D’var Torah, Naso: Nazirites – A Lifetime of Service or a Priestly Innovation?
By Kristine Garroway
Samson and Samuel, two great figures found among the books of the Former Prophets, have quite a bit in common. Both were born to formerly barren mothers, both became legendary leaders of the Israelite people, and each was designated as a Nazir, holy to the Eternal. This last point is interesting, for Parashat Naso also addresses the Nazir, explaining in detail what the Nazirite vow entailed. We may think that the description of the Nazir in Numbers 6 would match up with that found in the narratives surrounding Samson and Samuel, however, we find the descriptions differ in key areas. Before exploring the reasons for the differences in the descriptions, we should first detail the discrepancies between them.
In the narrative of Samson, we learn that the angel who visited Samson’s mother explicitly told her that Samson would be a Nazir from birth and warned her not to drink strong drink while pregnant and not to let a razor touch the child’s hair (Judges 13:3–4). His mother followed all the angel’s instructions and Samson became the first to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Philistines. Like Samson, Samuel was also a Nazir from the time he was born. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, prayed to God, vowing that if she were able to conceive a son, she would dedicate him to the Eternal as a Nazir all the days of his life, and take care to not let a razor touch his head (I Samuel 1:11). Hannah, too, understands that because of her vow, while pregnant she cannot drink anything intoxicating and protests when the priest, Eli, accuses her of being drunk (I Samuel 1:15).
Common threads in the Samson and Samuel narratives include the following elements: (1) formerly barren mothers, (2) a prohibition against the mother drinking strong drink while pregnant, (3) the designation of each baby as a Nazir at birth, and (4) the adjuration to refrain from letting a razor touch the child’s head. Note that it is incumbent upon the mother—not theNazir—to carry out all of these elements. One final point needs to be emphasized; there is no end to the Nazir-ship: each man is a Nazir for life.
In contrast, Numbers 6 tells us that any Israelite, male or female, can take the vow to set him- or herself apart for the Eternal. This means that a grown person, not one’s mother, voluntarily takes upon him- or herself the Naziritevow. The prohibitions against strong drink and cutting hair are specifically placed upon the Nazir, not the parent (Numbers 6:3–5). Not only does one need to abstain from strong drink, but also from grapes or anything made of grapes, including substances in a non-fermented state (Numbers 6:3–4). Besides these familiar prohibitions,Parashat Naso alsobans the Nazirite from touching dead bodies (Numbers 6:6–12). The reasoning stems from the fact that the dead transmit impurity, and the hair of the Nazir is sacred to the Eternal. If the Nazir’s hair should become impure by way of contact with the deceased, the Nazir must cut his or her hair, and offer a sacrifice. To regain purity, the defiledNazir must then “reconsecrate” his or her head, and bring a penalty offering in the first year of renewed Nazir-ship (Numbers 6:9–12). The additions and expansions in Parashat Naso are not the only differences between the Nazirite vow found in Numbers 6, and the Nazirite vows placed upon Samson and Samuel. The prime difference is the length of the vow: for Samuel and Samson the vow is lifelong, but in Numbers 6 the vow is temporary. Finally, Numbers 6:13–21 enumerates the sacrifices one must offer at the termination of the vow (six to be exact).
To recap, we have seen that the Nazirite vow in the narratives of Samson and Samuel are different from the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6 with regard to length, personal volition, and the particulars of the prohibitions. We can now ask why these differences exist. Three possibilities present themselves.1 First, we can consider the short-term and long-term Nazirite vow as existing contemporaneously. Second, we can understand the law in Numbers 6 to be the “real” law, and the descriptions in the narratives simply to be literary embellishments to make the stories of Samson and Samuel interesting. However, most scholars agree on some variation of the third option: the narratives describing a long-term vow, such as undertaken by Samuel and Samson, represent the old Israelite tradition concerning the Nazirite vow. The short-term vow, open to everyone, was a Priestly rewrite of the old tradition. Not only did the rewrite reduce the term and allow a person to personally take the vow, but it boosted the income of the Temple. Both the limited term and the availability of the vow to both men andwomen made the Nazirite vow popular late into the Second Temple Period (see throughoutMishnah Nazir, I Maccabees 3:49, and the writings of the historian Josephus). Whether or not the law was a rewrite of an older tradition, the popularity of the temporary vow served the priesthood well; the priests controlled the institution of the Nazirite, which in practical terms meant that the Temple profited nicely from each vow.
Jews no longer take Nazirite vows. We do, however, still retain some measures of asceticism within our tradition. A prime example of this is the practice of fasting before some minor holidays, and before Yoma, “The Day,” that is Yom Kippur. Just as the asceticNazirite vows brought the Nazir closer to God, so too does the fast on Yom Kippur bring us closer to God.
- Examples of the three possibilities can be attributed to the following scholars: Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: 1990); Martin Noth,Numbers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968); Timothy R. Ashley, NICOT: Numbers, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993); Philip J. Budd, The Word Biblical Commentary(Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984), Jules de Vaulx, Les Nombres (Paris: J. Gabalda et Cie Editeurs, 1972).
Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC–Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.