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 new book is Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, published by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury also published my previous books The Talmud: A Biography in February 2014 and The Murderous History of Bible translations in 2016. I wrote Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul to try to give some context to contemporary attitudes to Kabbalah. Kabbalah became fashionable at the end of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest shown in it by Hollywood celebrities and rock stars, the most famous being Madonna. But Kabbalah's history goes back two thousand years and its story is far more interesting and profound than some of things written about it in the popular media. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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