Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Nedarim 31: Are Kutim Jewish?, and the Mitzvah of Circumcision

Amud (a) of Nedarim 31 repeats the pattern of 'brief Mishna, brief Gemara' over and over.  This is the first time in almost three years of learning that I have seen anything like it.

The first Mishna is short but not unusually brief.  It tells us that a person who vows not to benefit from those who keep Shabbat will not benefit from Jews nor from Samaritans/Kutim.  A person who vows not to benefit from those who eat garlic, which was recommended to do on erev Shabbat, will not benefit from Jews nor from Samaritans/Kutim.  However, those who vow not to benefit from those who make aliyah to Jerusalem will not benefit from Jews alone.  Our notes teach that this is because Samaritans/Kuitm ascend to Mount Gerizim rather than to Jerusalem.

The Gemara demonstrates the rabbis' various opinions regarding whether or not a Samaritan is a Jew or not.  In some circumstances it would seem that they are commanded, as are Jews, to observe halachot.  At other times it seems that Samaritans are idol worshippers and thus not Jewish, end of story.

The short Mishnayot and their responses are decisions about people who vow not to benefit from different groups of people - what is different about those who vow not to benefit from the offspring of Noah versus the offspring of Abraham versus the property of a Jew in particular?  

This last Mishna opens up a larger set of considerations regarding how to determine who is Jewish.  If we are making vows that include or exclude groups of people based on religion or ritual practice, we must be sure about who is Jewish and who practices in which ways.  The Gemara also looks at how Jews might do business with each other, using a shared religious belief system to advantage - or disadvantage - each other.  It continues this line of thought, discussing who is liable to pay for damaged property lent by one person to another if the damage was done accidentally. 

A new Mishna tells us that if a person vows not to benefit from one who is uncircumcised, they are referring only to Gentiles and not to those Jews who were uncircumcised for heath or other serious reasons.  The Mishna goes on to provide us with numerous proof texts on the significance of circumcision.  Some of those include the notion that circumcision is more important that Shabbat, as we override the halachot of Shabbat to perform circumcision (Rambam, Sefer Ahava).  As well, Shabbat is thought to be the reason that G-d created heaven and earth: it is a consecrated mark of G-d's connection in human flesh.

The Gemara picks up on this conversation and looks to Moses and the role that circumcision might have played in his life.  Why was his punished by G-d and not allowed to see the promised land?  Was it because he neglected the mitzvah of circumcision?  Was it because he waited to circumcise his child while leaving for Egypt (on the third day, we have learned that people are incapacitated due to the pain of circumcision - was he protecting the child from the journey ahead?)?  Was it because he was concerned about lodging first, ignoring his delay of the mitzvah of circumcision?

Amazing how we can move so quickly from one topic to another! Today's daf is packed with fascinating information about halachot, societal cohesion, and ideological underpinnings of this ancient world - and our own world.

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