Tractate Nazir: A Talmudic Outlier

Exploring the uniqueness of Tractate Nazir and what it teaches us about Talmudic transmission

Tractate Nazir, which the Daf Yomi cycle is set to begin on August 24th (9th Elul), is a rather strange text. Its oddity goes beyond its topic matter, which includes “talking” cows and doors (m. Nazir 2:2)1:

אמר אמרה פרה זו הריני נזירה אם עומדת אני, אמר הדלת הזה הריני נזיר אם נפתח אני, בית שמאי אומרים: נזיר. ובית הלל אומרים: אינו נזיר.
If someone said, “This cow said I will be a Nazirite if I stand up,” or “This door says I will be a Nazirite if I am opened” – the School of Shammai say: He becomes a Nazirite. And the School of Hillel say: He does not become a Nazirite.

The oddity I am referring to relates to its terminology and methodology and the content of some of its sugyas (talmudic discussions) that differ from other tractates.  This is a common view held by academic Talmudists and traditional commentaries alike. In this first article in a series linked to the Daf Yomi cycle, I would like to explore the peculiarity of Nazir, which should not be seen as off-putting, but instead should be an invitation to think more deeply about how the Talmud came down to us.

Nazir: From Torah to Mishna

The fact that the there is a tractate Nazir in the Mishnah and Tosefta (where it is known as Nezirut) should not surprise us whatsoever. After all, the Torah devotes a good deal of discussion to the prohibitions and sacrifices of the Nazir (Numbers 6:1-21). Furthermore, taking vows of all sorts, including Nazirite vows, was a common practice during the Second Temple Period. The Mishnah describes different reasons people might have for taking on the Nazirite vow, which forbade the consumption of all grape products, becoming ritually impure, or cutting one’s hair.

Apparently, some people took on Nazirite vows as a means of swearing off the bottle, as the inebriated woman seems to have done in the following case (m. Nazir 2:3):

מזגו לו את הכוס, ואמר הריני נזיר ממנו, הרי זה נזיר. מעשה באשה אחת שהיתה שכורה ומזגו לה את הכוס ואמרה הריני נזירה ממנו, אמרו חכמים: לא נתכונה אלא לומר הרי הוא עלי קרבן.
If they mixed a cup for him and he said I am a Nazirite from it, behold he is a Nazirite. There was a case of a woman who was drunk and they poured her a cup (of wine). She said: I am a Nazirite from it! The sages said, she only intended to say “it is (forbidden) to me like a sacrifice.”

Others treated the vows as a kind of pious supplication or expression of gratitude. Thus, a series of mishnayot discuss people who hope to merit a son if they live as Nazirites and therefore promise: “I will be a Nazarite if I am granted a son…” (m Nazir 2:7-10). Relatedly, the Mishnah tells a story about Queen Helena of Adiabene (an ancient kingdom located in today’s Northern Iraq) who reportedly become a Nazarite when her son went out to battle, saying: “If my son returns from battle in peace I will be a Nazarite for seven years” (m. Nazir 3:6).

Tractate Nazir: Terminology, Lexicon, Form, and Substance

While the biblical and Mishnaic treatment of Nazir are relatively typical, what is indeed peculiar is the style and sometimes substance of the Babylonian talmudic tractate to Nazir. Some of the tractate’s unusual features were noted by commentators like the Tosafists,2 who repeatedly state that “the language of Nazir is different” (לשון נזיר משונה).

Terminology: קתני רישא
To take a small example: The Talmud often uses the term “it was taught in the first part” (קתני רישא) to help reorient a reader by telling him that the ensuing discussion will now refer back to the first part of a mishnah. But in Nazir, immediately after citing a mishnah with only a single debate, the Talmud (b. Nazir 19b) begins with the phrase “it was taught in the first part…” As the Tosafists point out: “We do not need any of this, for obviously we are talking about the first part of the Mishnah. Rather, the language of Nazir is different” (s.v. קתני רישא).  This is one of the Talmud’s many technical terms that functions differently in tractate Nazir.

Terminology: גופא
Another instance includes the word גופא, which is normally used to orient readers by telling them that a piece of a baraita that was previously quoted will now be analyzed in greater depth. However, in Nazir this term is employed even when the baraita was not actually quoted previously. One example can be found in  b. Nazir 18b  when the Talmud uses the term גופא to introduce a baraita about a Nazir who became impure after counting seven purification days, even though this baraita had never been quoted  in a previous discussion.3

Lexicon: כנף\כנפא vs. צנפא
Alongside terminological differences, this Tractate also has a special lexicon, or choice of words. For example, on b. Nazir 22b it employs the word צנפא, “corner,” instead of the usual term כנף\כנפא. Thus: כי מתפיס איניש בעיקרא מתפיס או דלמא בצנפא 4מתפיס: “When a person extends (a prohibition) do they do it by its basic sense or its extended sense (lit. corner)?”

Form: הדין vs. האי and על vs. prefix  א-
Even a non-linguist can sense that a different form of Aramaic is used in this tractate. For example, when it comes to demonstrative pronouns (like “this” or “these” in English) we often find the form הדין (“this”) instead of the usual האי (“this”), as in the phrase הדין גברא (“this guy”).5  Or in place of the typical Aramaic prefix  א- (“on” / “at”) used in phrases like ארישא “at the beginning / head”) we sometimes find the Hebrew word על (“on”) used to produce על רישא. Many differences of this sort are scattered throughout the tractate.6

Nazir contradicting parallel Sugyas: ידים שאינן מוכיחות
The peculiarity of Nazir is not only linguistic nor merely “academic.” In a number of instances the way a sugya is presented in tractate Nazir contradicts how it is recorded in other tractates.7 This can be seen, for example, in the Talmud’s discussion of the third century amora, Shmuel’s opinion regarding whether ambiguous speech acts (ידים שאינן מוכיחות) are binding. According to the sugya in Nazir (2b), Shmuel apparently rules that if someone says the highly ambiguous phrase “I will be” and a Nazirite is walking in front of him he becomes a Nazirite even though his words are ambiguous. Yet in tractate Qiddushin (5b), the Talmud assumes that Shmuel rules that ambiguous speech acts are not binding, and says that a person who says “I will be” when a Nazir is walking in front of him becomes a Nazirite only because the context (of a Nazirite walking in front of him) renders this phrase unambiguous.8  Thus, sugyot in Nazir and Qiddushin contradict each about whether saying “I will be” when a Nazir walks by is deemed ambiguous.

Stages of Talmudic Transmission

The linguistic and substantive differences of Nazir teaches us something about how this tractate, and more broadly the Babylonian Talmud, has come down to us. To appreciate this, it is worth momentarily reflecting on how the talmudic text traveled from late antique Babylonia across vast times and spaces until it rests on a table before us today.

Nowadays, the standard edition of the Talmud is still the Vilna Shas, which was produced by the Widow and Brothers Romm in the late nineteenth century. This edition comes at the tail-end of numerous printings of the Talmud, dating back to the fifteenth century.9  Prior to the advent of the printing press the Talmud was painstakingly copied by hand and studied from manuscripts. Before that, contrary to the popular belief that the Talmud was written down and studied from a book from when it was first composed, most scholars posit that it was mainly recited and analyzed orally in the Geonic academies (roughly seventh to tenth centuries). And before the Geonic period? This is the complex period of production, editing, and redaction that academic scholars have been trying to figure out for well over a century.10

To begin formulating an answer to this question, it is worth noting that printers and even manuscript copyists would probably not actively change the language and content of talmudic passages. Therefore, we might imagine that the differences between Nazir and “regular” tractates dates to sometime before these later stages in talmudic transmission, when the Talmud was still transmitted orally. It is worth noting in this regard that Nazir is a member of a group of unusual tractates which also include Nedarim, Kareitot, Temurah, and Me‘ilah. Perhaps the significance of its peculiarity should be sought together with these other tractates as well?

The Place and Period of the Early Transmission of Nazir

Tractate Nazir from the City of Mahoza: Jacob Nahum Epstein
One explanation for the peculiarity of Nazir offered by one of the founders of academic Talmud study, Jacob Naḥum Epstein, was that Nazir was produced in the different learning environment of Mahoza. Mahoza lies some thirty five kilometers south of Baghdad, was part of the Persian imperial capital Ctesiphon, and was the home of such prominent sages as Rava. Despite this centrality, it actually never became one of the major learning centers in Babylonia on par with Sura or Nehardea.11 Thus, the supposed difference of rabbinic learning in a place like Mahoza is assumed to have produced a different kind of Talmud. In other words, Epstein is suggesting that the unusual qualities of Nazir can be traced all the way back to the production of this tractate.

Tractate Nazir: Not Part of the Geonic Yeshiva Curriculum
A more accepted and to my mind better founded thesis focuses not on the production, rather on the subsequent oral transmission, of Nazir. According to a curriculum list of the students of Rav Hai Gaon (c. 939 – 1038) that is preserved in a fragment from the Cairo geniza, Nazir and the other “unusual tractates” was simply not studied in the primary Geonic academies.12 Furthermore, there was some reticence to deal with this area of halakha altogether.13 As Rav Natronai Gaon (Sura, second half of ninth century) states in a responsum:

נדרים אינה נשנית בשתי ישיבות היום יותר ממאה שנה, וכן אמר מר רב יהודאי גאון נהורא דעלמא, דאנן לא גרסינן נדרים ולא ידעינן לאסר ולהתר בה לא נדר ולא שבועה
Nedarim (“Vows”) is not studied in the two (Geonic) yeshivot today for more than a hundred years. And so said Mar Rav Yehudai Gaon – “The Light of the World” – that we do not (orally) recite Nedarim and we do not know how to forbid or permit neither vow nor oath (Oẓar Geonim, ed. B. M. Lewin, p. 23).

Knowing that these tractates were not transmitted in the major Geonic academies can help explain the unique language and content of the five “unusual tractates” listed above – especially Nedarim and Nazir, with their formidable, high-stake halakhic challenges (vows were seen as very severe) which discouraged rabbis from engaging with them. It is possible that they reflect a transmission outside the regular learning circles where most tractates were being recited. One option is that a different dialect of Aramaic was spoken in these outlying places, and during the oral recitation of the tractates the language of the Talmud was updated to reflect the spoken tongue.

Alternatively, the dialect spoken in these places was the same as in the major centers but the transmitters used a different approach as to whether the language of the recited Talmud was supposed to be frozen in time or could be updated to reflect the current state of the language. This could mean that the special tractates preserve an archaic language – as many believe – or that it is in fact a later form of Babylonian Jewish Aramaic which matched the spoken tongue at the time of transmission.14

Nazir from Past and into the Future

After centuries of neglect dating back as far as the Geonic period, the unprecedented aim of the Daf Yomi cycle to encourage people to study the entire Talmud and not limit themselves to certain tractates has brought many thousands of Talmud learners face to face with this intriguing tractate. While we do not have any definitive answers to the questions posed by Nazir’s distinctiveness, this tractate calls to our attention that the Talmud is not a unified composition, and encourages us to reflect on how the Talmud developed and was transmitted. Hopefully, intensive study of Nazir in this round of Daf Yomi will lead to further illumination of this unique work, and more broadly, to a better understanding of the composition and transmission of the Babylonian Talmud.


Shai SecundaDr. Shai Secunda is a Martin Buber Society fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lectures on rabbinic literature and comparative religion. He is a founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog. His first book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context was published by UPenn press in 2013. His forthcoming book, Like a Hedge of Lilies: Menstruation and Difference in the Talmud and its Sasanian Context explores the development of the laws of menstruation in the Babylonian Talmud against approaches to menstrual impurity held by Babylonian Jewry’s neighbors.

  1.  The plain meaning of this Mishna is that the person imagines a cow or door speaking in order to link his becoming a Nazirite to the actions of non-thinking animals and things. This explanation of course does not make the Mishnah any less strange.
  2. Interestingly, the Tosafot as they appear on the page of the Vilna Shas are somewhat different from the Tosafot to other tractates, as the former focus primarily on explaining the simple meaning of the sugya. This was necessary since we do not have Rashi’s comments on Nazir, rather a medieval commentary that is misattributed to him. See Efraim Urbach, The Tosaphists: Their History, Writings and Methods (Hebrew; Jerusalem, Mosad Bialik, 1968), pp. 636-7. 
  3. This case is also noted by the Tosafits, who simply choose to emend the text by omitting the word (s.v. אית). 
  4. This is the correct reading of the word, as noted in R. Nathan of Rome’s (c. 1035-1106) Talmud lexicon, the Arukh.
  5. Note that the regular form האי גברא is also found in Nazir, including on the very same page where הדין גברא is used.
  6.  Conveniently, many of Nazir’s peculiarities are collected in J. N. Epstein, Mevo’ot le-Sefrut ha-Amoraim (Jerusalem, 1962), pp. 72-4. There is also some relevant discussion of the form of Aramaic in an article about Babylonian Jewish Aramaic by Yohanan Breuer. Both resources are available online. 
  7. Many of these also have been collected by Epstein, pp. 74-8.
  8.  This case and others similar to it are discussed in Daniel Boyarin, “Medieval and Modern Philology: Notes on the First Sugya of BT Nazir,” in Shoshannat Yaakov: Jewish and Iranian Studies in Honor of Yaakov Elman (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 21-32, which is currently available online through Google Books. Incidentally, Prof. Boyarin is preparing a critical edition of the first chapters in the tractate, which is based on his unpublished dissertation on Nazir.
  9.  The printing of the Talmud is the subject of a book length essay by Rabbi Nathan N. Rabinowitz, the author of the Dikdukei Sofrim. A helpful collection of essays on the printing of the Talmud was published for a Yeshiva University Museum exhibit and is still available online. Yisrael Dubitsky has compiled a list of known printings, available here
  10.  TABS hopes to feature essays on this period of Talmud production in the near future.
  11.  Epstein, ibid., p. 69.
  12.  Apart from the interest of Brisker circles in Nazir’s passages about Kodashim (“sanctified things”), Nazir has largely remained outside of yeshiva curricula to this day.
  13. This also may be related to its omission from some versions of the foundational Geonic halakhic works. On this matter, see Mira Balberg, “Hilkhot Nedarim and Nazir in the Book of Halakhot Gedolot,” Tarbiẓ 72: 2003): 523-566.
  14.  For further discussion, see Robert Brody, “Sifrut Ha-Geonim vi-Ha-Teqst Ha-Talmudi,” in Talmudic Studies I, ed. Yaacov Sussman and David Rosenthal (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1990), 237–30, 283-4. Breuer’s article, cited above, suggested an even more complicated scenario of deliberate archaizing.
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