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Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

The Sin of the Nazirite — Why the Torah Frowns on Excessive Piety

Every religion knows of people who aspire to lives of excessive piety. Some religions choose to venerate them, others shut them away in closed communities. The Torah takes a decidedly ambivalent view, providing pietists with the opportunity to consecrate themselves, but refraining from praising or even encouraging them.

The Torah calls such people Nazirites, from the Hebrew root meaning a crown. It implies that their decision is extraordinary, although most English translations miss the point. The English is usually rendered as something like ‘a man or woman who will specify, to vow a vow to God’ whereas the literal sense is ‘who will be extraordinary, to vow a vow…’.

The Torah makes just three demands on the person who vows to be a Nazirite. They are not to cut or shave their hair, eat or drink anything made from grapes or come into contact with a human corpse. Other than these restrictions, they can live a normal life. In other words, as far as the Torah is concerned a vow of abstinence has nothing at all to do with shutting oneself away from society, being celibate, immersing oneself in prayer, being particularly charitable, conducting one’s affairs more ethically than usual, or any of the other things one might associate with a particularly holy person. A Nazirite is not a saint.  He or she is simply someone who has decided to consecrate themselves and has to live a restricted lifestyle.

However, the three restrictions do conceal deeper ideas. A Nazirite may not come into contact with a corpse because human bodies are the source of the most extreme level of ritual impurity. Someone contaminated by corpse impurity cannot enter the Temple or eat consecrated food. The restriction therefore does ensure that they live their lives in a state of ritual sanctity. But this is a purely spiritual enhancement, it does not make any substantial difference to the way they behave or interact with other people.

Keeping away from grape products is more physical. Wine is a source of levity and the injunction to keep away from it means, in the most literal sense, that they are to live soberly.

Perhaps the most interesting restriction is the prohibition against cutting one’s hair. The Nazirite’s vow lasts for a predetermined period. At the end of the period, or should they become impure sooner, they are to bring an offering to the Temple and shave all their hair. The Talmud (Nedarim 9b) relates the story of a young Nazirite who saw the reflection of his long curly locks in a pool of water. He was so shocked to find himself swooning with vanity and self-admiration that he immediately terminated his vow, making himself impure and going to the Temple to be shaved.

This story echoes, or may even respond to, the Greek legend of Narcissus who fell in love with himself after seeing his reflection in a pool of water. The injunction not to shave one’s hair, which is really a precursor to the eventual act of shaving oneself completely, is designed to quash the Nazirite’s natural vanity and pride.

So the Nazirite is to live a life of ritual purity and sobriety, free from vanity and pride. All worthy stuff, one might think. But there is a sting in the tail. For when his period of Naziriteship is over, he brings a sin offering to the Temple. This seems odd. Sin offerings are only brought retrospectively, when someone has committed a sin. The Nazirite has just fulfilled a vow of piety, he has surely not committed any offences that are to be expiated through an offering.

But this is exactly the point. The Torah does not look particularly kindly on Nazirites, on vows of abstinence. Its not going to forbid them but it wants to make clear that imposing restrictions on oneself is not the way to live one’s life. If someone wants to be a Nazirite, fine. But when they return to the real world, they are obliged to atone for the sin that made them so pious in the first place.

Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book,  Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul is available through www.harryfreedmanbooks.com

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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