses whether an animal can be used as a gollel, and it is difficult to imagine a live animal being used for that purpose. They suggest that the gollel is a rounded stone that was used to close up a burial cave (several such stones have been found near ancient burial caves in Israel). During the times of the Mishnah, common burial practice was to place the dead body in a temporary grave where it would decompose. At a later date, the bones would be removed and transferred to a family burial cave. The round shape of the gollel stone allowed it to be rolled, closing the cave, yet easily opened when necessary. According to this approach, the dofek was the frame upon which the gollel rested.


Nazir 55a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, although a nazir cannot allow himself to become tamei met – ritually defiled through contact with the dead – not all situations of tumat met will force him to begin his nezirut over again. According to the Mishnah (54 a-b) there are many cases where the nazir may formally become tamei met, but he will not need to begin his nezirut over again, rather he will have to wait a week and undergo the process of taharah – purification – after which he will be allowed to resume his nezirut at the point where it was interrupted. Similarly, he will not have to shave his head like a nazir tamei.

One such case is tum’at eretz ha-amim – the ritual defilement of foreign lands. There are two suggestions made by the Gemara to explain this enactment of the Sages. Tum’at eretz ha-amim is either mishum avira – “because of its air” – or mishum gusha – “because of its earth.” Rashi explains these positions as technical statements. The Gemara is asking whether a person must step on the ground outside of the land of Israel to become tamei, or whether even traveling through its air would be enough to subject the individual to rabbinic tumah.

The Rosh takes a different approach to explaining this law. According to the Rosh, saying that the air of foreign countries is the source of tumah essentially means that the reason for the rabbinic enactment does not stem from a fear that there are dead bodies there, rather it is an independent decree whose purpose is to discourage Jews from living outside the land of Israel. According to this approach, the idea that tum’at eretz ha-amim is mishum gusha means that outside of Israel we are concerned that there are bodies buried in places that we do not know about, so we must always assume that there is safek tumah – the possibility of tumah – wherever one goes.


Nazir 56a-b

We have learned (see above, daf 54) that although a nazir cannot allow himself to become tamei met – ritually defiled by contact with a dead body – not all situations of tum’at met automatically undo the efforts of the nazir. In some cases a nazir may become tamei met, yet he will simply resume his nezirut after he completes the purification process. In the Mishnah on our daf, Rabbi Eliezer quotes Rabbi Yehoshua as teaching that only those situations of tum’at met that are severe enough to undo nezirut will be considered severe enough to make someone liable for entering the Temple precincts in a state of tumah.

The discussion of the Gemara focuses on a technical point. Was the source of this teaching really Rabbi Yehoshua, or, perhaps, was it Rabbi Yehoshua bar Memel, which is the implication of a number of the sources? The Gemara’s conclusion is that when the tradition is passed on by three people (or more), only the first and last of the teachers must be named specifically; the middle names can be left out.

To support this statement, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak presents a teaching from Nahum ha-Lavlar regarding a question of how pe’ah (leaving a corner of the harvest for the poor, one of the charitable obligations incumbent on farmers) must be given in a situation where several different crops are planted in a single field. This law is quoted in the name of Rabbi Mi’asha who received the teaching from his father, who received the teaching from the zugot – the pairs of early tannaim listed in Masechet Avot – who received the teaching from the prophets, who received it as an oral tradition from Mount Sinai (halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai). In this list of rabbinic scholars, the names of Moshe and Calev are left out, indicating that as long as the first and last teachers are mentioned by name, some of the middle names can be left out.

The expectation that Moshe and Calev would be included stems from the above-mentioned Mishnah that introduces Pirkei Avot: Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, passing it to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the Elders – of whom Calev was the first – the Elders to the prophets, who passed it on to the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah.


In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.