NAZIRITE


NAZIRITE, person who vows for a specific period to abstain from partaking of grapes or any of its products whether intoxicating or not, cutting his hair, and touching a corpse (6:3–9). Such a person is called a Nazirite (Heb. nazir, נָזִיר) from the root nzr (נזר), meaning to separate or dedicate oneself (e.g., nifal, Lev. 22:2; hifil, Lev. 15:31; Num. 6:2, 5, 12). The subject is dealt with in the Priestly Code (Num. 6:1–21) and the purpose of the law is to prescribe the proper ritual if the Nazirite period is aborted by corpse contamination (Num. 6:9–12) or if it is successfully completed (6:13–21).

In the person of the Nazirite, the layman is given a status resembling that of the priest, as he now is "holy to the Lord" (Lev. 21:6; Num. 6:8; cf. Philo, I LA, 249). Actually, in his taboos, he approximates more the higher sanctity of the high priest in that (1) He may not contaminate himself with the dead of his immediate family (Lev. 21:11; Num. 6:7; cf. the ordinary priest, Lev. 21:1–4); (2) For him, as for the high priest, the head is the focus of sanctity (Ex. 29:7; Num. 6:11b. Note the same motive clauses, Lev. 21:12b; Num. 6:7b and compare the dedication of the ordinary priest, Ex. 29:21); (3) He abstains from intoxicants during his term (Num. 6:4)–a more stringent requirement than that of the high priest, whose abstinence, like that of his fellow priests, is limited to the time he is in the Sanctuary (Lev. 10:9).

A more instructive parallel to the Nazirite is the case of the dedication of land to the Sanctuary (Lev. 27:16ff.). Both result from a votive dedication (Lev. 27:16; Num. 6:2), and both dedications are for limited periods, the land reverting to its owner on the Jubilee if not redeemed earlier (implied by Lev. 27:21; Num. 6:13). In both cases the period of dedication can be terminated earlier–the Nazirite's by contamination (Num. 6:9–12), the land's by redemption (Lev. 27:16–19). In the case of premature desanctification, a penalty is exacted: the Nazirite pays a reparation offering (ʾasham) to the Sanctuary, and the owner of the land pays an additional one-fifth of the redemption price to the Sanctuary. If the dedication period is completed, no desanctification penalty is incurred. True, the Nazirite offers up an array of sacrifices together with his hair (Num. 6:13–20), but the sacrifices are mainly for thanksgiving, and the hair, which may not be desanctified, is consumed on the altar. Similarly, dedicated land (so the text of Lev. 27:22–24 implies) reverts to its original owner on the Jubilee without cost. In the case when the Nazirite period is interrupted by contamination, the following ritual is observed: the Nazirite must undergo sprinkling with purificatory waters on the third and seventh day (inferred from Num. 19:14ff.); he shaves his hair on the seventh day; and on the following day three rituals are prescribed: he is purified of his contamination by a purification offering, his hair is reconsecrated and his Nazirite period begins anew, and a reparation offering is brought to expiate his desecration.

The uncut hair of the Nazirite is his distinction. (In this respect the priest differs; though forbidden to shave his hair, he is compelled to trim it; cf. Ezek. 44:20.) Its importance is indicated by the root of the term Nazirite, נזר, which refers at times to the hair (Num. 6:6, 7, 12, 18; Jer. 7:29. Note the parallelism in Gen. 49:26; Deut 33:16). Since hair continues to grow throughout life (and apparently for a time after death), it was considered by the ancients to be the seat of man's vitality and life-force, and in ritual it often served as his substitute. A ninth-century B.C.E. bowl found in a Cypriot temple contains an inscription on its outside surface indicating that it contained the hair of the donor. It was placed there, if the reconstructed text is correct, as "a memorial" to Astarte (cf. Ex. 28:12, 29; 30:16; Num. 10:10; Zech. 6:14), i.e., as a permanent reminder to the goddess of the donor's devotion. The offering of hair is also attested in later times in Babylonia (Pritchard, Texts, 339–40), Syria (Lucian, De dea Syra, 55, 60), Greece (K. Meuli), and Arabia (W.R. Smith).

The narrative and prophetic literature corroborate the existence of Nazirites in Israel. Samson and Samuel were lifelong Nazirites (Judg. 13:7; I Sam. 1:21 (4Q Samc̣), 28). Indeed, they resembled the prophets in that their dedication began not at birth but at conception (Isa. 49:1, 5; Jer. 1:5; cf. Amos 2:11). The taboos prescribed in the Torah are verified in their lives. Neither polled his hair (Judg. 13:5; 16:17; I Sam. 1:11) nor drank any wine (to judge by the prohibition to Samson's mother during her pregnancy; Judg. 13:4, 7, 14). However, the law forbidding corpse contamination was not observed (Judg. 14:9, 19; 15:8, 15; I Sam. 15:33). This divergence from the Priestly Code is implicitly reinforced by the rule set down by the angel to Samson's mother (Judg. 13:14), i.e., that she must eschew forbidden food; nothing, however, is said about contracting impurity from the dead which, according to the Priestly Code, would have automatically defiled her embryo.

[Jacob Milgrom]

In Talmud

The Mishnah and the Talmud distinguish between a lifelong Nazirite and a "Samson Nazirite" since Samson, unlike the lifelong Nazirite, was never allowed to thin his hair even when it became burdensome (Naz. 1:2). On the other hand, Samson was permitted to defile himself through contact with the dead, since the angel did not enjoin him from such defilement when delineating the laws of his abstinence (Naz. 4b).

When the period of the vow was not specified, it was understood to be 30 days (Naz. 1:3). In addition to being subsumed under the general regulations governing vows, many specific formulas were developed for Nazirite commitments. "If a man says 'Let my hand be a Nazirite' or 'Let my foot be a Nazirite,' his words are of no effect. However, if he says, 'Let my head be a Nazirite' or 'Let my liver be a Nazirite' [or some other vital organ], he becomes a Nazirite" (Naz. 21b). It was customary for the wealthy to aid poor Nazirites in the purchase of their offerings (Naz. 2:5, 6), since it was felt that the most meritorious aspect of abstinence was the chance to bring a sin-offering at its conclusion (Ned. 10a). It is related that at the time of *Simeon b. Shetah, 300 Nazirites came to Jerusalem. He absolved half of them of their vow, and not revealing the fact to the king Alexander Yannai, persuaded him to give what purported to be half the sacrifices needed, he "offering" to provide the other half (TJ, Ber. 7:2, 11b). The Nazirite laws applied only to Ereẓ Israel. It is related that *Helena of Adiabene took Nazirite vows for seven years. After this period she went to Ereẓ Israel, where Bet Hillel ruled that she must continue for a further seven years (Naz. 3:6).

There were different reasons for taking the Nazirite vow. Some did it for the fulfillment of a wish, such as for the birth of a child (Naz. 2:7–10). One who saw the conduct of an unfaithful wife was advised to abstain completely from wine by becoming a Nazirite (Ber. 63a). Thus the passages on the wife suspected of adultery and the laws of the Nazirite are juxtaposed in the Bible (Num. 5:11–31, 6:1–21). The pious simply made a freewill vow of abstinence to afford them an opportunity to bring a sin-offering at its conclusion (Ned. 10a). The Nazirite vow was severely discouraged by the rabbis, since *asceticism was against the spirit of Judaism (Ned. 77b; Naz. 19a; Ta'an. 11a). Their discouragement of the practice was almost certainly in protest against the excessive mourning after the destruction of the Second Temple, when large numbers of Jews became ascetics, vowing not to eat meat or to drink wine (BB 60b). The rabbis even designated the Nazirites as sinners in accordance with the verse: "And [the priest] shall make atonement for him, for that he sinned against a soul" (Num. 6:11; Ned. 10a). The high priest Simeon the Just only once in his life ate of the trespass-offering brought by a defiled Nazirite. This was when a young, handsome shepherd possessing beautiful, thick locks of hair undertook to become a Nazirite and thus had to cut his hair in order to avoid sinful thoughts (Ned. 9b; cf. the Narcissus legend in Greek mythology). The observance of the Nazirite vow may have continued for many centuries. However, it ultimately disappeared, and there is no reference to Nazirites in the Middle Ages. In modern times Nazirite practices have been observed in Jerusalem by David Cohen, a disciple of Chief Rabbi A.I. Kook.

[Aaron Rothkoff]

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (19273), 323–36; K. Meuli, in: Phyllobolia fuer Peter von der Muehl (1946), 204–11; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 465–7; M. Haran, in: EM, 5 (1968), 795–9 (incl. bibl.); Pederson, Israel, 3–4 (1940), 263–6. IN TALMUD: M. Jastrow, in: JBL, 33 (1914), 266–85; H. Gevaryahu, in: Iyyunim be-Sefer Shofetim (1966), 522–46; Z. Weisman, in: Tarbiz, 36 (1967), 207–20; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal; Pirkei Emmunot ve-De'ot (1969), index S.V. nazir; G. Scholem, Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962), 202f.


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.