Jonathan Muskat

Nazir: Enthusiastic Approval or Reluctant Acceptance?

As we begin studying Masechet Nazir in the daf yomi cycle this week, many of us are confronted with the very basic question of the Torah’s stance on the nazir: enthusiastic approval or reluctant acceptance? The nazir abstains from wine, contact with the dead, shaving and haircuts and the Torah provides a series of specific rules and regulations about the conduct of the nazir.

One of the halachot of the nazir is that that he must bring a sin offering. A sin offering implies that a sin was committed. As such, this requirement may convey that becoming a nazir is sinful in some respects. Indeed, in Hilchot De-ot 3:1, the Rambam writes that the sin referenced in the sin offering is the sin of abstinence from wine.

However, the Ramban disagrees. According to the Ramban (Bamidbar 6:14), the nazir brings the sin offering when he is about to leave his status as a nazir because he is leaving an idealized state of nezirut and returning to normalcy. Thus, the debate between the Rambam and Ramban concerning the nazir may express the complexity of how we view the institution of nezirut. It seems that the Rambam believes that the Torah’s stance is reluctant acceptance whereas the Ramban believes that the Torah’s stance is enthusiastic approval.

But why the tension? Why are there such radically different approaches as to the institution of nezirut in our rabbinic literature? Well, what is the institution of nezirut all about? On the surface, I might argue that the goal of nezirut is asceticism. After all, Rashi (Bambidbar 6:2) cites a view in rabbinic literature that the nazir often is a response to someone who witnessed a sotah ritual being administered. The implication of this statement is that we administer the sotah ritual in response to a sin of adultery where one gives in to his or her physical desires. In response, the nazir abstains from physical desires, such as wine, which may lead to the sin of adultery. Hence, the connection between nezirut and asceticism.

The problem with this analysis is that the connection between nezirut and asceticism only works for the wine prohibition. What about the other nezirut prohibitions such as neither shaving nor haircuts and especially not coming into contact with the dead? How are these restrictions related to asceticism?

Perhaps, then, the restrictions of the nazir point to something else. The Kli Yakar (Bamidbar 6:2) points out that the nazir seeks to separate himself from the community. This perspective can explain the three categories of nazir restrictions. First, drinking wine is typically not done alone. It is a social activity. An individual who refrains from drinking wine can become a very lonely person. Second, not coming into contact with the dead in some sense is also tantamount to social isolation. What that means is that the nazir will not attend funerals at all, when members of a community confront a loss. The common refrain about a close-knit community is that we are together in good and bad times. But the nazir is not there in good times or in bad times. He separates himself from the community by not engaging in the social activity of drinking and not attending funerals. Finally, the nazir lets his hair grow wild. In many cultures, letting one’s hair grow wild is an anti-social statement signaling his separation from communal structures.

As such, the Nazir makes a statement that he wishes to be non-conformist by abstaining from wine, not coming into contact with the deceased and by letting his hair grow wild. Perhaps he has seen certain sins that have been committed by members of the community and he sees flaws in his community so he needs to take a step back. Perhaps, according to Rashi, he recognizes that his community has become one where a sotah ritual had to be administered and he is concerned about his own spiritual growth belonging to a community where such an allegation and perhaps a sin of adultery could have been committed.

And the Torah’s response to the nazir is ambivalent. The Torah does not provide clear guidance as to whether it enthusiastically approves or reluctantly accepts such behavior.  That is why rabbinic authorities are split on the Torah’s stance in this matter. Perhaps, at the very least, the Torah wants us to feel uncomfortable. If we blindly follow the community when something doesn’t smell right, then we should feel uncomfortable. At the same time, if we withdraw from the community because of a particular issue, then we should also feel uncomfortable. Maybe the message of the Torah is that if we constantly feel a little on edge, never completely sure, vacillating back and forth between community-follower and non-conformist, considering both our individual needs and the needs of the community, then we know we’re on the right path. Hopefully we can appreciate these conflicting perspectives as we journey through Masechet Nazir during our Daf Yomi study.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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