Main image: Frank Kehren via Flickr
Main image: Frank Kehren via Flickr
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Tracing the Way of the Nazirites

An ancient vow—no wine, no hair-cutting, no contact with the dead—and its demands and sins are the subject of the new tractate in our ‘Daf Yomi’ Talmud study

Adam Kirsch
September 01, 2015
Main image: Frank Kehren via Flickr
Main image: Frank Kehren via Flickr

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Last week, Daf Yomi readers began a new section of the Talmud, Tractate Nazir, which is entirely dedicated to a particular kind of vow—the nazirite vow. Naziriteship is an ancient Jewish institution, established in the Bible in Numbers 6, where it is stated that a person who vows to become a nazirite is subject to three restrictions: He or she cannot drink wine (or anything “that is made of the grape-vine, from the pressed grapes even to the grapestone”), cut his or her hair, or come into contact with a dead body. (The prohibitions are similar to those binding on priests, so a nazirite can be seen as a kind of temporary, voluntary priest.) A person usually becomes a nazirite for a fixed period of time; when the term expires he brings a particular kind of sacrifice, then cuts off his hair and burns it in the sacrificial fire.

Before we even begin reading the tractate, however, its placement in Seder Nashim raises an obvious question. This order of the Talmud is supposed to include laws dealing specifically with women and sexual relations. But there is nothing gender-specific about naziriteship; men and women are equally able to become nazirites. This anomaly bothered the rabbis themselves, so much so that the very first issue raised in the Gemara, in Nazir 2a, has to do with the placement of the tractate: “Now, the tanna is engaged in the order of Nashim. What is the reason that he teaches the laws of the nazirite here?” The obvious answer, it would have seemed to me, is that Nazir follows Tractate Nedarim for logical reasons: Nedarim deals with the taking of vows, and Nazir focuses on one particularly important kind of vow.

But the rabbis offer a different explanation, which has to with the tractate that follows Nazir, rather than the one that precedes it. The next Talmudic tractate after Nazir is Sota, which deals with the ritual prescribed for testing and punishing a woman suspected of adultery. What, the rabbis ask, causes a woman to commit such a grave sin? The answer is “wine”: Alcohol, then as now, is held to be responsible for a lot of sexual misbehavior. Naturally, the spectacle of a drunken adulteress would lead a person to want to swear off wine; and becoming a nazirite is the standard way of doing this. In this way, the placement of Nazir in Seder Nashim is given a moralistic explanation, with a warning to women—better to abstain than to run the risks of drinking.

In the Bible, becoming a nazirite seems like a pious act, a way of making an extra effort on God’s behalf. But as we already learned repeatedly in Tractate Nedarim, the rabbis considered all vows, including the nazirite vow, to be wicked, since they create unnecessary occasions for sin. In Nazir 4b, we once again hear a story that was also told in Nedarim, about how Shimon the Righteous, one of the legendary high priests in the Second Temple period, refused to eat the guilt-offering of a nazirite who had broken his vow. This was because he did not want to encourage naziriteship, by making it easy for a nazirite who sinned to make atonement. There was only one nazirite whom Shimon found genuinely worthy—a certain handsome shepherd to took the vow because he wanted to mortify his pride in his appearance.

The connection between beauty and naziriteship also comes up earlier in the tractate, in Nazir 2b. Like Nedarim, Nazir begins by focusing on the exact language that must be used in taking a vow. The Bible specifies that someone who takes a nazirite vow must “clearly utter” it, so that there is no confusion about his intentions. But the mishna makes clear that, by Talmudic times, some standard euphemisms and formulas had emerged that were just as binding as a clearly formulated vow. Thus if one says, “I will be a nazik” or “a naziach,” these words are taken to be equivalent to nazir, and the oath is binding. Another such formula, the rabbis say, is “I will be beautiful”: A person who says this is considered to be taking a nazirite vow.

What is the connection between naziriteship and beauty? The answer, as in the anecdote about Shimon the Righteous, comes down to hair: A nazirite grows out his or her hair, and the long locks are considered to be beautiful. (Another formula for taking the vow is “I am hereby a curler,” that is, someone whose hair is so long it curls.) But, the Gemara asks, is the word “beautiful” by itself a clear reference to this kind of beauty? Perhaps a person might say, “I shall be beautiful,” but mean simply “beautiful before Him in mitzvot”: “I will make before Him a beautiful sukka, beautiful tzitzit,” or “I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll”?

In response, Shmuel clarifies that “I will be beautiful” on its own is not a nazirite vow. It becomes one only if it is said while the person “is holding his hair,” which makes clear that he means “beautiful” in the way typical of nazirites. Similarly, the mishna says that if a person says merely “I will be,” this is equivalent to a nazirite vow. But this seems unacceptably broad, and Shmuel specifies that the phrase is only to be interpreted this way if it is spoken “where a nazirite was passing before him.” In other words, a nazirite vow has to take account not just of spoken words, but of context and intention.

‘I will be beautiful’: A person who says this is considered to be taking a nazirite vow.

But the Gemara is not done with the question of beauty. A nazirite is beautiful on account of his or her long hair; but in a deeper sense, can we say that the vow is a beautiful thing, when the rabbis believed that it was in fact a sin? “Since naziriteship is a matter of transgression, can we say about a nazirite that he is beautiful?” the Gemara asks. There is some uncertainty about this issue: Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says that a nazirite is beautiful as long as he keeps his vows, and only becomes ugly if the vows are broken. But elsewhere the Gemara suggests that the vow itself is ugly—both because it is an unnecessary stumbling block and because abstention from wine is inherently painful. (I was left wondering at what point the rabbinic hostility to naziriteship made it disappear altogether.)

One of the favorite subjects of the rabbis, I have learned over the last several years of reading Talmud, is deadlines and time limits. Many things in Judaism are time-bound—the very first mishna in Tractate Berachot has to do with the right time for reciting the morning Shema—and the rabbis are always concerned to get the timing exactly right. Say that you declare yourself a nazirite but don’t specify a time limit: How long does your vow stay in force? The answer, we learn in Nazir 5a, is 30 days. But where does the mishna come up with this figure? The Gemara offers a recondite explanation based on the number of times the word nazir appears in Numbers 6, or alternatively on gematria, the numerical value of a certain Hebrew word used in that chapter. But this is one of those occasions where it seems possible that the rabbis are simply using the Bible to justify a practice that had long been customary.

Another time-related question is the maximum length of a nazirite vow. It is possible to declare yourself a permanent nazirite, that is, a nazirite for the rest of your life. But, strangely, it is also possible to take a vow for a period of time that exceeds the human lifespan, such as 1,000 years; and this is legally different from being a permanent nazirite. (The practical difference has to do with how often you can cut your hair: A permanent nazirite gets to do this every 30 days, while a regular nazirite who simply has a very long term is not allowed to get trimmed at all.) And what if a person swears to be a nazirite for 30 days and an hour: Is it possible to do this, or does the extra hour initiate a second minimum period of 30 days so that in effect the person is bound for 60 days? And does the vow expire at the beginning of the 30th day or after its conclusion? There is, as always, something to be said on each side; and the debate itself is as valuable to the rabbis as the conclusions they reach.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Adam Kirsch’s Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.