By Rabbi David L. Abramson
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89.
We read about a fascinating institution, the nazir, or Nazirite, in this week’s Torah portion. Here’s Numbers 6:2-7:
“When a man or a woman separates himself by taking the vow of a Nazirite…he shall abstain from wine and strong drink…no razor shall come upon his head…and he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow…he shall not go where there is a dead person…All the days of his separation, he is holy to Adonai.”
The vow of the Nazirite involved the imposition of various disciplines in order to achieve increased holiness, an elevated spiritual state.
At first glance, the Torah seems to view this positively: “He is holy to Adonai.” And it seems that a certain level of asceticism is applauded by the Torah.
But Numbers 6:14 tells us that at the end of the period of the vow, the Nazirite shall offer numerous sacrifices, including “one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering.”
What was the sin of the Nazirite?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazer Hakkappar indicates that the Nazirite must present a sin offering for having denied himself the enjoyment of wine. And the Talmud continues: “If, then, one who merely denied oneself the enjoyment of wine is dubbed a sinner, all the more so does this apply to the person who denies oneself the enjoyment of the other [permitted] things!”
Moses Maimonides embraces this view:
“If a person should argue, ‘Since envy, passion and pride are evil, then I shall completely separate myself from them, until I eat no meat nor drink wine,
nor marry, nor reside in a comfortable dwelling,’
this also is an evil path and it is forbidden to walk therein, as is stated in the case of the Nazirite…Therefore our sages commanded one to deny oneself only the things forbidden by the Torah. One should not inflict on oneself vows of abstinence on permitted things.”
Although the institution of the Nazirite is mandated by the Torah and discussed extensively in the Talmud and beyond, the actual practice appears to have disappeared in the Middle Ages — and perhaps that’s telling.
So is it legitimate to become a Nazirite?
The requirement of the sin offering suggests to many that becoming a Nazirite wasn’t really all right according to Jewish tradition.
If one felt the need to impose an additional spiritual discipline on oneself, the Torah provided this structure to do so. But the institution contained the tacit admonition that such extreme asceticism is not wholeheartedly applauded by the tradition.
As the Jerusalem Talmud teaches: “One is destined to be called into account for every permitted thing that one saw and desired but did not partake of.”
What, then, does the mitzvah of the Nazirite have to teach us? The connection between discipline and holiness.
Indeed, Judaism imposes religious discipline upon us in many areas. For example, the dietary laws help us to sanctify the experience of eating, Shabbat helps us to sanctify our creative and contemplative lives, Jewish ethics challenge us to sanctify our interpersonal lives, and the discipline of daily prayer helps sanctify our relationship with God.
The extreme discipline of the Nazirite achieved a certain holiness — but at a price. The lesson for us is that the normal discipline of Jewish life is designed to help all of us achieve the holiness that God demands of us.
Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El and a chaplain at the Hebrew Home and for JSSA.