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A note regarding the nazirite

19 June 2003

Last week’s Torah reading had the laws regarding the “nazirite”, one who swears off wine and haircuts (Numbers 6:1–21), and the Haftorah was about Samson, the most famous nazirite in the Bible (Judges 13). However, the Torah reading and the Haftorah reading are not really talking about the same kind of person. In the Torah reading, it refers to someone who swears “a nazirite oath to become a nazirite for the Eternal” (6:2), and in the Haftorah, an angel tells Samson’s mother that “the boy will be a nazirite for God from the womb” (13:5). The Talmud (Nazir 4b) picks up on the difference in which Divine name is used, and concludes that Samson was not a true nazirite; someone who says “I swear to be a nazirite like Samson” is accepting a different set of regulations than someone who says “I swear to be a nazirite”.

Traditionally, the Tetragrammaton (translated as “the Eternal”, or “the Lord”) is used to connote God’s attribute of mercy, while elokim (translated as “God”) is used to connote His attribute of justice. As the leader of an Israelite revolt against the Philistines, Samson was a nazirite acting for God in His capacity as Judge. But what does the other kind of nazirite have to do with mercy?

Suppose that somebody takes it upon herself, as a spiritual exercise, to fast on Mondays and Thursdays (a traditional form of self-abnegation). A few months later, she realizes that she has a dilemma. On the one hand, she has become so used to going without food for two days a week that fasting is not really a challenge for her any more; the sense of spiritual elevation that she got from fasting has evaporated. On the other hand, the people who know that she fasts still see her as standing apart from the community. If she continues to fast, she will be maintaining this separation to nobody’s benefit. If she stops fasting, she will touch off a wave of speculation and gossip about her motivations, especially from the people who interpreted her fasting as a form of vanity.

A nazirite vow, on the other hand, has an endpoint and a ceremony for marking the endpoint (bringing sacrifices). Just as a nazirite is marked in public by long hair and abstaining from grape products, a person who just completed a nazirite vow is marked by a shaved head. As the ex-nazirite’s hair grows back to a normal length, he or she can be gradually reintegrated into the community. Since the term of nazirism was specified at the time of the vow (or, if none was specified, thirty days—Nazir 1:3), the end of the term does not have to be an occasion for any surprise or speculation. This is the mercy shown to the nazirite.

Of course, someone can avoid the benefit of this mercy by saying “I swear to be a nazirite permanently”; based on II Samuel 14:26 and 15:7, the Talmud deduces that Absalom made such a vow. And since today there is no Temple for bringing sacrifices, if someone makes a nazirite vow, regardless of its term, they won’t be able to drink wine again until after the Temple is rebuilt. But God can only do so much to protect people from their own foolishness.