• Rav Yaakov Beasley








By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



The opening of Sefer Bemidbar describes the arrangements made in the camp so that Bnei Yisrael would be worthy of Hashem’s presence as they prepared to travel from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael. First, there is a census of the people, and we noted last week that according to the Rashbam, this census was a military one in preparation for the upcoming war of conquest. The text then goes on to describe the role of the Levi’im in the journey. Because of the nature of these preparations, all matters associated with the camp assume great importance. Accordingly, the first topic following the instructions for organization of the camp, travel-formation, and how the Mishkan was to be transported (Bamidbar 1-4) is how to maintain of the camp’s ritual purity. Afterwards, we read of the offerings that the tribal princes brought at the dedication of the Mishkan, and this forms the background for the description of the Mishkan's role in the journeys of the people. Next week, we will finally read about the beginning of the journey from Har Sinai to Canaan.


This arrangement appears simple. However, we have overlooked a collection of mitzvot found at the beginning of our parasha, between the account of the Levi’im's role and the princes’ offerings.  Four laws appear suddenly, apparently completely out of context and unconnected to the description of the journey to the land of Canaan:


  1. The sending away of the people who are tamei (ritually unfit) from the camp
  2. The guilt-offering associated with theft
  3. The sota (suspected adulteress)
  4. The nazir (a person who willingly vows abstinence from certain physical pleasures)


This week, we will analyze the case of the nazir. 


Many have noted the many conceptual and literary parallels between the restrictions of the nazir and the Kohen Gadol. They suggest that the nazir is a non-priest counterpart to the Kohen Gadol.  A person is entitled to choose, at his or her own initiative, to live in a more sanctified state for a period of time and emulate in private life some laws and practices of the Kohen Gadol.[1] Among the similarities between the two, we find that both are prohibited from becoming defiled even for funerals for an immediate family member, including father and mother. The placement of the laws of the nazir following those of the suspected adulteress parallels the sequence in Vayikra, where the laws of holiness pertaining to priests and the Kohen Gadol (Vayikra 21) follow the section that pertains to the prohibition of adultery (Vayikra 20). The nezirut restriction on wine and intoxicants (Bamidbar  6:3), despite the unique extension that it is applied at all times and to any product made from grapes, recalls the prohibition against kohanim drinking wine or intoxicants at the time of sanctuary service (Vayikra  10:9). Concerning the kohanim, we are told, "They shall be holy to Hashem" (Vayikra 21:6), and concerning the nazir, "He is holy to Hashem" (6:8).


The nazir is to view himself at all times as a priest doing service. Both wear a “nezer” – a “crown” - upon their heads.  Regarding the Kohen Gadol, we read, “You shall place the turban upon his head and you shall place the holy NEZER upon the turban. And you shall take the anointing oil and pour it over his head and anoint him” (Shemot 29:6-7).  Concerning the Nazir, it states, “He shall not be rendered impure for his father or his mother or his brother or his sister, if they should die, for the crown ("nezer") of Hashem is upon his head. All the days that he is a nazir, he is holy to Hashem” (Bamidbar 6:6-7).  In Vayikra 22, the prohibition for impure priests to come into contact with consecrated offerings is introduced with the unusual word ve-yinzuru” (root – N.Z.R.).


How far do the comparisons go?  The mishna in Nazir brings the following case to illustrate the difference between the nazir and the Kohen Gadol:


A Kohen Gadol and a nazir do not render themselves ritually impure for their relatives, but they may become impure for a "met mitzva" [a person who has died and who has no one else to tend to burial arrangements].

Suppose that [the Kohen Gadol and a Nazir] were walking on the road and they see an unidentified corpse. R. Eliezer says, "Let the Kohen Gadol defile himself, but not the nazir," but the Sages say, "Let the nazir defile himself, but not the Kohen Gadol."

R. Eliezer said to them, "Let the Kohen defile himself, for he does not bring a [guilt] offering for becoming impure, rather than the nazir, for he is obligated to bring a [guilt] offering."

They answered him: "Let the nazir defile himself, FOR HIS SANCTITY IS NOT AN ETERNAL SANCTITY, rather than the Kohen Gadol, whose sanctity is an eternal sanctity." (Nazir 7:4)


Accordingly, although an Israelite can aspire to reach the heights of the Kohen Gadol for a limited period of time, an unbridgeable gap divides the two. No matter how long the person chooses to be a nazir, his status is temporary, and ultimately lesser than the Kohen Gadol.


Is the nazir’s desire a good thing?  Should a person aspire to accept upon himself the elevated status of nazir, even temporarily, or should he attempt to reach the heights that he is capable of without changing his station and status?


Most of the commentators’ discussion of this question revolves around the fact that the Torah requires a nazir to bring a chatat, a sin offering, when he concludes his period of nezirut.  Here is a sampling of the most representative views:[2]


Ta’anit 11

Shmuel said: "Anyone who maintains fasting is called a sinner." 


He held like this Tanna, for we learnt in a baraita: R. Elazar Ha-kappar be-Rabbi says: What does the verse mean by, “And he will atone on him from that which he sinned to a life" (v. 11) — against whose life did this one sin?  Rather, he pained himself [by refraining] from wine.


Now, is this not an a fortiori argument: if this one, who pained himself only from wine, is called a sinner, one who pains himself from everything [by fasting], all the more so!  [See, however, R. Eliezer, who calls the nazir a “kadosh” – “holy one.”)


Toledot Yitzchak (v. 11)

We may answer that on the one hand, he is holy, while on the other hand he is a sinner. In terms of his soul, he his holy – for the soul is made more perfect through separation from the desires of this world, but the perfection of the body lies in not being separated from the desires of this world to an extreme, but rather by living in moderation: eating and drinking, consuming meat and imbibing wine as proper for the body's wellbeing.  Thus, in terms of the soul, the nazir is called "holy," while in terms of the body he is called a sinner.


Meshekh Chokhma (v. 14)

The reason for the sin-offering that a nazir must bring is because he cannot perform some of the commandments, such as [contracting] ritual impurity for the sake of [dead] relatives, which is a positive commandment.  Likewise, he cannot recite Kiddush and Havdala over wine. If he acted with dedication, then he is good and praiseworthy, but nevertheless he requires atonement.


Midreshei Ha-Torah

He has sinned through his soul, since his evil inclination overtook him, such that he had to abstain from wine.


Ramban (v. 14)

According to the simplest understanding of the text, this person sins when his period of nazirite separation is over, for he is now separated from his special sanctity and Divine service. He should really have abstained forever and remained a nazir, holy to Hashem, his whole life…  Therefore, he needs atonement, as he once again exposes himself to the impurity of the desires of this world. [See also the Abrabanel]


Rabbeinu Bachye (v. 14)

I have already noted, concerning a nazir that he has exceeded [regular] qualities and cleaved to the essential Upper Mercies, and now he seeks to leave his situation of holiness. He seems to be distancing himself and seeking to remove himself – heaven forbid – from that level that he has attained. Therefore, the Torah requires him to bring a sacrifice, but not for atonement  Rather, the purpose of his sacrifice is to bring close the powers and to unite and to draw them from the flow of the Source; the [regular] qualities will be filled up, and after that he will return to his original pleasures.  Thereby the offerings that he is commanded to bring consist of a burnt-offering, a peace-offering, and a sin-offering.


We thus see a gamut of views regarding the nazir, from those who hold that abstention from this world’s pleasures is sinful to those who hold that it is the specifically the ending of the withdrawal from this world’s pleasures that causes the nazir to bring a sin offering. The middle positions are those of the Meshekh Chokhma, who argues that while the nazir state isn’t inherently sinful, it is problematic because it prevents the person from performing other mitzvot, the Midreshei Ha-Torah, who also holds that the nazir state isn’t inherently sinful, but the previous sinful state that provoked the vow is what requires atonement, and the Rabbeinu Bachye, who argues that the offering isn’t meant to atone for any sin, but to ensure that the person is able to maintain his elevated status after the cessation of his abstention.


I would suggest one more answer, based on the location where the Torah placed this commandment. R. Yoni Grossman suggests that the four laws mentioned above form a chiastic (ABB’A’) structure as follows:[3]


1.            the distancing of the ritually impure from the camp

2.            the guilt offering – "to commit a trespass against Hashem"

2a)       the Sotah – "she trespassed against him"

1a)       the nazir


The connection between the two middle laws is immediately clear to the reader. In both cases, a trespass has occurred - one against Hashem directly and one against the marital bond (for which Hashem is willing to allow his Name to be erased so that the marriage may be saved).  But what connects the two outer commandments, the nazir and the ritually impure? We may suggest that the common bond between them is the result; in both cases, the person involved is distanced from society – “the camp.”  Regarding the ritually impure (the tamei), the estrangement is involuntary, whereas the nazir willingly chooses to distance himself from society for his own personal spiritual growth. Although his motivations may be praiseworthy, the end result is that he has temporarily severed the bond that connects him to the people as a whole.


Given the importance that the camp, and by extension the people it represents, plays in the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, we see here that the Torah is subtly expressing its disapproval of the nazir’s decision.  Ultimately, no artificial spirituality can justify the separation of the individual from the whole of Klal Yisrael. 


Shabbat Shalom


[1] For a detailed comparison of the nazir to the Kohen Gadol, see R. Amnon Bazak's article on the VBM.  See also the parallel presented in the midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 10:11): 

Everyone who sanctifies himself with his own earthly efforts will be sanctified from on High. This [nazir] – since he abstains from wine and afflicts himself by not shaving his head, so as to distance himself from sin, therefore Hashem says, "I consider him like a Kohen Gadol. Just as a Kohen Gadol is prohibited from contracting ritual impurity through any dead person [even his close relatives], likewise a nazir is prohibited to contract ritual impurity through any dead person.  Just as it is written, concerning the Kohen Gadol (Vayikra 21:12), "For Hashem's crown of anointing oil is upon him," likewise, concerning the nazir it is written, "For Hashem's crown is upon his head."  Just as it is written concerning the Kohen Gadol (Divrei Ha-yamim I 23:13), "Aharon was separated to be sanctified as the holy of holies," likewise, the nazir is called holy, as it is written (v. 8), "All his Nazirite days, he is holy to Hashem."

[2] For a detailed analysis of the different views regarding the desirability of the nazir, see Nechama Leibowitz’s article in her Studies on the Weekly Parasha and Rabbanit Sharon Rimon’s article on the VBM.

[3] Please note that in his article on the VBM, R. Grossman develops the significance of this structure in a diametrically opposite approach than our suggestion here.