A Simple Mishnah

Nazir (2:2) | Natan Rickman | 14 years ago

It would seem that to learn a Mishnah cannot or should not be that difficult. However as we see from the second Mishnah of the second perek of Nazir, at times Rebbi did not always leave us too many clues on how to understand a “simple” Mishnah.

Broadly speaking, the second perek of Nazir deals with various declarations that include the desire to become a nazir. However, the wording of the Mishnah is difficult to understand and can leave one wondering as to the nature of the case being discussed.

The second Mishnah for example, describes a case where a man is in front of a cow and exclaims that the cow says that it will become a nazir if it stands. Clearly, work is required to explain the simple meaning of the text.

The commentators approach this difficulty in different ways. Rashi on the Mishnah gives a rather lengthy explanation of the case and is “forced” to inform the person learning the Mishnah what the Gemara says. This approach, even though logical, is not always the method used by Rashi. Rashi often will leave the reader in suspense and just comments “the Gemara will explain”. Alternatively, at times Rashi will give his own understanding that does not necessarily have to follow the conclusion of the Gemara.

One example of this is the first Mishnah of the forth perek of Gittin where it discusses a decree (takanah) preventing a husband from cancelling the duty of a messenger carrying a get to his wife. There Rashi explains that the reason for the takanah was to prevent the husband forming a Beit Din of three people in another place and annulling the get. Rashi goes further and explains the concern for not allowing this is that the woman will be unaware and get remarried. When this section of Mishnah is discussed in the Gemara, both the number of people required in such a Beit Din and the reason for the takanah are debated. The combination that Rashi uses to explain that Mishnah does not fit according to the possible options that are raised on the daf. This style within Rashi allows the learner to understand a Mishnah on a pashat level without the need to understand the complexity of the Gemara. Rashi gives the pashat, even when it will not stand strong against the explanation of the Mishnah from within the Gemara.

In our case, Rashi explains that the man assumes that the cow intends to only move when it wants to and will not be prompted by a person. This person making this declaration is implying that he will be a nazir (from the cow) if the cow’s wishes are fulfilled and the person is unsuccessful in making the cow stand. It appears as if the man has given the cow the ability to choose if the person will become a nazir.

Tosfot as well have a lengthy explanation like Rashi, yet differs pointing out that the cow has really no level of intelligence to choose if it wants to stand or not. Tosfot brings an example from the boat that Yonah was on where the verse recounts that the boat itself was “thinking” about breaking. Again an object does not have the ability to think and choose; even an animal does not have this ability to think and choose. This can best be explained by the common phrase “animal instincts”; that the animal performs action in life but does not have to think about performing them or does not have the bechira (choice) of whether or not to perform them. Therefore Tosfot explain that it just appears that the animal is making a choice to sit and not move but in truth it is not making any real decision.

Tosfot bring R’ Yosef ish Yerushalaim who explains that on seeing the cow lying down the person remarks to himself that the cow appears to be thinking “I wish I could get up. I would gladly become a nazir if I could succeed in getting up” Of course a cow cannot be a nazir! Rather the person himself accepts to “fulfil her (apparent) wishes” if she indeed stands.

That is just one example of how to understand a “simple” Mishnah. How great was our master Rebbe and how far are we from him!

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