"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"In a discussion with friends about the role of marriage in Judaism, I said that a Jew is forbidden to be nazir for an extended period of time. They said that Shimshon HaGibor [Samson the Mighty] and Shmuel HaNavi [Samuel the Prophet] were nazirim all their lives. Is this true? Also, what is Judaism's outlook on nazir in general? What is its purpose? If it is to reach spiritual heights, why isn't it a requirement? Is it considered the ideal situation, but since most of us would be unable to maintain it, therefore it is not required? Does this mean that if one can be a nazir, he should be?"


First of all, let's clarify exactly what a nazir is. I suspect that you and your friends are laboring under a mistaken assumption, since you wrote that the subject came up in a discussion of "the role of marriage in Judaism."

A nazir [fem: nazirah] is subject to three, and only three, restrictions: no haircuts, no wine or grapevine products, and no contact with the impurity that derives from dead bodies. That's all. Marital relations are unaffected by the nazirite status. Both Shimshon and Shmuel married, and we find many Biblical references to Shmuel's children.

Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not accept the premise that celibacy leads to an increase in holiness. Indeed, we are taught the opposite: "A man without a wife is but half a man," says the Talmud [source ??]. We find in many traditional sources that a bachelor (and in some cases, a childless person) is barred from certain communal positions, both spiritual and political. Let's not confuse nazirs and nuns!

More specifically, a nazir is a man or woman who commits himself or herself through a vow to abide by a Torah-defined set of specific restrictions for a self-imposed period of time [Num. 6]. In the time of the Temple, it seems that most nazirut was for a succession of 30 day periods (nazir shaloshim), and generally just one. To take it on for life (nazir olam) was extremely uncommon. While some who became nazir did so to achieve spiritual improvement, this was by no means the case for all, or even the majority.

Nazirut has to be understood in the context of its being a category of vow. In general, Judaism strongly discourages vowing and swearing. If you intend to do something good, promise to do so without vowing or swearing penalties upon yourself for non-performance. The obligation to keep one's word should in any case be sufficient motivation for a Jew. Only the person who feels he won't be able to carry our his good intentions unless he vows, is encouraged to vow. The Rabbis frowned on the vowing of nazirut, not because it was difficult--how hard can anything be for 30 days?--but because it was usually a result of careless or boastful speech.

The Rambam [Maimonides] concludes his discussion of nazirut by drawing a sharp distinction between those who become nazir because of pride or boastful speech and those seeking spiritual advancement.

When someone says "I am a nazir if I do such and such," or "If I don't do such and such," or anything similar, this is a wicked person and his nazirut is evil. But when someone vows it to G-d in order to increase in holiness, this is beautiful, praiseworthy and holy.

The Talmud [Nedarim 9b] relates that Shimon HaTzaddik [a seminal figure in Jewish history, one of the first High Priests in the Second Temple as well as a member of the Great Sanhedrin (see Avot 1:2)], said that he never ate from the required sacrificial offering of a nazir since he didn't trust the nazir's motivation. He mentions one solitary exception: the offering of a very handsome young man, who because he found himself becoming vain about his good looks and long wavy locks, took the vow to ensure that he cut his hair, since it would be a mitzvah to do so at the end of his term of nazirut.

Interestingly, the laws of nazirut themselves subtly portray negativity towards the nazir state. A nazir who didn't complete the term of his vow (e.g. he accidentally came in contact with a dead body), had to bring several offerings; the purpose of one of these was to atone for his having abstained from wine for no realized purpose. Although Judaism frowns upon over-indulgence, it does not approve of total abstention.

Weighing all the above pros and cons, it would seem that nazirut could be beneficial when utilized as a short-term spur for spiritual growth. If so, why don't we find it being practiced today? That we are not on a high enough level is not the reason at all. The answer is quite simple, and again rooted in halacha [Jewish law]. The nazir offering was a sacrifice brought by the person at the end of his term of nazirut. That is, the offering itself constitutes the official completion of his vow, and until he brings it, he remains a nazir. Today, in the absence of the Temple there would be no way for someone to terminate his nazirite status, even if at the time of his vow he intended and verbally specified a limited period!

Incidentally, due to the necessity of this sacrifice, nazirut vows were supposed to be made only in Eretz Yisroel.

Interestingly, Shimshon is not classified as a nazir olam. Halachah accords him, and anyone else like him, a separate category: nazir Shimshon. It's not fully resolved whether Shmuel was a nazir olam or a nazir Shimshon. The dilemma is that we don't know if either of them ever took nazirite vows! As a matter of fact, Shimshon's nazirite status did not seem to include all the regular nazirite restrictions, since he, as a warrior, was often in the presence of dead bodies. All we know from the verses in Judges 13:1-14, 16:17 and in I Samuel 1:11 is that both were consecrated by their mothers from the womb, and in Shimshon's case, at the instructions of an angel.

Now that all your questions on nazir have been dealt with, hopefully you and your friends can return to the more practical subject of Jewish marriages.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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