Erica Brown

The Vows Of A Jewish Ascetic

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat/Shavuot candles: 8:04 p.m.;
8:06 p.m. (Tues.); 9:15 (Wed.)
Torah: Num. 4:21-7:89;
Ex. 19:1-20:23; Num. 28:26-31;
Deut. 14:22-16:17
Haftara: Judges 13:2-25;
Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12;
Habakuk 2:20-3:19
Havdalah: 9:12 p.m.; 9:16 (Thurs.)

Naso, in large part, is devoted to the laws governing the behavior of a Nazarite, an ascetic who, after taking a vow, must abstain from wine and other intoxicants; must allow “the locks of the hair on his head to grow long,” untouched by a razor; and who “shall never come near a dead person” [Numbers 6:1-7]. Although the book of Numbers begins with the general outline of the camp and the census, this week’s sedra mentions many individuals who, out of acts of piety or prohibition, effectively live outside of the traditional confines of the community or encampment.

Although a time is not specified in the text for the span of a Nazarite’s vow, the Talmud mentions two categories, the Samson Nazarite, whose vows are for life, and the one sets a specific time limit on the vow. The Nazarite who does not specify a period for his oath is presumed to remain in his vow for thirty days. Many verses in our sedra discuss the end of the Nazarite’s vow [Num. 6:12-21], presuming that with the exception of rare instances, the Nazarite limited his or her state of asceticism. The sacrifice that the Nazarite brings to end his vow has led to conflicting views in rabbinic literature as to how one regards the ascetic.

Maimonides, an advocate of the Aristotelian golden mean, believes that the Nazarite brings a sin offering because in order to achieve spiritual heights he needed to act outside the norms of the law. Nahmanides, the medieval Spanish Bible commentator, radically departs from this view, suggesting that the Nazarite brings a sacrifice not for leaving the path of moderation but for knowing his own spiritual proclivity towards asceticism and, despite this, ending his vow. He should remain in this state, created and proscribed by Jewish law for individuals of his religious constitution.

The most curious aspect of the sacrifice is not how one explains its purpose but how one explains its details. The traditional sacrificial elements are present, two lambs and a ram, unleavened cakes of choice flour and unleavened wafers in oil, all of which are presented to the priest. However, in an often neglected detail, the Nazarite then himself contributes to the presentation of the offering: “The Nazarite shall then shave his consecrated hair, at the entrance of the Tent of the Meeting, and take the locks of his consecrated hair and put them on the fire that is under the sacrifice of well-being [Num. 6:18].”

An integral part of transitioning the Nazarite back to ordinary life is not only the cutting of his hair but the offering of his hair on the altar as part of the sacrifice itself. Why must he watch his own hair, the most prominent aspect of his ascetic commitment, go up in heavenly smoke?

Jewish asceticism, unlike many other forms of asceticism, does not seek to separate mind or soul from body. The Talmud specifically asks why a Nazarite does not take an oath to abstain from food instead of wine and answers that not having food would weaken him. The goal of abstention is not to weaken the body’s constitution but to free the mind from distraction or distortion such as would be caused by alcohol consumption. What is special about the Nazarite is his head. His mind must be protected from influences that would obstruct clarity of thought and contemplation. Thus, not only is he not allowed contact with impurity, he must not even cut his hair. Others around him must see his head as the most prominent demonstration of his religious commitment. It is left alone, untainted and untouched, or as our sedra expresses it: “the hair on his head is set apart for his God.” The fascinating use of the expression “his God” shows how personal and private this state is. By allowing his hair to grow, others around him will recognize that he has dedicated his mental life to God, if only for a limited time. The idea is not to punish or weaken the body but to enhance the mind.

When the Nazarite, therefore, is ready to leave this state, he himself must participate in the sacrifice, creating the mental readiness to rejoin the world of distraction and mental static. Watching his hair burn creates total recognition that this break he had from the often banal world of human engagement is over.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a beautiful observation on this moment: “His life as a Nazarite was only to have been a preparatory provisional training. If letting the hair grow was a sign of a sanctifying separation and withdrawal into oneself, the complete shaving is the expression of thenceforth ceasing this separation and thenceforth completely entering again the whole social life of the community. This completely [sic] entering into the whole social life of the community is not merely something permissible, it is a mitzva, duty.”

The sacrifice that is offered at this time is the “shlamim” which means “whole” or “perfect.” By giving his hair and thus symbolically returning his head to the community, he is becoming more perfect or whole. His removal from the camp when he took the vow is reversed when he burns his hair and re-enters the faith community.

Thus, Rabbi Hirsch contends that the Nazarite state is not the ultimate one but a preparational one for those who find themselves unable to live within communal precincts. They follow their inclination in a most exaggerated form until they rid themselves of their need for religious isolation. The personal burning of the hair is not a sad act of departure from the ultimate spiritual life but an act of wholeness as one re-enters the community.

Dr. Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).