This whole daf is busy trying to determine how we can resolve the apparent contradiction between our Mishna over here (on yesterday’s daf, 18b) – which says the rule of stam nedarim l’hachmir, and the Mishna in Taharos which says safeik nezirus l’hakeil.
The conclusion that the Gemara settles on is that these two Mishnayos are not necessarily in disagreement with one another. They are both going according to the opinion of Rabi Yehudah who essentially holds that when someone makes a neder in a way that there is a doubt whether or not the neder should take effect, we go l’chumrah and say that the neder does, in fact, take effect. However, that is only insofar as the taking-effect-status-resultant-of-doubt will not produce an outcome that is more stringent than a regular, clear-cut neder. By most nedarim, the doubt-neder will not be more stringent than the certain-neder; therefore, holds Rabi Yehudah, it does take effect.
However, nezirus is different. Part and parcel of nezirus is the conclusionary procedure of bringing korbanos and shaving off all his hair. A safeik-nazir cannot do that since it is a possible violation of bringing regular, non-korban animals into the azarah (since, on the side of the doubt that he really was not a nazir, these animals have no kedusha whatsoever). That essentially leaves him stuck in nazir mode with no way out. That being the case, nezirus-resultant-of-safeik is more stringent than certain-nezirus; hence Rabi Yehudah’s differentiation from most other types of nedarim, and when it comes to safeik nezirus, we go l’kulah.
It’s a beautiful resolution to what started off as quite a thorny kashya, but the Gemara asserts that there is still one more glitch to work out. That is, a Braisah was found in which Rabi Yehudah is quoted as saying the following: If someone says, “I am hereby a nazir-shimshon if there is 100 kur in that pile of grain over there”, and the pile gets stolen or lost before it could be measured, the man is not a nazir. Now, a nazir-shimshon remains such his whole life (just like the original Shimshon), without any allowances whatsoever. As such, a safeik-nazir-shimshon is not going to have it any worse off than a certain-nazir-shimshon. So, according to Rabi Yehudah’s reasoning, in this case we should have said go l’chumra, no?
The answer, says the Gemara, is that that Braisah is in fact Rabi Yehudah talking; but he’s not speaking in his own name. He is citing a ruling of Rabi Tarfon, and Rabi Tarfon holds that even if the pile of grain is still here – and we measured it carefully and found it to contain precisely 100 kur – the guy is still not a nazir! Why not? Because Rabi Tarfon darshens the expression “ki yaflih” to mean that the neder of nezirus has to be enunciated in such a manner that it is 100% clear-cut at that very moment that he is accepting the nezirus upon himself, no ifs ands or buts about it.
As we’ve written in an earlier piece (Nedarim 4 – A Paradigm of Human Initiative), nezirus is the prototypical paradigm of setting up fences – both on the Chazal level that they enact for kol Beis Yisrael, and on the individual level that each person needs to determine for himself. It is the model of going beyond that which the Torah mandates absolutely, and creating your own, more machmir status.
With that in mind, I would like to suggest that we can extend this paradigm to the rule of safeik nezirus l’hakeil. Nezirus is an exalted status of extra special distancing from the luring forces of this corporeal realm that carry within them the potential to draw one to sin. But you can’t shoot such a bullet from the hip. Yes, it is an important and necessary thing to do when called for (for us, not nezirus, but personal fences), but you need to be clear about it. No wishy-washy or maybe-could-be. It’s got to be a vadai.
The reason for this, perhaps, is that which it says in Koheles (7:16-17),“al t’hi tzaddik harbei…al tirshah harbei” – do not be exceedingly righteous, do not be exceedingly wicked. I once read a story about Rav Baruch Ber Lebovitz – the great Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz in pre-war Europe – about how a mechalel Shabbos offered him a sizable donation for his Yeshiva. He asked his Rebbi, Reb Chaim Brisker, if he should accept it or not. Rav Chaim answered by swinging his finger in a pendulum motion, while saying “al t’hi tzaddik harbei” while his finger swung to one side, and “al tirsha harbei” while his finger swung to the other side. The “story” continued by explaining what Reb Chaim meant: it’s two sides of a pendulum – doing something which is a violation of “don’t be exceedingly righteous” is just as bad as doing something which is a violation of “don’t be exceedingly wicked.”
Now, the book in which I read that story did not say that that explanation was uttered by either Reb Chaim or Reb Baruch Ber. As such, it is open for discussion. However, I do believe that what was written is essentially correct; that we in fact can see that from the contrast of the pesukim. A violation of “al t’hi tzaddik harbei” is serious business and must be related to as such. Therefore, you can’t take on any chumrah you so please “just to be on the safe side.”
Of course, that does not mean that we now have a new rule called, “when in doubt, just be meikil!” Sorry, but that ain’t it. What is it, is that we own a responsibility to ourselves to sort things out. Gain clarity. And if you can’t do it yourself, then, that’s right, go ask your Rav or Rebbi. But don’t just ask, make sure to work the issue through until you’ve got a proper grasp. If even that fails to afford clarity, then find yourself a different Rav; or book an appointment with a therapist. Seriously. Clarity, though, ought to be (or become) one of our overarching values in life. And, of course, as with everything about living a Torah life, it is the individual himself (or herself) who stands to gain the most from gaining clarity; as the saying goes, “There is no joy like the joy of resolving doubts.”
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at email@example.com.