Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Vows, Palmyra, Queen Helena, and the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: When Making a Vow, Consider Where You Stand. Because a corpse is always a source of ritual impurity, and because on a geological timescale corpses are everywhere under our feet, aren’t all religious Jews impure?
The ancient Roman city of Palmyra made headlines this summer, for the first time in 1,500 years, for a tragic reason. Motivated by religious zeal against paganism, ISIS destroyed some of the best-preserved structures from the ancient world, including the Temple of Bel—the Mesopotamian god known in the Hebrew Bible as Baal. (Indeed, some of the Hebrew prophets might have applauded the destruction, given their hatred of Baal-worship.) But Palmyra was not only a pagan city; it was also home to a substantial Jewish community, as this week’s Daf Yomi reading testified.

Yes, further to this post, Palmyra (Tadmor) is mentioned in the Talmud and elsewhere in the rabbinic literature. A reader has sent in additional references, but I've been busy and I will get to them as soon as I can. Background on Palmyra and its recent devastation by ISIS is here and many links. Cross-file under Palmyra Watch.

In Nazir 19b, this question is raised in connection with another woman, Queen Helena of Adiabene, also in modern Syria. Helene once vowed, “If my son will return from war safely, I will be a nazirite for seven years.” He did, and as we have seen earlier in the Tractate, such conditional vows are effective; so she obeyed the nazirite prohibitions for seven years. But even though Helena avoided corpses for all that time, she was living in ritual impurity anyway, since her whole country was tamei. When she subsequently visited the Land of Israel, then, Beit Hillel ruled that she had to perform her naziriteship all over again, since only now was she truly pure. As a result, she had to be a nazirite for seven more years, for a total of 14. Nazirites outside the Land of Israel are, in a sense, only pretending, or doing a trial run for the real thing.
More on Queen Helena of Adiabene and rabbinic legends about her is here. My caution concerning rabbinic stories about her applies to the one above too. And follow the links for some related historical and archaeological issues.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.