The Nazirite

  • Rav Zvi Shimon






The Nazirite

By Rav Zvi Shimon



I The Prohibitions of the Nazirite


            According to Jewish tradition there are 613 commandments. The Torah enjoins us: "Be careful to observe everything that I prescribe to you. Do not add to it and do not subtract from it" (Deuteronomy 13:1). The 613 commandments oblige the people of Israel and are the essence of the covenant between God and Israel. The commandments are generally automatically binding. However, there are a few commandments which are by definition voluntary. Among these is the commandment of the 'nazirite.'


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite's vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.  Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.


Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed.  Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person.  Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head: throughout his term as nazirite he is holy to the Lord." (Numbers 6:1-8)


            The Torah lists the prohibitions resulting from a nazirite vow. The restrictions may be divided into three categories:


1) Abstinence from grapes and grape products (verses 3,4)

2) Prohibition of cutting the hair of the head (v. 5)

3) Prohibition of becoming ritually impure through contact with a corpse (v. 6,7)


            What is the significance and purpose of these restrictions? We will begin with the prohibition of grapes and their by-products. The Torah first states that the nazirite must separate himself from wine. The verse then continues by prohibiting all other grape beverages and concludes by prohibiting any part of a grape. The order is the opposite of the natural process which begins with grapes and concludes with wine. Thus, we may infer from the fact that the Torah begins with wine that wine, and not grape, per se, is the focus of the prohibition. This is the apparent textual source for the Ibn Ezra's (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) comment:


"And the reason [for the prohibition] of vinegar of wine, and anything in which grapes have been steeped and grapes, is to serve as a safeguard from wine" (Ibn Ezra on 6:3).


            The Ibn Ezra adds that wine is prohibited to the nazirite since it "destroys the intellect and the worship of God" (Ibn Ezra on 6:2). This concurs with the Ibn Ezra's rationalist approach and stress on intellectual cognition of God (see introduction to his commentary, "The third way"). If the nazirite is to consecrate himself to God then his intellectual faculties must be lucid and unclouded by the influences of alcohol. Clarity of thought is the essential ingredient in the worship of God.


            The second prohibition of the nazirite is that of cutting his hair. During the period of his nazirite vow he must let his hair grow unhindered. The commentators offer different explanations for this restriction. Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) suggests:


"'No razor shall come upon his head.'  - And thereby he will divert all thought of beauty and the arranging of [his] hair." (Sforno on 6:5)


            According to this explanation, the nazirite must discard all esthetic considerations and focus totally on the substantial aspects of his relationship with God. External considerations just function as barriers in approaching God.


            Rabbi Hertz (Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, London, 1872-1946), the former chief Rabbi of England, offers an alternative explanation:


"The hair was regarded as the symbol of the vital power at its full natural development, and the free growth of the hair on the head of the nazirite represented the dedication of the man with all his strength and powers to the service of God...Unshorn hair was the outward sign of the consecrated life."


            The growing of the nazirite's hair is not a rejection of esthetics. Rather it symbolizes the consecration of the nazirite's strength to the service of God.


            The third and final component of the nazirite vow is the prohibition of becoming ritually impure through contact with a corpse. The nazirite may not even defile himself for his closest family. How are we to understand this prohibition?


            The Sforno comments that the nazirite may not come into contact with a corpse because that would defile his holiness. There is an inherent contradiction between holiness and death. The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) further explains that the nazirite achieves a certain closeness to God which invests him with holiness. God is the essential life force and is the absolute antithesis of death. As such, the nazirite must refrain from coming into contact with a corpse. The Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1817-1893) offers a different explanation:


"The prohibition of being defiled through contact with a corpse is in order to separate him from sadness and mourning which prevent divine inspiration which occurs only in a state of happiness" (Netziv 6:8).


            It is not defilement itself but rather its emotional consequences which are the reason for its being prohibited to the nazirite. The nazirite must remain in a joyous frame of mind and must therefore refrain from coming into contact with a corpse.


II The Desirability of Taking a Nazirite Vow


            So far we have analyzed the prohibitions of the nazirite. What requires further investigation is the Torah's attitude towards the nazirite. Is taking a nazirite vow desirable? Is it an ideal to be strived for? The Torah delineates the obligation incumbent upon anyone wishing to take a nazirite vow. But does the Torah advocate doing so?


            Before analyzing the verses treating the nazirite, we will first inquire into the etymology of the word nazirite. What may we infer from the name assigned to he who accepts upon himself the prohibitions previously discussed? According to the Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) the word nazirite means SEPARATION. The nazirite is he who SEPARATES himself from things permissible to others. It thus emphasizes the ascetic self-denying quality of the nazirite. However, the Ibn Ezra raises an alternative possibility:


"Some maintain that the word nazirite is from the root             'nezer,' meaning CROWN,... and this is quite plausible. Know that all human beings are enslaved to their worldly desires, but the real king who wears a crown and royal wreath on his head, is he who is free from these desires."


            According to this etymology, the nazirite is a regal figure of the highest spiritual stature. His capacity to control his urges and dedicate his life to spiritual ends elevate him above most human beings. The etymology suggested by the Rasag, nazirite in the sense of separation, describes the conduct of the nazirite, but does not express any evaluation of the desirability of such conduct. The Ibn Ezra's explanation, nazirite in the sense of crown, reveals a very positive attitude towards the nazirite phenomenon. He is a king rising above the rest of humanity. Thus, the different interpretations of the word nazirite may represent differing evaluations of the nazirite.


            Let us now return to the verses dealing with the nazirite cited at the beginning of this essay. (It is advisable to return to the citation and reread it). Does the text intimate any specific opinion regarding the nazirite?


            The Torah states that the nazirite is "holy to God." At first glance, this would seem to express a very positive evaluation of the nazirite. However, this is not necessarily the case. The clause "holy to God" might just express the fact that a nazirite is consecrated to God, that during the period of his vow, the nazirite's life is devoted solely to God's service. The clause does not inform us of the spiritual state of the nazirite but rather of his belonging to God.


            Another possible clue to the Torah's attitude towards the nazirite are the sacrifices which the nazirite brings.


"If a person dies suddenly near him, defiling his consecrated hair, he shall shave his head on the day he becomes clean; he shall shave it on the seventh day.  On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  The priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, and make expiation on his behalf for the guilt that he incurred through the corpse...


This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  As his offering to the Lord he shall present: one male lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering; one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish for a sin offering...."  (Numbers 6:9-11, 13-14)


            If the nazirite accidentally defiles himself by coming into contact with a corpse he must bring a sin offering (6:11). Likewise, at the termination of the period of his nazirite vow, the nazirite must bring a sin offering (6:14). What sin has the nazirite committed that he must bring this sin offering? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) cites a disagreement amongst our sages regarding the reason for the nazirite's bringing a sin offering upon being defiled:


"Because he was not careful not to be defiled (by contact with) the dead. Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar said because he afflicted himself in abstaining from wine."


            The first opinion sees no problem with taking a nazirite vow. The sin offering is obliged due to the lack of rigor in keeping the vow, specifically with regard to avoiding contact with a corpse. The nazirite accidentally defiled himself and must therefore bring a sin-offering. However, according to Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar, it is the nazirite vow itself which obliges a sin offering. The very fact that a person takes a vow to abstain from things which are permissible is a sin. The nazirite vow is not only not advocated, it also has certain negative aspects which oblige the bringing of a sin-offering. This is also the position adopted by the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204):


"A person might say, 'Since envy, desire, [the pursuit]             of honor, and the like, are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate from them to a very great degree and move away from them to the opposite extreme.'  For example, he will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor live in a pleasant home, nor wear fine clothing, but, rather, [wear] sackcloth and coarse wool and the like - just as the pagan priests do.


This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it.  Whoever follows this path is called a sinner [as implied by Numbers 6:11's] statement concerning a nazirite: 'and he [the priest] shall make an atonement for him, for his having sinned because of the dead.'  Our sages declared: If the nazirite who abstained only from wine requires atonement, how much more so does one who abstains from everything.


Therefore, our sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things by vows and oaths [of abstention].  Thus, our sages stated : Are not those things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you that you must forbid additional things to yourself?


This general statement also refers to those who fast constantly.  They are not following a good path, [for] our sages have forbidden a man to mortify himself by fasting.  Of all the above, and their like, Solomon directed and said, 'Do not be overly righteous and do not be overly clever; why make yourself desolate?' (Ecclesiastes 7:16)"  (Code of Law, Laws of Deot 3:1)


            In contrast to other religions, whether of the Far East or Christianity, Judaism rejects rigid asceticism and withdrawal from the world. Its purpose is the sanctification of the world, not its negation. Therefore, any abstention from that which is permissible is viewed as a limiting of the potential sanctity inherent in creation. There are many things which the Torah prohibits. However, these prohibitions are not founded on an ascetic philosophy. Any additional prohibitions are viewed as a stifling and diminution of the potential vitality and beauty of life.


            The Sforno rejects this explanation outright:


"'He shall abstain from wine and strong drink.' - He must not afflict himself by fasting for that would diminish his capacity to worship God, as we find in the words of our sages (Taanit 11b), nor should he torture his body with 'flagellation of the abstemious' (Sota 20a), as is the custom of hypocrites and idolatrous priests.  Rather, he shall separate himself (abstain) from wine, for in that manner he will considerably reduce licentiousness and subdue his (evil) inclination, but he will not weaken his strength through this (abstinence) at all."  (Numbers 6:3)


            The prohibitions of the nazirite are very different from those common among the ascetics. Abstinence from wine is unique in that it does not enfeeble or weaken the human being. To the contrary, it increases alertness and helps in the fulfillment of the commandments. However, if there is nothing negative in abstaining from that which the nazirite abstains from, then why must he bring a sin offering? While we can easily explain that the nazirite brings a sin offering when defiling himself for not taking sufficient guard against coming into contact with a corpse, why must he bring a sin offering upon fulfilling his vow (see 6:14)?


            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon, Prague,?-1619) offers the following explanation to the sin of the nazirite. It is not the nazirite vow which is sinful. Rather, it is the spiritual state preceding the vow which requires atonement. According to the Kli Yakar the reason for the nazirite's vow is to help him overcome his urges. He can only contain himself by taking vows. This condition of free reign of the physical urges preempting the vow is the sin. The vow itself is a remedy for the difficult spiritual circumstance of the nazirite.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers a totally different explanation of the nazirite's obligation to bring a sin offering:


"'And the priest shall prepare one for a sin-offering.'  The reason why a nazirite must bring a sin-offering when the days of his naziritehood are fulfilled has not been explained.  In accordance with the plain meaning of Scripture, [it is because] this man sins against his soul on the day of completion of his naziritehood; for until now he was separated in sanctity and the service of God, and he should therefore have remained separated forever, continuing all his life consecrated and sanctified to his God, as it is said, 'And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for nazirites,' where Scripture compares the nazirite to a prophet, and it is written, 'All the days of his naziritehood he is holy unto the Eternal.'  Thus [when he completes his naziritehood and returns to his normal life] he requires atonement, since he goes back to be defiled by [material] desires of the world."  (Ramban, Numbers 6:11)


            In contrast to the Kli Yakar who considered the nazirite vow nothing more than a corrective remedy, the Ramban views it as an ideal to be strived for. The nazirite's sin does not lie in his past, in the lowly spiritual state which obliged the taking of the vow, as suggested by the Kli Yakar, but in his future, in his terminating the period of his vow and returning to his usual state. After climbing the ladder of spirituality and achieving a state of holiness and closeness to God, the retiring nazirite sins by now descending to a lower spiritual state. Sin distances one from the creator, and here to, the termination of the vow distances the nazirite from God obliging a sin offering.


            We see that the disagreement amongst our sages, as cited earlier by Rashi, regarding the desirability of the nazirite vow extends to the later commentators. The Rambam agrees with the position of the sage, Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar, that the nazirite is a sinner while the Ramban takes the diametrically opposite position that the nazirite is a holy person comparable to a prophet. Although contradictory, I believe that the differing opinions in this long standing and very sharp disagreement regarding how to view the nazirite, are both correct! A close analysis of the text reveals that there are actually two different types of nazirites!


            An important principle of Biblical exegesis is 'semikhut parashot'- the principle of juxtaposed texts. This exegetical principle states that there is a logic to the sequence and progress of the text and consequently some form of connection, either thematic or chronological, between adjoining texts. Applying this principle to the section of the nazirite magnificently reveals the existence of two types of nazirite.


            The section immediately preceding the laws of the nazirite deals with the 'sota,' the adulteress woman . How is the 'sota' connected to the nazirite? Rashi cites the following explanation of our sages:


"Why is the section of the nazirite adjoined to the section of a woman suspected of adultery? To inform you that whoever sees a faithless wife in her degradation shall separate himself from wine which brings one to adultery."


            The purpose of the nazirite vow is to guard against the perpetration of adultery. Wine is often accompanied by licentiousness and the loss of control over sexual drives. Therefore the nazirite abstains from wine. I would add that one of the explanations offered for the obligation of the nazirite to let his hair grow uninhibited is to reject aesthetics. Lustful behavior is often rooted in a powerful physical attraction, an infatuation with external physical beauty. The nazirite's growth of hair rejects this stress on external beauty and thus helps him overcome his lust. The Torah adjoins the laws of the 'sota' and the nazirite to teach us that the nazirite vow is the remedy to licentiousness. The way to overcome lustful tendencies is to adopt the opposite extreme, to totally reject beauty and wine. This method of correcting sinful behavior by adopting the opposite extreme is expanded by the Rambam as a general guideline for overcoming character flaws:


"The man who is full of pride should cause himself to             experience much disgrace.  He should sit in the lowliest of places, dress in tattered rags which shame the wearer, and the like, until the arrogance is uprooted from his heart and he returns to the middle path, which is the proper path.  When he returns to this middle path, he should walk in it the rest of his life.


One should take a similar course with each of the other traits.  A person who swayed in the direction of one of the extremes should move in the direction of the opposite extreme, and accustom himself to that for a long time, until he has returned to the proper path, which is the midpoint for each and every temperament."  (Code of Law, Laws of Deot, 2:2)


            The nazirite vow is extreme, undesirable in and of itself. Its function is as a corrective tool to overcome the opposite extreme and achieve the desirable median. It is to be used only under extreme circumstances requiring extreme solutions.


            The section immediately following the laws of the nazirite deals with the priestly blessing which the 'kohanim' are to bless the people of Israel. Applying, once again, the principle of 'semikhut parashot,' juxtaposed texts, we ask what is the connection between a nazirite and a priest? The Ibn Ezra offers the following explanation:


"The priestly blessing is juxtaposed to the nazirite so that after completing the laws of the nazirite who is HOLY, the Torah relates the laws of the 'kohanim' (priests) who are HOLY" (6:23).


            The common denominator is that both the nazirite and the kohen are holy, they are both people of high spiritual stature serving God. This connection is not only a matter of juxtaposition. It also relates  to the laws obliging them. There is a striking similarity between some of the laws of the nazirite and the laws of the 'kohanim.' The first similarity pertains to the prohibition of drinking wine. The 'kohanim' are also restricted, albeit not to the same extent, regarding the drinking of wine:


"And the Lord spoke to Aaron saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites             all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses." (Leviticus 10:8-11)


            An additional similarity between the nazirite and the priest pertains to the prohibition of defilement through contact with a corpse. However, in this instance the law of the nazirite parallels the laws of the high priest:


"The priest who is exalted above his fellows,... He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father and mother." (Leviticus 21:10,11)


            Just as the high priest is forbidden to defile himself even for his own parents so too is the nazirite prohibited from doing so. What is the significance of these striking similarities? The Sforno's understanding of the ultimate purpose of the nazirite vow may shed some light on this question:


"'He is holy to the Lord.' - He will merit to be illuminated by the light of life, to be prepared to understand and to instruct [others], as is fitting for the holy ones of the generation." (6:8)


            The nazirite is deemed one of the holy individuals in his generation. His function is to serve as a model and a teacher of the people. This parallels the role of the kohanim and the rest of the tribe of Levy who are responsible for the dissemination of Torah as is written: "They [the Levites] shall teach your laws to Jacob and your instructions to Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:10). Together, the kohanim and the nazirite serve as the spiritual leaders of the nation.


            The appearance of the laws of the nazirite between the laws of the adulteress woman and the priestly blessing reveal the dual nature and function of the nazirite vow. It may be used as a tool to combat licentiousness or alternatively, it may serve as a springboard towards spiritual growth. I would like to suggest that the specific prohibitions resulting from the nazirite vow might serve different functions depending on the ultimate purpose of the vow. In the case where the vow is used as a protective shield against sinful behavior the prohibition of wine aims at containing and subordinating physical urges. Likewise, the growth of the nazirite's hair may express a rejection of physical beauty. However when the vow is used as a spiritual springboard the prohibition of drinking wine and of cutting hair of the head serve different functions. The prohibition of wine is to allow greater clarity of mind. Likewise the growth of the nazirite's hair represents the dedication of the man with all his strength and powers to the service of God.


            We have discussed the possible differences in function of the prohibitions of wine and of cutting hair. What remains to be explained is the prohibition of defilement to a corpse in relation to the different types of nazirite vows. The commentators offered two possible explanations for this prohibition. The first, that defilement undermines holiness, the second, in order to separate the nazirite from sadness and mourning which prevent divine inspiration. Both these explanations suit the conception of the vow as a tool for spiritual growth but do not agree with the conception of the vow as a safeguard from sin. Fascinatingly, the Netziv also distinguishes between the two types of nazirite vows. However he adds that there is a major difference in the laws pertaining to the two types of nazirites:


"There is a type of nazirite who is not prohibited from being defiled by contact with a corpse. This is what is referred to by the tradition as the 'naziritehood of Samson.'.. For this second purpose [of distancing oneself from adultery] there is no reason to forbid defilement through contact with a corpse. To the contrary, let him come into contact with a corpse so that he remember the day of death and thus [repent and] abstain from sinning"(6:8).


            The nazirite vow which serves as a safeguard from sin is called the naziritehood of Samson, after the judge Samson who was a nazirite (see Judges 13). Samson was prohibited from drinking wine and cutting his hair but was not forbidden to be defiled by a corpse. According to the Netziv, this type of nazirite vow aims at guarding against licentiousness but does not forbid being defiled. Thus, the two types of nazirites not only differ in their ultimate purpose, but also in the laws defining their naziritehood.


            There are individuals who separate themselves from certain pleasures as a defense against sin. Their weaknesses and tendencies require additional safeguards. By contrast, there are certain individuals of unique spiritual potential who take the nazirite vow in order to concentrate all their energies in the service of God. They are the outstanding who wish to climb the spiritual ladder and take upon themselves additional responsibilities. They are the nazirites whose vow is a crown on their head.