Why are the Laws of the Sota and the Nazirite in the Book of Bamidbar?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
 
I. The Laws of the Offerings as Part of the Law of the Camp
 
At first glance, Bamidbar chapters 5 and 6 do not belong at all in the book in which they are found, but rather in the book of Vayikra. This is especially true of the section dealing with the guilt-offering (5:5-10), which would have been appropriate at the end of Parashat Vayikra (chapter 5), as well as the laws of the sota (5:11-31) and the Nazirite (6:1-25). In fact, the only section whose location is clear is the section opening with the command to send out the impure members of Israel from the camp (5:1-4), for only in the book of Bamidbar is the camp described with all its various components. The rest of the sections in these chapters seem to belong in Vayikra. Why are these sections of laws of sacrifices included in the book of Bamidbar?
 
When we understand that the two books of Vayikra-Bamidbar parallel each other and that both of them are continuations of the book of Shemot, like two branches from one trunk,[1] the matter is clarified.
 
A man or a woman (6:2) from the people of Israel who are not priests and will never become priests, but nevertheless wish to live like priests in holiness and purity, can take an oath of Nazirite-ship. Their hair must be allowed to grow long, serving as a sort of a crown on their heads (6:9, 18), similar to the "crown of holiness" of the High Priest.[2] They are commanded to distance themselves from all impurity contracted through contact with a corpse:
 
All the days that he consecrates himself to the Lord he shall not come near to a dead body. (Bamidbar 6:6-7)
 
This is like the absolute distancing of the High Priest (Vayikra 21:11).
 
Nevertheless, the Nazirite and Naziritess remain ordinary Israelites. When they complete their terms of Nazirite-ship, they bring offerings to mark the conclusion and then return to normal life among the people of Israel. In the Torah, there is no Nazirite-ship without offerings marking its conclusion, and there is therefore no "life-long Nazirite-ship," like that of Shimshon and the prophet Shemuel.[3]
 
Accordingly, the section dealing with the Nazirite belongs to the arrangement of the camp, the census and the standards that shaped Israelite society in the wilderness around the Mishkan and tent of meeting. In addition to the camps and standards, Israelite society also includes the severe problems of jealous husbands and suspicions of adultery and, in contrast, men and women who strive for purity and drawing near to the Holy for short or long periods of time.
 
II. A Burnt-Offering, a Sin-Offering, and a Peace-Offering with a Basket of Unleavened Bread
 
In order to understand the significance of Nazirite-ship, we must analyze the offerings brought by a Nazirite to mark the completion of his Nazirite-ship. These offerings are similar to the consecration offerings brought by the priests when they entered into their service.
 
The priests had to bring a bullock as a sin-offering and a ram as a burnt-offering (Shemot 29:10-18; Vayikra 8:14-21), whereas a Nazirite or Naziritess brings a he-lamb for a burnt-offering and a ewe-lamb for a sin-offering (Bamidbar 6:13-14), but this gap accords with the gap between the bull sin-offering of the "anointed priest" and the she-goat or ewe-lamb sin-offering of "one of the common people" (Vayikra 4:3, 27, 32). The peace-offering, however, is the same – a ram with a basket of unleavened bread. It should be noted, however, that the priests had to bring three types of unleavened bread, whereas the Nazirite brings only two types of unleavened bread.
 
Moreover, the offering of the Nazirite must be brought "when the days of his consecration are fulfilled [melot]," and the peace-offering of the priests is called in the Torah a "ram of consecration [ha-milu'im]"; the basket of unleavened bread is called a "basket of consecration [ha-milu'im]" and their role is "to consecrate [le-maleh] and to sanctify them."[4]
 
But the parallel emphasizes an important difference: The priests began their priesthood on these days of consecration, which prepared them for the holy service, whereas Nazirites complete their terms of Naziriteship with these sacrifices and then they return home as ordinary people. Why is there such a similarity between these two opposites? 
 
Another important question arises from the parallel to the basket of unleavened bread brought with the thanksgiving-offering (Vayikra 6:12-13). Why does the unleavened bread of a thanksgiving-offering come "with cakes of leavened bread" (Vayikra 7:13), whereas the bread of consecration and of the Nazirite is only unleavened bread and not leavened bread?
 
In order to understand the meaning of Nazirite-ship and the offering brought "when the days of his consecration are fulfilled," we must try to understand the distinction between unleavened and leavened bread.[5]
 
III. The Difference Between Leavened Bread (Chametz) and Unleavened Bread (Matza) and the Ramifications for the Nazirite
 
Leavened bread, as well as honey (the honey of sweet fruit), are the ultimate goals to which a farmer aspires from the time he begins to work the land. Leavened bread and ripe, sweet fruit are a successful expression of the end of the process, the desired objective, and therefore also an expression of the wealth and success, blessing and abundance, of one who reaches this objective and the end of the process.
 
Unleavened bread, on the other hand, reflects the halting of the process in the middle, before it reaches its end. Hence, it symbolizes deficiency that still awaits completion and perfection. Therefore, unleavened bread is presented as "the bread of poverty" (Devarim 16:3). Unleavened bread – both symbolically and practically – is the bread of a poor person, one who lacks the strength and the ability to bring the material process to the full objective of the beautiful cake. It makes no difference whether he is poor in terms of monetary assets or in terms of strength. In contrast, yeast – which ferments the dough and turns it into a fat loaf – symbolizes one who is strong and wealthy, fattened and capable.
 
Thus, it is obvious why it is forbidden to burn chametz on the altar in the case of the meal-offerings or any of the sacrifices:
 
For you shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire to the Lord. (Vayikra 2:11).
 
When a person offers a sacrifice on the altar, he stands before God – as in prayer – with a sense of smallness and futility. His feeling is that of:
 
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory… But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of You, and of Your own have we given You. (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 29:11-14)
 
One cannot stand before the altar with a sense of proud wealth that proclaims, "It is mine," as with, "My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth" (Devarim 8:17). Such sacrifice reflects the audacity of arrogance and haughtiness, and this is one of the most severe sins in the Torah.[6]
 
"The basket of unleavened bread" that the priests brought during the days of consecration with "the ram of consecration" at the dedication of the Mishkan could not have any leavened bread in it. This is because it marks a beginning – the beginning of the priesthood, which will continue for all time. This beginning parallels the exodus from Egypt of the "priestly kingdom."
 
A similar explanation accounts for the Nazirite's offering "when the days of his consecration are fulfilled." On the face of it, it would be more appropriate for the Nazirite to bring leavened bread, as in the case of a thanksgiving-offering, as an expression of a festive conclusion. It appears, however, that the period of Nazirite-ship is not an end in itself, but rather a training period for an improved and nobler life. Nazirite-ship is aimed at the future, as reflected in the verse:
 
And after that the Nazirite may drink wine. (Bamidbar 6:20)
 
In other words, the Nazirite returns to normal life, but at a higher level, with an improved system of defense against deviance and being drawn after wine and its dangerous consequences. Therefore, when a Nazirite completes his Nazirite-ship, he brings only unleavened bread; the conclusion of his Nazirite-ship is not the end and climax, but rather the beginning of a new and improved way of life. The great task of living a nobler life only begins when the Nazir completes his Nazirite-ship.
 
Strong proof for this understanding is found in the section dealing with the Nazir itself. A Nazir who contracted impurity through contact with a corpse must start his Nazirite-ship from the beginning (Bamidbar 6:12). Nazirite-ship that became defiled involves a sin, for the Nazir did not reach the purpose of his Nazirite-ship: starting a new life.
 
Thus, we understand why the section dealing with a Nazir does not mention the option of "life-long Nazirite-ship." Nazirite-ship is aimed at training a person for a new and improved life, similar to that of the priests while they are serving in the Temple.
 
From this perspective we can once again approach the well-known question regarding the status of a Nazir, which depends on a disagreement between the ancient authorities.[7] 
 
IV. Is a Nazir Considered “Holy,” or is He Considered a “Sinner?”
 
The Torah describes the Nazir:
 
He shall be holy… because his consecration to God is upon his head. (Bamidbar 6:5-8)
 
Only when he becomes impure through contact with a corpse, such that his Nazirite-ship fails and is no longer accepted with favor by God, does the Torah note:
 
… for that he sinned by reason of the dead. (v. 11)
 
According to R. Yishmael, "Scripture speaks of an impure Nazir" (Sifrei Bamidbar 30), and the Torah obligates him to restart his Nazirite-ship from the beginning.
 
If Nazirite-ship in itself entails holiness, one might have said that in any event he did something good while he was a Nazir. But the entire goal of the holiness of Nazirite-ship is to prepare the Nazir for a new and improved life. Therefore, it is clear that the impurity of a Nazir constitutes a failure, which obligates him to start over from scratch. This allows us to understand why one who takes an oath of Nazirite-ship for the purpose of abstaining from wine as a goal in itself is in error, and is even considered a sinner (as R. Elazar Ha-Kappar explains).
 
Nazirite-ship that ends in impurity teaches up about Nazirite-ship in general, and thus we can understand the midrash regarding the juxtaposition of the passages of the sota and the Nazir:
 
To tell you that whoever witnesses a suspected woman in her disgrace should withhold himself from wine. (Sota 2a)
 
V. The Thanksgiving-Offering
 
In contrast to the offerings brought at the completion of a term of Nazirite-ship, a person who was in distress and was rescued from it brings a thanksgiving-offering. When he is delivered, he should bring as his offering both unleavened bread and leavened bread; unleavened bread corresponds to his distress and afflictions and to the process of his redemption from suffering to relief, whereas leavened bread corresponds to his deliverance and present serenity.
 
VI. Distancing Chametz on Pesach – The Long Road
 
This is also the way we should understand the obligation to distance ourselves from chametz on Pesach. On the Pesach that was celebrated in Egypt (and, in commemoration of this, on Pesach in later generations), before midnight, when the people of Israel still lived in Egypt and were slaves to Pharaoh, there was no place for leavened bread, but only for unleavened bread:
 
And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Shemot 12:8)
 
This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. (Pesach Haggada)
 
On the face of it, however, from midnight and on, from the time that God smote all the firstborns in the land of Egypt and redeemed His nation from bondage, everything changed. Generations of spiritual and physical servitude turned into deliverance, and it became possible to breathe as free men, to set a holiday table and recite blessings and Hallel at ease and in leisure over rich loaves of bread!
 
But the children of Israel quickly discovered how unfinished and incomplete their deliverance was:
 
And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste… And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. (Shemot 12:33-34) 
 
Only then did the people of Israel begin their long trouble-marked sojourn:
 
… through the great and dreadful wilderness, wherein were serpents, fiery serpents, and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water. (Devarim 8:15)
 
It turns out that deliverance is a difficult and drawn-out process, requiring great patience and endurance. Eating leavened bread was still far beyond the horizon, and the people left Egypt with only the bread of affliction in their hands:
 
And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual. (Shemot 12:39)
 
Therefore, chametz is forbidden for all future generations, even during periods of full severity, precisely on the days following the exodus from Egypt. On Pesach, the main thing is not eating matza, but refraining from eating chametz to the point that no chametz may be seen or found in one's possession. This is because the festival is meant primarily to serve as a strict warning against the illusion of full redemption all at once. The matza that is eaten during the seven days of Pesach reflects redemption in reality, with all its travails and difficulties – a continuing redemption made up of stages.[8]
 
The bikkurim-offering with the two loaves of bread "that shall be baked with leaven" (Vayikra 23:17) is reserved for Shavuot. This festival expresses the gratitude of the end of the journey from two perspectives: from the perspective of the giving of the Torah, which was the purpose of the exodus from Egypt on the spiritual level, and also from the perspective of the first-fruits of the wheat harvest and the giving of the land on the agricultural level.[9]
 
The Law of Jealousy as Part of the Shaping of Society
 
The law of jealousy, the purpose of which is to save a woman who was suspected of adultery from the jealousy of her husband and to restore peace in the family, is not part of the section dealing with forbidden sexual relations (Vayikra 18). This section belongs to the sections dealing with the Jewish society that took shape in the wilderness.
 
At first glance, "the law of jealousy" (Bamidbar 5:29) appears as if it were written to deter a married woman from adultery. The passage demonstrates the public humiliation that awaits her, together with the drinking of the bitter waters, perhaps for the purpose of causing a miscarriage and a loss of the bastard fetus, if indeed such a fetus had been conceived.  
 
However, a deeper examination of the matter might lead us to a very different conclusion. The Torah deals here in an exceedingly exceptional manner with a man who suspects his wife of adultery and warns her not to seclude herself with him – whether this actually happened or whether he was merely overcome by a "spirit of jealousy" (Bamidbar 5:30).
 
This treatment is exceptional in that there is no other verdict or judgment in the Torah in which there are no witnesses against the offender ("and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken in the act"; v. 13), yet we bring the suspected offender to the Temple and make him drink of "bitter waters" in which was blotted a Torah section that includes the prohibition of which he is suspected of violating. If such an examination is so successful, why not bring all suspects of all crimes to this Temple "lie detector"?
 
This treatment is also exceptional in that the writing of the oath with the name of God in a scroll and the blotting of the text in the water (v. 23) involves of necessity blotting the explicit name of God. This is ordinarily forbidden by way of an exceedingly severe prohibition, which the Torah overrides here for an exceptional need.
 
It stands to reason that this need is to save the woman from being killed!
 
Unfortunately, it is impossible to protect every woman from a jealous husband. Indeed, we hear on average once or twice a month of women who were murdered by their jealous husbands. In the passage dealing with a woman suspected of adultery, the Torah says to the man: You may not lift up a finger against your wife. If you suspect her of wrongdoing, bring here to the priest and God alone will judge her.
 
On the face of it, this is treatment of the "wayward" wife (using the Mishna's terminology), but the truth is that we are dealing here with treatment of the husband.
 
It was precisely in this manner that Chazal understood the goal of the passage (in their delicate formulation):
 
If, for the purpose of establishing harmony between man and wife, the Torah said: Let My name that was written in sanctity be blotted out by the water… (Sukka 53b)
 
This ceremony is harsh and humiliating to the woman, and Chazal in fact limited it to cases in which the suspicion is almost certain. The woman is made to drink of the bitter waters only where there are witnesses that the husband had warned her and witnesses that she secluded herself with the man, and it is only on the actual act of adultery that there are no witnesses.[10] On the other hand, this might diminish the likelihood of saving the woman from being murdered by her jealous husband. There is here a terrible tension between preventing the humiliation of many women and the chance of saving them.
 
Thus, we learn from our parasha that it is our supreme duty to find every way to prevent the murder of women and to loudly proclaim so that every man should hear: Even if you are certain that your wife is guilty of adultery, do not touch her. God alone will judge her.
 
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 
 

[1] As I explained at length in the shiur on Parashat Bamidbar.
[2] Shemot 29:6; 39:30; Vayikra 8:9.
[3] There is also no Nazirite-ship that dictates abstention from family life.
[4] Shemot 29:26-27, 31, 33-34; Vayikra 8:22, 28-29, 31-32.
[5] See my book, Zakhor Ve-Shamor: Teva Ve-Historiya Nifgashim Be-Shabbat U-Be-Lu'ach Ha-Shana (Alon Shevut, 2015), pp. 84-88.
[6] We can similarly understand the sin of Kayin as one of arrogance that turned into humiliation and an outburst of jealousy and anger. 
[7] See the words of R. Elazar Ha-Kappar versus those of R. Yishmael, Nazir 19a; Ta'anit 11a; Nedarim 10a; discussed in my book, sec. 30
[8] One who does not thank God for the beginning of the redemption – as one does for the exodus fom Egypt, even though there was not yet the Torah or Shabbat, no land or Temple –  is like one who does not recite Hallel on Pesach. On the other hand, one who views "the beginning of the redemption" as if it were already complete redemption at the end of the journey is like one who eats chametz on Pesach! See my book, Nes Kibbutz Galuyot (Tel-Avid 1971), pp. 28-36, 69-81.
[9] See at length in my book, Zakhor Ve-Shamor (above n. 4), chapter 4.
[10] Like R. Yehoshua, against R. Eliezer, in the first mishna in tractate Sota; see also the gemara there, Sota 2a-b.