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29.05.2015 12:33    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  naso  

The Attitude towards the Nazir

Is being a Nazir viewed in a positive or negative light? Here we present several approaches to this well-known question.

Viewed favorably

On one hand, there is evidence of a positive attitude towards Nazirs. The Torah begins this week's reading with the words, "If anyone, man or woman, does the extraordinary thing (Heb. Ki yafli) of uttering a Nazir's vow, to set himself apart for the Lord" (Num. 6:2). Simply put, taking on limitations for the sake of G-d beyond those required by law elevates a person. Some do so in order to distance themselves from transgression, as in the account by Simon Hatzadik of a shepherd whose vanity was aroused by seeing the reflection of his beautiful locks in a spring and who consequently decided to take on the vows of a Nazir (Nazir 4b), applaudably, in the opinion of Simon Hatzadik:

"Then my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to ruin me. So I said…'I swear I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven.'" Then I…said to him: "Would that there be many Nazirs like you in Israel."

Just as the Sages added restrictions to the commandments to "make a fence around the Torah" and safeguard against transgression (such as the notion of things which are to be abhorred on Shabbat), so too an individual is entitled to undertake additional restrictions to safeguard against fear of sinning. This is especially so under circumstances where the person is especially apprehensive, as Rashi says on Numbers 6:2: "Why was the passage on Nazir juxtaposed to the passage on sotah? To indicate that whoever sees a wayward woman ought to foreswear wine, for wine leads to infidelity."[1]

Another positive element in being a Nazir is that it removes a person from the vanities of the world for the sake of spiritual uplifting. This is reflected in Nahmanides' explanation why a sacrificial offering must be brought upon conclusion of a period of Nazirhood (commentary on Num. 6:14):

By the plain sense of the text [an offering is required] because the soul of a person who completes a period of Nazirhood sins; for, having sanctified oneself to worshipping the Lord as a Nazir, it would have befit the person to continue the vows forever and remain a Nazir, consecrated to the Lord all his days, as reflected by the verse, "And I raised up prophets from among your sons and Nazirs from among your young men" (Amos 2:11), where they are equated with prophets…Thus they need expiation when they return to indulge in the impure desires of the world.[2]

Viewed negatively

On the other hand, one can also find a negative view of Nazirhood. When listing the offerings that must be brought by the Nazir, Scripture says: "The priest shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, and make expiation on his behalf for the guilt that he incurred through the corpse" (Num. 6:11). Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar explains his sin as being "for denying himself wine…from which we conclude that whoever fasts [for self-affliction] is termed a sinner"[3] (Nedarim 10a).[4] That is to say, taking upon oneself additional restrictions beyond those established by the Torah and the Sages is not viewed with favor.[5]

Here we have seen two opposing views of Sages and classical exegetes. Rabbenu Tam espouses a different view which reconciles the two. Below we set forth his approach and the lessons that can be learned from it.

A composite approach

Tosefot on Tractate Bava Kama 91b notes a contradiction between the gemara in Tractate Nedarim 10a which says that even a Nazir who is pure is considered a sinner, and the gemara in Tractate Nedarim 3a which implies that a pure Nazir is not termed a sinner. It reconciles the texts as follows:

Rabbenu Tam claims that despite the gemara's assertion that he is not a sinner, e.g., that his good deed (mitzvah) outweighs his transgression—for it is a commandment to take a [Nazir's] vow, as the gemara says: someone who sees a wayward woman should foreswear wine—nevertheless there is a slight element of sin, just as there is in someone who fasts on the Sabbath because of having had a bad dream Friday night; for such a person [on account of his fasting] is delivered from misfortune but must pay the price of [not having partaken in the pleasures of] the Sabbath. What must he do to set things right and be delivered from misfortune? He must fast on a weekday to make up for having fasted on the Sabbath, for the commandment of fasting in the wake of a dream outweighs the transgression [of fasting on the Sabbath]. And likewise of the Nazir…but a Nazir who is pure is not considered by Rabbi Eleazar so much of a sinner.

So we see that good deeds and transgressions can become intertwined. Indeed, as we strive to be devout[6] we must choose our path, knowing that there may be a price to the particular path we choose, even if it be the right one. Even if our chosen path leads to the good, there might be a concomitant undesirable element, a price to be paid; a sin offering in the case of the Nazir and an additional fast on a weekday in the case of fasting on the Sabbath in the wake of a dream one has Friday night.

This conclusion has many implications about which there is not always consensus. For example, consider our patriarch Jacob who used guile (Gen. 27:35) to receive his father's blessing. Commentators justify his act and talk down the negative aspects of it, e.g. Rashi throughout his commentary on this passage. Onkelos says that he acted on the command of his mother, who had received prophetic direction. Nor do the Sages explicitly censure Jacob's action. Yet one homily on the verse, "he cried out most loudly and bitterly" (Gen. 27:34), says (Genesis Rabbah 77.4):

Whoever maintains that the Holy One, blessed be He, is lax [in dispensing justice], may his bowels become lax! He is merely long-suffering, but [ultimately] collects His due. Jacob made Esau break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan, the castle, as it says, "[Mordecai] cried out loudly and bitterly" (Esther 4:1).

Some interpret this to show that the Sages were critical of Jacob,[7] but I do not think this constitutes adequate proof. Even allowing that Jacob acted properly, there was still a price to be paid for the negative aspects inherent in what he had done. At most one could say that for a person of his standing Jacob did not feel sufficient regret over the negative side of his actions.

The Sages' reaction to the Dinah affair should be interpreted similarly.[8] They maintained that Jacob was being punished for hiding Dinah in a box so that Esau would not see her and want to take her for his wife. Their intention was not that Jacob should have offered his son to Esau, but rather, as I have read in the name of the Alter of Slobodka, Nathan Zvi Finkel, that he closed the box too tightly and it never occurred to him that maybe he should consider marrying her off to Esau so that she could bring him back to the better.

A message for all time

From here we move on to our own day. Often we find ourselves faced with painful choices, each of the ways having its positive side, sometimes even entailing a mitzvah, but also its negative aspect. We must pray for the Lord's help in making the correct choice, while being alert to the concomitant negative consequences of the way we choose and trying to reduce them to a minimum.

This idea has several colorations. A court that sentences a person to death, with all due process and the testimony of the witnesses being above reproach (see the Mishnah, Sandhedrin 4; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b), should not celebrate with a feast, rather should fast on such a day (see Maimonides, Sanhedrin 13.4).

We encounter many such questions in our lives today. Take, for instance, the case of a young couple who are undecided whether to live near their parents so that they can help one another, or whether they should live further away for some time so as to strengthen their marital relationship. A couple should be aware of the flip side of their decision and prepared at times also to pay the price entailed thereby.

הרב דוד הכהן, הרב הנזיר

Rabbi David Ha-Cohen, the Nazir Rabbi

The Nazir Rabbi was born in Lithuania in 1887. He was trained in the Lituanian yeshivot, including Volozhin, and educated in a wide variety of fields.

His Jewish studies included Kabbalah and in-depth study of issues relating to prophecy. To reach a level of absolute self-control he imposed on himself fasts and mortification, ultimately taking on the vows of a Nazir. From then until the end of his days he never touched wine nor cut a hair of his head or beard.

In 1916 he met Rabbi Abraham Ha-Cohen Kook and became a devout follower of his, in the wake of which, in 1922, he left behind all that he was doing in Lithuania and immigrated to the land of Israel.

He passed away on the 28th of Av 5732 (1972).

Translated by Rachel Rowen

[1] We have recently been witness, sadly, to the destructive influence of alcohol, which is a component of wine.

[2] Tur comments on the expression ki-yafli: "Does something extraordinary, for most of the world follow their desires."

[3] Ta`anit 11a presents a dispute among amoraim as to whether a Nazir is termed a sinner or a saint, each rebutting the arguments of his fellow.

[4] The gemara there explains why sin is mentioned precisely with regard to a Nazir who has become impure: "because he sinned doubly." In other words, he both "denied himself and became impure" (Ran, loc. cit.).

[5] This is the approach taken by Maimonides in Hilkhot De`ot 3.1, but note Nehamah Leibowitz's remarks regarding Maimonides' approach, in her Studies, loc. cit.

[6] As it says in Avot 2.12, "Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven." Also cf. Maimonides, Hilkhot De`ot 3.3.

[7] This is implied by Nehamah Leibowitz's remarks in Studies in Genesis, on the verse at hand.

[8] Cf. Genesis Rabbah 76.9.

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