Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


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.


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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.