Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Trimming Nails

Just an initial reaction,

Recently I ran across the following:
Further, Rava’s permissive stance…had a Zoroastrian demonological belief at its base, as did the Bavli’s suggestion that nail parings should be buried (B. Moed Katan 18a). (Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, page 173)
Now, I'm fairly careful about the inyanim around trimming one's nails. Nevertheless I can see how the practice seems a little atypical compared to most Jewish practices. But say what you will about Chazal/Gedolim being influenced by their environment, I'm not one who is inclined to assume that they adopted non-Jewish practices outright.

It was not difficult for me to locate the passage in Zoroastrian "scriptures" which dealt with trimming nails, and indeed it does speak of  burning nails. However, if one were to make a Venn Diagram of the two passages, "burying nails" would be the only element in the intersection.

While I will not dwell on the details, the Zoroastrian rite is fairly specific in it's disposal of nails with liturgy and it's own plagues associated with failure to comply.

The Gemara (See Niddah 17a, Moed Katan 18a), in context, doesn't really say one should bury their nail trimmings, on the contrary burning them is the preferred method while burying them is acceptable. This may not seem like much but fire had ritual significance in Zoroastrianism, yet it is specifically burying which is prescribed, while Chazal on the other hand prescribed burning as preferable.

Likewise Chazal associate improperly disposed of trimmings with miscarriage (r'l) which is entirely different than the calamities mentioned in Zoroastrian sources.

Furthermore, while ultimately advising caution under all circumstances, the Gemara restricts the harmful effects of such trimmings to only when they are trimmed with scissors, left in the same spot, and so forth. Such restrictions, even in theory, would seem to be at odds with Zoroastrian beliefs.

So while I do not claim to have studied the topic exhaustively, and recognize that the Zoroastrian practices may have varied at different times, the evidence does not seem to suggest to me that there is an overwhelming similarity between Chazal's admonitions regarding nail trimming and Zoroastrian practices. I can certainly understand how an outsider, an academic, would find the notion that Chazal adopted Zoroastrian practice the simplest explanation, I don't see how those of us who accept that Chazal were the authentic transmitters of God's Torah can.
In these matters conflict is inevitable:
It is true, of course, that the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” (Torah Im Derech Eretz, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt’l, page 415).
Incidentally, after reading the somewhat less detailed discussion in Moed Katan, I assumed that the other guidelines about trimming nails originated with instruction of the Zohar, while as it turns out most are found in the Gemara Niddah 17a in the discussion initiated by Rashbi.

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