"He Will Separate Himself from Wine ..."

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"He Will Separate Himself from Wine ..."

Summarized by Dov Karoll


In describing the laws governing one who has the special status of nazir (nazirite), the Torah commences with the prohibition of wine and grape products (6:3): "He will separate himself from wine, both new and old. He will not drink anything soaked in grape products, nor will he eat grapes - whether fresh or dried." In a seeming repetition, the Torah continues in the next verse: "For all the days of his nezirut [the status of being a nazir], he will not eat any grape products - from the pit to the outer layer." The nazir accepts upon himself three different prohibitions - grape products (verses 3-4), haircuts (verse 5), and coming in contact with a corpse (verses 6-7). Why is only the prohibition of grape products repeated?

The emphasis on grape products is also apparent at the end of the parasha. After describing the process which the nazir undergoes at the conclusion of his period of nezirut (6:13-20), the Torah adds, "And afterwards, the nazir will drink wine." There is no mention of his being permitted to come into contact with the dead, or being allowed to cut his hair. By contrast, the mishna (Nazir 45b) mentions two of these elements - "And afterwards, the nazir is permitted to drink wine and come into contact with the dead" (the allowance for haircuts is not mentioned because the nazir cuts his hair as part of the aforementioned process). Why does the Torah present only the consumption of wine as representing reentry into regular society? How does it differ from the other prohibitions of the nazir?

The answer lies in a more careful reading of the first verses of the parasha. In verse 2, the Torah mentions the concept of a nazir, without describing what it entails. In verse 3, the Torah answers this question - "He will separate (yazir) himself from wine ..." (the words "nazir" and "yazir" share the same root). In other words, the definition of the nazir is his separation from grape products. Rashi (6:2, s.v. Neder) follows this same path: "Nezira (or nezirut) always refers to some sort of separation. In this case, it refers to separation from wine." It seems clear from Rashi that the primary separation which the nazir is effecting is his separation from grape products. Based on this explanation, the second question is also answered. The Torah mentions the drinking of wine as the symbol of the nazir reentering society, for that was the defining factor of his separation.

The Gemara (Ta'anit 11a) cites an interesting dispute:

"Shemuel said: Whoever imposes fasts upon himself is a sinner. [Shemuel] held in accordance with the following statement. Rabbi Elazar Ha-kappar Be-rabbi asks: Why does the Torah state (Bamidbar 6:11), 'And the Kohen will atone for him [the nazir], for he sinned to his soul?' Against what soul has the nazir sinned? He has brought suffering to himself, by separating himself from wine. And if it is wrong to separate oneself from wine, how much more so is total asceticism to be considered sinning! However, Rabbi Elazar [disagrees]: The nazir is called holy, as it says (6:5), 'He is considered holy, and he should allow his hair to grow wild.' If one who causes himself suffering through one thing (wine) is considered holy, how much more so is one who separates himself from all physical pleasures considered holy!"

Again, separation from wine is viewed as the central component of nezirut, since it represents abstention from physical pleasure. The other laws of nezirut seem to relate to different elements of the nazir's status. Avoiding contact with the dead relates to the similarity between a nazir and a Kohen. Not cutting his hair seems to be related to the holiness of which Rabbi Elazar spoke (the continuation of the gemara explains that according to Shemuel, the holiness applies specifically to the hair). Only wine is viewed as a worldly element from which the nazir separates himself.

The abstention from wine can be viewed on two different levels. Firstly, wine represents physical pleasure in general. Consequently, the Rambam (both in Shemona Perakim and in Mishneh Torah) uses the nazir as an exemplar to discourage total separation from worldly pleasures:

"A person should not say: 'Since jealousy, desire, honor and the like can take a person out of this world, I will totally separate myself from them, and go to the opposite extreme,' to the extent that he will not eat meat, drink wine, get married, live in a nice home, or wear nice clothing - wearing rather sackcloth and rough wool, like the idolatrous priests - as this is an improper path, and it is forbidden to follow it. He who follows this path is called a sinner, which is apparent from the nazir..." (Hilkhot De'ot 3:1)

The Rambam, following Shemuel's view, applies the prohibition against denying oneself wine to other pleasures as well. He considers it important is to reach a middle ground in these areas, and not to deny them completely.

Beyond representing physical pleasure in general, wine has a special nature. On the one hand, it can help bring about a raising of spirits. There are many contexts in which wine is expresses joy, and enhances it as well. This holds true on the objective halakhic level, as expressed by the halakhic principle that the joyful songs sung at the offering of sacrifices in the Mikdash are accompanied by wine - "Ein shira ela be-yayin." It is also true on the more subjective level - as expressed by the verse (recited every Rosh Chodesh): "Wine gladdens the heart of man" (Tehillim 104:15). It is for these reasons that wine is present at most happy occasions, such as a wedding and Berit Mila. On the communal and personal levels, wine can be a means to enhance man's feelings.

On the other hand, wine can also be the cause of drunkenness. If it is not controlled, drinking can bring about a loss of control, and even a deterioration of man's nature. When a person allows himself to lose some control in this area, he will very often be dragged along to a total loss of control. If he allows his drinking to overcome him, the results can be disastrous. It can even lead to the tearing apart of families. Can the same be said for chocolate, movies, or Coca Cola? Do they bring a person to such great heights or terrible traumas?! Wine is more significant than other pleasures in this regard - it has the potential to raise a person up, or to destroy him.

What determines which of these two extreme results wine will bring about? The answer is control. If the person remains in control of his drinking, the wine can bring him joy. If, however, the person becomes enslaved to his drinking, it can have horrific results. It is critical for a person to remain in control of his drinking.

In medieval times, it was common for philosophers to believe that the way to achieve spiritual perfection is by denying oneself of the physical elements of this world. If one follows this path, the danger of being overtaken by those physical elements is minimal. However, modern thinking has a very different view on "this-worldly" matters. Take, for example, the approaches of two primary modern Jewish thinkers, Harav Soloveitchik zt"l and Harav Kook zt"l. While their worldviews differed in many ways, they both emphasized the positive nature of the physical world. They taught that there is much to be gained from the proper use of physical things.

For those who follow this path, having a positive outlook on the physical world, it is important to reach a proper balance. If one believes that there is some spiritual value to physical engagement, then it is crucial to learn the lesson of wine. If a person controls the manner in which he derives benefit from the physical world, he can gain much from it. However, if a person allows himself to controlled by physical , he will encounter severe difficulty.

To a certain extent, the period during which a person is in Yeshiva is comparable to a period of nezirut. He is somewhat detached from the pressures of the world, and focuses heavily upon Torah. During this period, a person must internalize this message of remaining in control of his physical involvements. If he can incorporate this message into his very nature, he will be able to remain in control of his physical demands when he leaves the Yeshiva, and use them toward productive ends. By doing so, he has taken the positive elements of the nazir and applied them to the real world - "And afterwards, the nazir shall drink wine."

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Naso 5757.)


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