by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 31, 2011
In the Torah section of Naso (Bamidbar 6:1-21), we find an elaboration on the subject of the Nazirite: “A man or woman who shall dissociate oneself by taking a Nazirite vow … From new or aged wine shall he abstain, and he shall not drink vinegar of wine or vinegar of aged wine; anything in which grapes have been steeped shall he not drink, and fresh and dried grapes shall he not eat. All the days of his abstinence, anything made from wine grapes, even the pits or skin, he shall not eat…a razor shall not pass over his head … All the days of his abstinence … he shall not come near a dead person. To his father or to his mother, to his brother or to his sister, he shall not contaminate himself to them upon their death … All the days of this abstinence, he is holy to G-d. If a person should die near him with quick suddenness and contaminate his Nazirite head, he shall shave his head on the day he becomes purified; on the seventh day shall he shave it. On the eighth day, he shall bring two turtledoves or two young doves to the priest, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The priest shall make one as a sin-offering and one as a burnt-offering, and he shall provide him atonement for having sinned regarding the person … and he shall bring a sheep in its first year for a guilt-offering … on the day his abstinence is completed, he shall bring himself to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. He shall bring the offering to G-d: one unblemished sheep in its first year as a burnt-offering, one unblemished ewe in its first year as a sin-offering, and one unblemished ram as a peace-offering. A basket of unleavened loaves … and their meal-offerings and their libations. … At the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, the Nazirite shall shave his Nazirite head; he shall take the hair of his Nazirite head and put it on the fire that is under the feast peace-offering. The priest shall take the cooked foreleg of the ram and one unleavened loaf from the basket and one unleavened wafer, and place them on the palms of the Nazirite after he has shaved his Nazirite hair. The priest shall wave them as a wave-service before G-d … afterward the Nazirite may drink wine. This is the law of the Nazirite who shall pledge his offering to G-d for his abstinence.”
Upon reading the above verses, an apparent inconsistency emerges. The nazir vows not to drink wine and is, thereby, elevated to a level akin to that of the kohen gadol (high priest) who is prohibited from touching any dead person – even his own father or mother. In fact, we find two of the most celebrated individuals in our history who were life-long nazirites: Samson (Shoftim 13:7) and the prophet Samuel (I Shmuel 1:21) – neither denigrated in any way for their nazirite status (Samson only punished when violating his status). On the other hand, though, this very same individual who proclaims himself a nazir must bring a korban chatat (sin-offering) at the completion of the term of his vow, indicating some sort of wrong-doing!
In explanation of the above inconsistency, we need to look no further than the words of our Sages and commentators. The Tanna R. Elazar Ha’Kapar is quoted as saying (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 19a): “What is to be derived from ‘And he [the priest] will provide him [the nazirite] atonement for having sinned regarding the person’ [Bamidbar 6:11]? With what person did he sin? Rather, it is because he anguished himself from wine.” Like R. Elazar Ha’Kapar, the famous Amora Shmuel opines (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a), “Whoever sits in [a personally declared] fast is considered a sinner…anguishing himself from all [pleasures].” One who takes upon himself a temporary state of abstinence is not to be lauded. He is looked down upon. This point is further amplified by the great medieval commentator Ramban, a.k.a. Nachmanides. In his commentary on the aforementioned verse, Ramban notes: “A nazirite must bring a sin-offering … for until now he was separated in sanctity and the service of G-d, and he should therefore have remained separated forever, continuing all his life consecrated and sanctified to his G-d … Thus he requires atonement, since he goes back to be defiled by [material] desires of the world.” Temporarily abstaining from the pleasures bestowed on us by G-d to instill a fleeting period of holiness is to be eschewed. To refrain from sanctioned pleasures, only to return to them later, is not looked upon as a true form of holiness. To abstain from permissible pleasure, “anguishing” every moment until his life can return to what it was, while he feels the martyr, is not encouraged. It would be better for the average person to serve G-d while working with and finding and appreciating all that G-d created in this world that He has turned over to us for our satisfaction. It would be better to enjoy all that G-d has handed over to us to enjoy and use them as tools in the service of the Al-Mighty. It would be better to serve G-d properly and utilize the world’s bounty in this process.
If temporarily abstaining from G-d’s material gifts is not advisable – even sinful – where does the holiness of the nazir come into play? In what sense, then, is the nazir referred to by the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 9b): “One time a certain man came, a nazir from the south, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was handsome, his hair arranged in locks. So I said to him, ‘My son, why did you choose to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He told me, ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. I went to fill water from the well, and I looked at my reflection, and my [evil] inclination came over me and attempted to detach me from this world. I said to him, “Evil one, why do you wax haughty in a world that is not yours, over one who is destined to be maggots and worms? I declare that I will shave you off for the sake of heaven.” Immediately, I stood up and kissed him on his head. I said to him, ‘My son, like you should multiply nazirites in .’” When one is not “anguishing” in a fleeting temporary thought of abstinence but engages whole-heartedly in a special unassuming commitment to G-d, either by a long term commitment to raise his spiritual awareness by reducing his material involvement, as in the case of the prophet Samuel, or by way of a serious thought and recognition of G-d’s supremacy and the pitfalls of material indulgence, such a person is to be commended as “holy to G-d”, elevated to a level akin to that of the kohen gadol. The thought can make all the difference – and, in fact, it does.as “holy to G-d”? Again, we can turn to the words of our Sages. We are told of an incident in the life of Shimon Ha’Tzadik, during the time of the second Bet HaMikdash (
May we all have only proper and positive thoughts, motives and intentions with only the unadulterated and pure goal of lifting ourselves in our service of G-d, our Creator and Master. And may those positive and pure thoughts make all the difference in our lives, bringing us commensurate reward, happiness and joy for all our good deeds in our mundane lives on this world and for all eternity in the world to come.