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Less is More; Otherwise it’s אסור

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The Biblical concept of Nazir is puzzling…and even a bit uncomfortable. The deeply ascetic nature of this Biblically sanctioned status seems to blatantly counter numerous commandments and obligatory behaviors presented in the Torah. The קרבן שלמים for example, which is required to be brought on every festival, is one that provides the bringer with an enjoyable feast, specifically allowing him to celebrate happily with his family on the festival. A unique injunction on holidays is בחגיך" ושמחת” – ‘be happy on your festivals’, to the extent that one is allowed to perform the actions usually forbidden on Shabbat (מלאכה) of slaughtering, cooking and baking so that he can enjoy freshly cooked meat, and freshly baked bread! Additionally, the Bikurim declaration demands the enjoyment and embracing of ‘all the good of the land that God has given you’, and מעשר שני must not be eaten ‘unhappily’ and the entire reason for all the punishments God warns us about in the famous Tochechah is “because you did not serve God with happiness” (Vayikra 28:47)! In the same vein, it is not surprising that חז"ל understood that ‘there is no happiness without meat and wine’[1]! Along the same lines, Rav Hirsch explains in Horeb[2]:

Your task is to be a human and to serve God in your human life, and with your human life. That is why it is always part of the festive celebration to sublimate your everyday life and to enjoy yourself – before God – and to make what you have most in common with the animal, your sensuousness, part of the celebration.

Rashi, touching upon the same Nazir-conflict, but from a different angle, states that drinking wine for kiddush on Friday night is a mitzvah from the Torah; so the vow the Nazir takes not to drink wine – which would in effect preclude him from making kiddush - does not legally take effect because it would forbid him from fulfilling a Torah obligation. We are not a nation or religion of asceticism – we are commanded from the Torah to imbibe and consume, enjoy and appreciate, celebrate and make use of the world around us to elevate ourselves to a higher spiritual level[3] - מה רבו מעשיך ה'! How can this same Torah also include a permitted restraint, an existence that seems counter to what the Torah has described as ideal?!

There are those commentaries that appreciate this conflict and explain that the Nazir status is in fact understood as less than ideal. In other words, if someone feels he is only able to achieve the Torah-demanded heightened level of spiritual existence by dramatically abstaining from the external, worldly, spiritually-distracting physicality around him, then the Torah offers a proper ‘alternative’ for doing so according to God’s instructions. A support used to validate this understanding is the קרבן חטאת – the sin offering – which the Nazir must bring after his days of Nezirut are completed. The logic dictates that surely if one is commanded to bring such a קרבן, he must have previously ‘sinned’, i.e. he transgressed the ideal Torah-intended life by cutting himself off from the physical world (instead of enjoying it) because he unfortunately, ‘weakly’ required a more drastically ascetic life to achieve this required Biblical existence.

There are two issues that challenge this approach and its support. Firstly, the mother who has given birth, the מצורע, and the person who had become impure also all bring a קרבן חטאת. Commentators have much difficulty explaining why a new mother brings such a korban- what she do wrong[4]? A מצורע is never labeled in the Torah as a sinner or as having performed some kind of transgression for which he contracted צרעת – so why does he bring a חטאת? Similarly, the person who has become impure could have become thus ‘tainted’ for any number of guiltless reasons, like burying a family member, or inadvertently walking into a graveyard. Therefore, while perhaps we can understand that this קרבן חטאת is brought when a person transitions from a less pure/holy status (?) to an elevated, purified one (which all these cases do have in common) – this קרבן certainly doesn’t, however, seem to be required to serve as a repentance for any specific transgression. In other words, however we can explain the Biblical requirement of bringing a קרבן חטאת (which is not the specific focus of this Dvar Torah) the bringing of this same korban by the Nazir, as he transitions from one state to another – is not unique to him and therefore cannot be used to explain the unique ‘less-than-ideal’ nature of the puzzlingly contradictory Biblically sanctioned reality[5].

The second challenge to this popular approach is that even if we accept that the bringing of the קרבן חטאת does reflect a ‘less-than-ideal’ nature of the Nazir status, where else in the Torah do we ever have an example where God ‘appreciates’ that a particular ideal may be difficult to adhere to constantly, and then offers a way to not uphold it temporarily?! Because ‘unplugging’ every week is really quite an ask, are we permitted to not observe Shabbat every other week?! Can we have cheeseburgers each month at our festive Rosh Chodesh meals because being constantly observant of the Kashrut laws is really kinda hard?! So what if finding spirituality specifically through living fully in a physical world is difficult – if God says you have to do it, then you have to do it. Period.

To compound this question, there are numerous distinct textual and conceptual links between the Nazir and the Kohain/Kohain Gadol – roles that are inherently ideal, Godly-prescribed states of existence. The Kohain Gadol cannot defile his purity by coming in contact with the dead body of even a close relative (Vayikra 21:11), just like the Nazir (Bemidbar 6:6). All Kohanim are not allowed to serve in the Mishkan if they have drunk wine (Vayikra 10:9); a Nazir, similarly, may not drink any wine (or grape products) during his ‘time’ as a Nazir (Bemidbar 6:4). Also, when explaining why the Kohain Gadol must not defile himself, the Torah states, ‘כי נזר שמן משחת אלוקיו עליו’ (Vayikra 21:12), and by the Nazir, the Torah states, ‘כי נזר אלוקיו על ראשו’ (Bemidbar 6:7). This, in addition to the command to all Kohanim which also uses similar wording: ‘וינזרו מקדשי בני ישראל’ (Vayikra 22:2). Additionally, the Torah describes the Kohanim as ‘קדושים יהיו לאלוקיהם’ (Vayikra 21:6), and the Nazir, ‘קדוש הוא לה'’ (Bemidbar 6:8)[6][7]. In light of these blatant equating connections between the Kohanim, the Kohain Gadol, and the Nazir’s descriptions and laws, it is now even more difficult to accept that the Nazir is to be understood somehow as an inferior state of Godly devotion yet be so Biblically equated to the paradigmatic state of Godly devotion of the Kohanim and the Kohain Gadol!

The solution to this difficulty lies in asking another question: why are we not bothered by the Kohain’s enforced restrictive and ascetic life as we are by the Nazir’s? The answer to this question is found in highlighting the implicit difference between these two roles. For while both are similarly ‘unnaturally’ restricted and separated from the physical world (as described above), the Kohain however uses that Divinely demanded ‘asceticism’ to then advance a greater spiritual reality. It’s only because of all the Kohain’s restrictions – meticulously retaining a supremely pure and unblemished existence - that he can therefore serve as a Divine player in God’s service. The Nazir, on the other hand, restricts himself for purely self-serving reasons. As illustrated in the Torah’s description, he doesn’t advance a greater service of God but rather merely remains ‘improperly’ restricted and ‘unnaturally’ cut off from the physical world[8]. The Nazir specifically lives passively within his erroneously constrained life as opposed to the Kohain who is not only spiritually active, but Divinely enabled because of his restrictions and separateness.

Therefore, our original question is still (and perhaps even more) relevant. The Nazir is not only unnaturally and counter-Biblically restricting himself, we now understand that he’s also not even using this role to advance a greater Divine service: so why does the Torah allow such a choice? How can the Torah permit one becoming a Nazir?!

The answer to our question is found in the unique process the Nazir must perform when he exits his Nazir state, at the termination of his prescribed time of Nezirut. As pointed out above, the Nazir shares similarities with the מצורע, the impure person, and the woman who has just given birth: they all bring an עולה and a חטאת when they transition out of their previous state. The Nazir, however, also brings additional items that none of the other three do. He also brings a שלמים, a מנחה of matzot, and libations. In essence, he brings the entire repertoire of possible קרבנות: עולה, מנחה, חטאת  and שלמים! [9]  Similarly, while both the Nazir and the מצורע shave off all of their hair upon transitioning, the Nazir is then commanded to burn this hair in the fire that is under the שלמים. Additionally, unlike the three people listed above who perform their rituals and then, at its successful conclusion, the Torah declares them ‘טהור’; with Nazir, after the concluding process is performed, the Torah says, ‘and he will go and drink wine’. Regarding a purified מצורע, it doesn’t say and ‘he will then return to his house’; with the woman who has just given birth, it doesn’t say ‘she is now permitted to her husband’, etc.; so why, concerning the Nazir, does the Torah specifically instruct him to actively perform an action he was prohibited from performing previously?

There is one common theme that runs through all the ‘unique’ rites of the exiting Nazir: an active positive advancement and self-fulfillment. The Nazir is told to offer the entire gamut of possible קרבנות; the entire ‘menu of opportunities’ to actively come close (קרב) God. He is also uniquely commanded to bring the שלמים – a קרבן whose majority of meat is specifically given to the bringer to enjoy and be ‘satisfied’ (שלם). The hair which previously represented his restricted life is now actively used to productively ‘fuel’ this self-satisfying שלמים symbol. And, at this conclusion, he is commanded to actively enjoy wine; to now consciously partake of the world – as opposed to reject it - and the enjoyment it has to offer.

We pointed out previously that the ‘only’ difference between the God-ideal state of the restricted Kohain and that of the Nazir was that the Kohain used his separate/restricted state to then actively advance the Divine, while the Nazir remained stagnate within his ascetic state. At the conclusion of his time, however, the Torah demands that the Nazir must now actively and deeply reverse that stagnation. The Nazir must fully approach God, actively partake of a self-satisfying שלמים, use his unkempt hair to fuel that personal satisfaction, and imbibe inebriating wine! The greatest development for the Nazir is not actualized during his period of abstinence but is instead only fully realized at its conclusion. When the ‘closing ceremony’ for the Nazir creates this complete reversal, actualizing a Divinely-directed ‘fix’, it becomes the ultimate teaching tool for the Nazir. God is in essence proclaiming: ‘while you may have believed restriction in life is acceptable, this is only true when it doesn’t merely end there. Restriction is acceptable when it leads to a greater advancement of what’s right, because then, in fact, the ascetic life, far from being restrictive actually evolves into a perfect vehicle of opportunity for advancement. It is this equation that must guide your life forever more; this is the balanced continued existence I desire most of you’. And while this closing ceremony teaches the Nazir the true purpose of restriction, and powerfully teaches him the ideal individual path of life to follow from that day forward, it obviously also serves as a greater Biblical lesson for all of us who read of ‘the Nazir’ life-style. It becomes the model that educates us concerning the correct relationship between and perfect balance of restriction and advancement; a fundamental consciousness a Law-observing nation is required to fully understand, appreciate and observe.

As Sir Phillip Sidney (1554–1586) wrote so brilliantly:

Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might

To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;

Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,

That doth both shine and give us sight to see.


[1] Pesachim 109a

[2] The Celebration of Shabbat and Yom Tov (II. 24)

[3] In addition to the R. Hirsch stated above, also see Rambam’s Mishnah Torah Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:6 and Derekh Hashem Part I ‘On the state of a person in this world’.

[4] Ideas that are presented include maybe she made an oath she shouldn’t have made during her difficult labor.

[5] Interestingly, the מצורע, which most commentaries agree is a consequence of some infraction (popularly assumed to be לשון הרע) is the only one of the four examples mentioned above to bring an אשם – a guilt offering - upon completion of his previous status. Neither the new mother, someone who became impure, nor a Nazir brings this guilt offering when they ‘transition’, and therefore furthers the idea that the Nazir is not actually behaving improperly at all when he assumes his restrictive status. The Nazir does however bring an אשם when he has inadvertently broken his oath and becomes impure during his time as a Nazir. It is then, and only then, specifically in the context of this erroneous oath-breaking situation that he must bring a guilt offering. Therefore, we can easily surmise, that when he properly transitions out of his Nazir state at the correct date of termination of his prescribed time, and doesn’t bring an אשם, he must therefore be regarded as having not done anything improper.

[6] I first read of these comparisons in Rabbi Moshe Shamah’s book, ‘Recalling the Covenant’. (He didn’t then offer a reason as to why the Torah would equate the two; hence the inspiration for this Dvar Torah)

[7] A difference in the rules between a Kohain Gadol and the Nazir is the Kohain Gadol must keep his hair bound and neat; while the Nazir must specifically allow his hair to grow wild. A difference easily accounted for by understanding that the Kohain Gadol, in his public role, must ‘look the part’ and would disrespect the God he represents by allowing his hair (and clothing) to be disheveled and unkempt.

[8] It’s this very absence in the Torah of any ‘and then what’ description of the Nazir’s rules and behaviors that have inspired many assumptions among the commentaries as to God’s ‘thought-process’ concerning the entire purpose/concept of Nazir. All that’s described in the Torah is the ‘what he can’t do’ – with no explanation as to why or what he then does.

[9] See footnote #3 concerning the only קרבן not on ‘the list’, the אשם – guilt offering.


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