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Parashat Nasso 5783

The Nazir’s Path: Saint or Sinner?

May 30, 2023
by Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)

There’s a cartoon I once saw where a guru in a loincloth sits cross-legged at the top of a mountain. Before him is a matronly-looking woman in Western clothes who has climbed almost to the summit. The caption: “Murray, darling, when are you coming home?”

Many of us have the idea that a life of holiness means a life of privation. What does Judaism have to say about this?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, we read about the nazir. This is a man or woman who “explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for G-d.” (Num. 6:2)

Having made this vow, the nazir takes on three restrictions:

1. No wine or strong drink,
2. No haircuts, and
3. Not being near someone who has died.

Three people in Tanakh seem to have fit the description of a nazir:

– Samson, whose mother was told by an angel: “You are going to conceive and bear a son; let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite to G-d from the womb on.” (Judges 13:5)

– Samuel, whose mother Hannah promises, “I will dedicate him to G-d all of his life, and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:14)

– And – perhaps – Elijah, who is described as, “A man with a lot of hair, with a leather belt tied around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8)

Even in the 20th century, Rabbi David Cohen (1887-1972) took the nazirite vow and was known as the ‘Nazir of Jerusalem.’

Why would a person want to become a nazir? As the Torah states, the goal is to “set oneself apart for G-d” (Num. 6:2).

But how do these restrictions set one apart for G-d?   Each bears a relationship to the restrictions imposed on Kohanim (Priests) and, especially, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest):

Wine: “And G-d spoke to Aaron [the original Kohen] saying. “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die.” (Lev. 10:9)

Hair: [The High Priest] shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his G-d, since the – neizer shemen – crown of his G-d’s anointing oil – is upon his head.” (Lev. 21:12)

Death: “[The High Priest] shall not go in where there is any dead body (Lev. 21:11)

This connection to the Kohanim is further emphasized by the fact that the nazir is brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (where G-d spoke to Moses) when the period of their nazirite vow ends (Num. 6:13).

Sounds good, right? But there is a wrinkle. At the conclusion of the nazir’s term, among the offerings the nazir brings is a sin offering (Num. 6:14). Having concluded a period of closeness to G-d, why bring a sin offering? As with many things in Judaism, there are at least two views.

According to one school of thought, it is because the nazir is leaving their exalted state. “Rava said, ‘You must sanctify yourself [by refraining from that] which is permitted to you.’” (Yevamot 20a)

According to the other view, the sin was for having become a nazir in the first place. “A nazirite is a sinner… Just as this nazirite, who causes himself suffering only by refraining from wine, is called a sinner, one who causes himself suffering by refraining from everything is all the more so. From here it can be derived that whoever fasts is called a sinner.” (Nedarim 10a)

Which is it? Saint or sinner?

The story is told of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who denounced the Roman authorities and hid in a cave for 12 years to avoid execution. Miraculously, a carob tree and a spring of water were created to sustain them, and they spent all their time studying Torah and praying. When they finally emerged, they saw people plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon said, “These people abandon eternal life and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance.” Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice came forth and said to them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” (Shabbat 33b).

Judaism does not see the world as an inherently evil place. Rather, as we are told after the sixth day of Creation: “G-d saw all that had been made, and found it very good.” (Gen. 1:31) We believe that it is our role to elevate the physical world, and not to deny it.  “And G-d settled the Human in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it.” (Gen 2:15)

“R. Hizkiyah said in the name of Rav: ‘You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw which, although permissible, you did not enjoy.’” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4;12)

So why does the Torah provide for a person to become a nazir at all?

Because the Torah understands human nature. The laws of the nazir are to regulate the (not uncommon) desire to deprive oneself of earthly pleasures to become closer to G-d. Otherwise, there is no telling the lengths to which people will go.

According to Maimonides (1138–1204): “A person might say, ‘Since envy, desire, 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.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. Human Dispositions 3:1)

Sforno (1470-1550) likewise states that, “One is not to flagellate himself, or practice fasting, but only to abstain from wine and intoxicating liquids. The former methods of self-denial would result in a diminished ability to serve the Lord with all one’s faculties.” (Sforno on Num. 6:3)

So the next time you feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the permitted pleasures of this world, remember the words of Kohelet:

“Go, eat your bread in gladness,
and drink your wine in joy;
for your action was long ago approved by G-d.” (Kohelet 9:7)

And Murray, it’s time to go home.
Rabbi Greg Schindler received semikha in 2009 (5769). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah , including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.