The Nazir

  • Rav Michael Hattin






The Nazir


By Rav Michael Hattin




            Parashat Naso resumes the tally, of the three primary Levitical families, that was initiated towards the end of last week's parasha.  After the Torah enumerates the responsibilities of the family of Gershon and the family of Merari respectively, it then provides an accounting of their number.  As Ramban explained in a slightly different context last week, the theme of the Book of Bamidbar is that of journey and passage, and this week's Levitical census closely relates to this idea.  After all, the three Levitical families of Kehat, Gershon, and Merari are responsible for the dismantling, transport, and assembly of the Mishkan at each station along the way to the Promised Land.  The Torah goes on to detail various laws relating to maintaining the sanctity of the camp, expiation rites for the transgression of theft and false oaths, and the remarkable ceremony prescribed for the Sota. This week, however, we shall focus on the passage that follows all of the above, namely that of the 'Nazir.'


"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them that a man or a woman who explicitly takes an oath to be a Nazir unto God, shall refrain from wine and strong drink, vinegar, beverages of grapes, and grapes whether fresh or dried.  During the entire period of being a Nazir, he shall consume nothing processed from grapes of the vine, neither from their seeds nor from their skins.  All the days of the oath of being a Nazir, he shall not cut the hair of his head with a razor; until the days of the oath unto God are completed, they shall be holy, and the hair of their heads shall be let alone to grow long.  All the days of his oath to God, he shall not come in contact with a human corpse.  He shall not defile himself even on the occasion of his mother's, father's, brother or sister's death, for the 'nezer' of his God is upon him.  All of the days of his oath, he shall be holy unto God'" (Bamidbar 6:1-8). 


            The Torah thus spells out the three different practices that the Nazir is expected to observe: 1) a rejection of any products of the grape vine, 2) a conscious practice of letting the hair of the head grown long and unkempt, and 3) a prohibition concerning any contact with death, even in the case of one's immediate family.  What is the significance of these three items, and, for that matter, what is the exact meaning of the word 'Nazir'?


The Approach of Ibn Ezra


            Surprisingly, the classical medieval commentaries seem to adopt a rather uniform view of the concept of the Nazir.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) makes it clear that the practices prescribed by the Torah for the Nazir are intended to fashion a framework of isolation for that individual, to help him further his initial decision to withdraw from all that society foolishly considers fashionable. "A man or a woman who explicitly ('YaFLi') takes an oath to be a Nazir unto God…" is understood by Ibn Ezra to be a reference to a vow that is not only definitively expressed, but also remarkable ('PeLE') for its sobriety, "for the majority of the world are led along by their desires" (commentary to 6:2).  Wine, suggests the Ibn Ezra, clouds one's judgement and can thus interfere with one's service of God.  By taking on a vow of abstinence, the Nazir expresses a concrete aspiration to overcome the temptations of this world. 


            In fact, explains the Ibn Ezra, the Nazir is so-called because he wears a figurative crown ('nezer') upon his head, for his mane of long hair singles him out as one who has broken the bonds of passion for the fleeting pleasures of this world.  "Realize that all people are enslaved to the enticements of this world.  The true king, who wears a crown of kingship upon his head, is the one who has liberated himself from desires."  For Ibn Ezra, letting the hair grown long is a means of singling out this individual and marking him in a manner that is exceptional. At first glance, Ibn Ezra's approach seems incongruous, for often we trumpet the platitude that the Torah does not advocate mortification but rather sanctification.  But considering the matter more carefully, we may in fact come to the conclusion that true sanctification is impossible without the perspective afforded by abstinence.


The Ideal of Restraint


            Significantly, although the context of our parasha would appear to limit the duration of the Nazirite vow and to consequently downplay the desirability of living one's entire life according to its strictures, Ibn Ezra elsewhere makes it clear that a life of separation is not to be disparaged.  Commenting on the Torah's list of forbidden sexual relationships presented in Vayikra Chapter 18, Ibn Ezra explains that the emphatic "I am the Lord" stated there in verse 6 indicates Divine approval for the ideal of restraint.  "God loves the one who is separated to serve Him and to listen to His words, as is suggested by the paradigm of Mount Sinai, as well as by the 'First.'  Is this not man's essence?" (Commentary to verse 6). 


            Ibn Ezra's mention of Mount Sinai is a reference to the preparations enjoined upon the people as the day of Revelation drew near:  "God said to Moshe: approach the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow and let them wash their clothing (and immerse).  They shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day God will descend on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people" (Shemot 19:10-11).  Conveying God's words to the people, Moshe explains: "be ready for three days and do not come close to a woman" (verse 15).  Thus, the ideal state of being suggested by the moment of Revelation, a brief interval during which the experience of God's closeness and immediacy was unrivalled, is introduced (made possible?) by a recess from sexual contact.  The cryptic 'First' mentioned in Ibn Ezra's comments above, is a reference to the First Human Beings.  In his commentary to Bereishit, he suggests that their consumption of the 'desirous' but forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge awakened in humanity a sexual appetite that would henceforth constitute a constant source of not only frustration, but also a potential cause of estrangement from God.  Man's 'essence' is to strive for spiritual progress, but when his physicality is given the opportunity for unbridled expression, this most important of objectives is subverted.


Ramban's Emphatic Endorsement and Seforno's Qualification


            Although Ibn Ezra may fail to make a categorical argument for the merits of a permanent state of Naziritehood, the Ramban's (13th century, Spain) comments are unequivocal.  The sin-offering brought by the Nazir at the conclusion of his vows was understood by some early Mishnaic opinions as a clear polemic against the self-denial of life's permitted pleasures (such as wine).  The Ramban emphatically disagrees: "the reason for the sin-offering brought by the Nazir at the conclusion of his vows is not stated in the text.  The rational explanation appears to be that this man is actually committing a transgression by concluding his vows, for up until now he has been separated in his holiness and in his service to God.  It would have been more fitting for this man to remain a Nazir forever, sanctified unto his God…he therefore requires atonement for deciding to return to the defilement associated with the desires of this world" (Chapter 6, verse 11).   


            In this connection, it is worthwhile to consider the words of the Seforno (15th century, Italy).  Like his earlier counterparts, Seforno understands that the ideal of the Nazir is "to be separated ('nazur') from habitual pleasures…in order to be dedicated completely to God, to be occupied in the Torah, to follow His ways and to cleave to Him."  Nevertheless, Seforno proffers that the Torah is very selective in its choice of abstentions for the Nazir.  He is to be separated only from wine, but this in no way constitutes a license to "abuse himself through fasting, for such conduct would lessen one's strength and cause a proportional reduction in his ability to serve God.  The purpose is not for the Nazir to become an ascetic and to punish his body through self-flagellation after the manner of the monastic priests.  Rather, let him abstain from wine only, for this will lessen levity and subdue his inclinations, without weakening the body's strength" (commentary to verse 3).  In a similar vein, the emphasis on allowing the hair of the head to grow long is not arbitrary, for by so doing the Nazir "casts behind himself all concerns of beautification and attention to his hair."  Thus, here as well, "separation from material desires" is accomplished without recourse to general self-abasement and extensive neglect of the body.


            The essential life-affirming nature of these restrictions is of course suggested by the third of the Nazir's strictures, namely the prohibition of coming in contact with a corpse.  Like his counterpart the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), who alone shares a similar ban on being in attendance at the death or burial of even immediate family members, the Nazir's mission is bound up with life.  Being in God's presence is connecting with the Source of all life; therefore during the period of his vows, the Nazir renounces death.  However, what the Cohen Gadol acquires through lineage and appointment, the Nazir accomplishes through the exercise of his own free choice.  He therefore merits to be holy unto God, to "be illuminated by the Light of life, and to be a teacher and guide to the generation" (Seforno's commentary to verse 6).


            The Seforno's contribution is significant, for he is suggesting that the Torah's purpose in presenting us with the challenge of the Nazir is not to denigrate physicality or to deprecate materiality, as if there is an unbridgeable chasm between the world of the body and the ideal of the soul.  Quite the contrary, for the ultimate success of the spirit is predicated upon the healthy functioning of the body.  Rather, the restrictions of the Nazir are gentle reminders that one's goals in life must transcend the desire to have a good time and to look beautiful, for these are paradigms for pursuits that, left unchecked, tend to consume us.


            At the same time, the lesson of the Nazir is not the straightforward observation that a life of unbridled physicality and uncurbed desire cannot, in the final analysis, lead to Godliness.  That is obvious, and the message of the Nazir is much subtler.  Ibn Ezra and the others are suggesting that we often commit the more elusive error of indulging our base material and physical drives in the name of 'hidur mitzva' (beautification and adornment of mitzva performance), when in fact it is really desire in disguise.  We may be living Torah observant lives but still be very far from the ideal of living in God's presence.  We are acculturated to social norms that venerate the body and idolize wealth; often, we justify our over-attention to material pursuits by misinterpreting the Torah's ideal of sanctification of the physical as a license for its unmitigated embrace.  The Nazir points the way to a higher dialectic, in which the body and its passions are, on the one hand, not to be rejected, but on the other, must be tempered in the interests of spiritual growth and development.

Shabbat Shalom