The Nazirite is an individual who took a vow not to drink wine, to cut his or her hair, nor to become ritually defiled by contact with the dead.
Why would a person take such a vow?
Why would an individual seek to remove themselves from wine, haircuts and impurity?
And is the Nazirite considered as a holy person? Is this behaviour lauded and recommended or is it a fringe allowance for a person who needs religious intensity?
This Nazirite is a disputed in the Talmud, but the discussion there takes a wider perspective, discussing ascetism in general. Is self-denial a recommended religious course of action?
Shmuel said: Whoever abstains from food [as a religious practice of denial] is labelled a sinner, as it is inappropriate to take unnecessary suffering upon oneself. Shmuel accords with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar HaKappar who says: When the verse, regarding a Nazirite, states: “And he will atone for he sinned” (6:11) how did this nazirite sin? – By abstaining from wine. And if a nazirite, who abstains from wine alone, is called a sinner and requires atonement, then one who fasts abstains from all food and drink, all the more so should he be considered a sinner.
Conversely, Rabbi Elazar said: One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred, as with the nazirite: “He shall be sacred!” (6:5) And if this nazirite, who abstained only from wine is called sacred, then a person who practices denial from every foodstuff, all the more should he be considered sacred! (Talmud Taanit 11a)
On the one hand, the Nazir brings a sin offering. Maybe he sinned by removing himself from the orbit of normal living, by adopting stringent restrictions, by denial of wine and personal grooming. Here is Maimonides:
A person might say, "Since envy, desire, [the pursuit] of 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. …This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner as is stated concerning a nazarite: "for he sinned regarding [his] soul." (6:11). Our sages declared: If the nazarite who abstained only from wine requires atonement, how much more so does one who abstains from everything. Therefore, our Sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things … (Deot 3:!)
And yet, the Nazir is also determined as “holy” and our chapter talks of his hair as “the crown of God is upon his head… he is consecrated to the Lord.” (6:7-8) All this is highly indicative of a positive assessment of the Nazir.
The Nazir is like a Kohein – a priest. Like the Kohen, he cannot become defiled. A priest too must steer clear of intoxication when serving in the sanctuary – “And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting” (Lev 10:9). It is as if the Nazir is constantly a priest of sorts; although he serves no ritual function he is evidently set aside to God. “He is holy to God”(6:8) just as the Kohein is described as “Holy” (Lev 21:6).
The priest may exercise his sanctity in the Temple, but how may a person who is part of the camp of Israel set himself apart and ascend to a more sacred status? Evidently, the institution of Nazir facilitates this unusual status and allows a person who is spiritually attuned and in need of a distinct segregated space to separate themselves in this prescribed manner. By their unkempt hair, they look different, they must stay away from social gatherings to remain in a state of purity, and they will stay sober! The very status of a Nazirite, like a priest, means that a regular person withdraws from the intensity of social life.
Do you see a value in standing outside society to climb to a higher holiness?
Is society sometimes abrasive to a spiritually attuned life? Are there times when social pressures drag you down? How do we navigate that?
In other words, can you see why a person might withdraw from society? What might the institution of Nazir do to a person?
Why does the Rambam feel that one should “abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things”?
In religion, do you think that personal denial and asceticism is a more correct path, or is engagement with life and its pleasures. Please discuss opportunities and pitfalls of each.
What message does Nazir bear for our contemporary society?