Masechet Shavuot 2a-4b

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24 Jun 2010

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.

Shavuot 2a-b: “Two that are four”

The first Mishnah in Masechet Shavuot opens by teaching that the rules of shavuot – of oaths – are “two that are four.”

In explanation of this phrase, the Rambam in his Commentary to the Mishnah points to the passage in Sefer Vayikra (5:4) that describes how someone who swears le-hara o l’heitiv – which is understood by the Sages to mean someone who swears to refrain from doing something or someone who swears to do something – will be liable to bring a sacrifice if he does not keep his word. Thus the “two” mentioned in the Mishnah refers to either a negative or a positive oath; the “four” refers to the possibility of taking such oaths with an eye towards either the future or the past.

The presentation of this rule leads the Mishnah to mention other laws that have the same “two that are four” pattern, including carrying on Shabbat from one domain to another and types of tzara’at – biblical leprosy – and how they are to be recognized. Both of these cases parallel the case of oaths in that they contain two basic concepts that include four ideas.

Although the focus of this tractate is on shavuot, the reference to tzara’at in the Mishnah leads the first two perakim (chapters) of the tractate to teach about a side topic. Most of these two perakim are devoted to discussions of ritual purity in the Temple, and more specifically, to arranging atonement for desecration of the purity of the Temple. The Torah demands great care with regard to maintaining the purity of the Temple, and we find many mitzvot whose purpose is to keep the Temple safe from ritual defilement. As a general rule, the main purpose of the laws of ritual purity relates to the Temple, and, as a consequence, today, when we do not have a Temple, most of those laws no longer apply.

Shavuot 3a-b: Jewish hairstyles and their import for the order of the Mishnah

The placement of Masechet Shavuot in Seder Nezikin – the Order of the Mishnah that deals with civil law – can be explained because some of the laws that apply to oaths are connected with courtroom activities (e.g., oaths taken by litigants as part of the court process, or someone who swears that he does not have testimony to offer). Our Gemara wonders why we find Masechet Shavuot immediately following Masechet Makkot within Seder Nezikin.

According to the Gemara on today’s daf, the juxtaposition of these two tractates is based on stylistic concerns. One of the last Mishnayot in Masechet Makkot teaches the law restricting the way a Jewish man can cut his hair, and there, too, we find that two laws of hair-cutting extend to a number of laws, similar to the list of “two that are four” rules in our Mishnah (see yesterday’s daf).

According to the Torah (Vayikra 19:27) – lo takifu pe’at roshkhem ve-lo tashchit et pe’at zekanekhah – a man cannot round off the edges of his head, nor can he destroy the growth of his beard. The Mishnah in Masechet Makkot (20a) teaches that the prohibition against rounding off the edges of one’s hair applies to the two sides of his head, while the prohibition regarding the beard relates to five different points – two on each side and one on the chin. The former forbids cutting the hair at the temples so that the back of the ear and the forehead are “evened out”; the latter forbids the points on the face where there is an accumulation of hair.

The Gemara in Kiddushin (daf 35) concludes that since the Torah used the term lo tashchit (do not destroy) with regard to cutting one’s beard, the prohibition regarding shaving one’s beard would only be with a razor, which is mash’chit (destructive), but mispara’im ke-en ta’ar – a scissor-like cutting action that removes hair – is permitted. Based on this, most rishonim permit shaving one’s beard if it is done using that method, but they still prohibit cutting one’s payot against the skin even mispara’im ke-en ta’ar, since regarding this halacha the Torah forbids the very act of hakafah (rounding the “corners”.) The Rambam, however, disagrees, apparently because he takes the juxtaposition of bal takif and bal tashchit very seriously, concluding that all of the laws of one apply to the other, as well. Thus, just as one’s beard can be cut with a scissors, so one’s payot can be cut with a scissors. [Note that in the famous portrait of the Rambam he does not appear to have payot.]

Shavuot 4a-b: Sometimes slavery looks like a good option

According to Jewish law, a Jewish slave could not be mistreated and was reputed to be a “master” to his owner. Recognizing that this situation may encourage an eved Ivri to choose to remain with his master, the Torah allowed for such a possibility (Shemot 21:5). According to the Torah, such an eved can choose to have his ear pierced with an awl (Shemot 21:6), at which time he will serve his master “forever.”

The Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin (21b) discussed the laws of an eved ivri who chooses to remain with his master. Will he remain with the master’s son after the master’s death? How long is “forever”? How must the technical application of the law that requires the eved ivri to have his ear pierced be applied? Must it be done with an awl?

Based on a close reading of the pesukim, the Gemara concludes that the eved nirtzah – the slave who has had his ear pierced – is only obligated to work for the master, and not his son. The term “forever” means until the yovel – the Jubilee year. The Gemara on today’s daf brings the discussion regarding the ear piercing itself, where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi rules that it can be done with any metal implement, while Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Yehuda allows it to be done with other sharp objects, including a sole (a sharpened piece of wood), a sirah (a thorn), a machat (needle), and anything that is held in one’s hand.

The biblical sirah is identified with the contemporary Sarcopoterium spinosum, a member of the Rosaceae family. This thorny plant is a low growing shrub that is very common in Israel, particularly in the hilly areas north of Be’er Sheva where it covers large areas near cultivated fields. Its branches are wooden, ending in branched thorns. The leaves are compound and pinnate; winter leaves are relatively large compared to the smaller summer leaves. Flowering season is from March to April. Its fruit is round with a brown-red color. Due to its thorns and intertwined leaves, objects can enter the shrub easily, but it is very difficult to remove them.

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 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.