Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) and the haftarah is Judges13:2-13:25.
Every religion has members who go beyond what is required of the whole community. In ancient Israel, there were priests, prophets, and nezirim.
And I raised up some of your sons for prophets
And some of your young men for nezirim.
Is there nothing in this, Children of Israel?
But you made the nezirim drink wine
And you ordered the prophets not to prophesy! (Amos 2:11-12)
nezirim (נְזִרִים) = “nazirites”: men and women who are dedicated and separated from the rest of the community as holy because they abstain from grooming their hair and drinking alcohol. Nezirim is the plural of nazir (נָזִיר), from the root verb נזר = separate, dedicate, restrain, abstain.
Samson, whose story begins in this week’s haftarah, is a nazir from the womb to the grave, but he fails to make his life holy. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion lays out strict rules and term limits for living as a nazir.
Although the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is set at an earlier time in history than Samson’s story in the book of Judges, modern scholars agree that Judges was written long before the Torah portion Naso in Numbers. Judges is a collection of old stories of heroes from the 11th century B.C.E. and earlier, stories which were probably compiled and rewritten in the 8th century B.C.E. Large parts of the book of Numbers, however, including the instructions for the nazir, were written after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E., when priests were writing religious instructions for the time of the second temple.
Samson’s story begins in this week’s haftarah when an angel appears to the wife of a Danite named Manoach and announces that she will give birth to a nazir.
A messenger of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure. Because you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and a razor will not go upon his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb. And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:3-5)
Samson’s first act (after the haftarah’s opening scene) is to ask his parents to marry him to a Philistine woman he finds attractive. They protest feebly that he should marry one of his own people, but they follow him to the Philistine village of Timnah to arrange the marriage. Samson discovers his superhuman strength on the way, when “a strong spirit of God came over him” and he rips apart a lion with his bare hands. (Judges 14:6) For the wedding a year later, Samson hosts a seven-day drinking-party where he makes a wager and ends up killing 30 strangers in order to pay his gambling debt with their clothing.
As Samson’s adventures continue, the only thing he abstains from is cutting his hair. His main interests are sex, and inventing spectacular ways of killing people. He only prays to God at the end of his life, when Delilah has shaved his head and her co-conspirators have blinded and imprisoned him. Then Samson asks God to return his super-human strength so he can bring down the temple of Dagon and all the Philistines in it—not for the sake of Israel or God, but for his own personal vengeance.
Samson does succeed in killing thousands of Philistines, but he is hardly the holy man that Manoach and his wife expected when the angel said their son would be a nazir.
The book of Numbers makes it clear that a nazir along the lines of Samson is unacceptable. For one thing, this week’s Torah portion says nobody is allowed to be a nazir from birth; only an adult man or woman can vow to live as a nazir, and the person making the vow sets a finite period of time for his or her dedication. The instructions begin:
If a man or a woman vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God… (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:2)
lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to restrain oneself, to abstain. (From the root נזר.)
After describing what a nazir must abstain from, the Torah portion continues:
And this is the teaching of the nazir: On the day completing the days of nizro, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:13)
nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his life as a nazir, the term of his vow dedicating him to separateness; his crown. (Also from the root נזר.).
At the Tent of Meeting the nazir makes offerings, shaves his or her head, and returns to ordinary life. Thus all nezirim consciously dedicate themselves to restraint for a fixed period of time for the sake of God.
Their restraint consists of three kinds of abstention. The first category is alcohol and all grape products.
From wine and other alcohol yazir; nor shall he drink wine vinegar or vinegar from other alcohol, nor any grape juice; nor shall he eat grapes, wet or dried. All the days of nizro he must not eat anything that is made from grapevines, from seeds to skin. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:3-4)
yazir (יַזִּיר) = he will abstain. (Also from the root נזר.)
Abstaining from alcohol would not only improve the nazir’s ability to focus on being holy to God, but would also emphasis the nazir’s separation from the rest of society.
The second thing nezirim must abstain from is cutting, binding, or even combing their hair.
All the days of the vow of nizro, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God. (Numbers 6:5)
In the Bible, the only other people who let their hair grow untrimmed and unbound are mourners. Mourners are expected to disregard the social norms while grief commands all of their attention. Nezirim must let their hair grow wild while God commands all of their attention. (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)
The third thing a nazir must avoid is contact with the dead. (See my post Emor: The God of Life.)
All the days of hazayro to God, he must not come upon a dead body. For his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, he will not make himself ritually impure for them in their death, because the neizer of his god is on his head. All the days of nizro he is holy to God. (Numbers 6:6-8)
haziro (הַזִּירוֹ) = his time as a nazir. (Also from the root נזר.)
neizer (נֵזֶר) = consecration; crown. (Also from the root נזר.)
In the book of Numbers ordinary people who touch or come near a dead body are ritually impure for seven days; then a ritual sprinkling restores them to purity and they rejoin the religious community. But for a nazir, the rules are as strict as for the high priest, who must avoid all corpses, even those of his own parents. If a nazir touches or comes close to any corpse, the term of his or her vow ends prematurely. Then after seven days, the would-be nazir must shave his or her head, make offerings, and start all over again. Once again, nezerim must pay attention—and, perhaps, emulate the high priest.
According to these rules, parents cannot say an angel told them their child would be a lifelong nazir, or treat him as especially privileged. No nezirim can expect God to give them superpowers from time to time. Staying sober, they have no excuse for wild behavior like Samson’s at the end of his drinking-party.
And since nezirim must avoid being near dead bodies, they cannot kill people. Although all of the people Samson killed were Philistines, none of them were actual soldiers engaged in war against Israelites. Impulsive murder was no longer acceptable by the time of the second temple.
I have known individuals who were overwhelmed by spiritual impulses that cannot be integrated into normal life in modern western society. We have roles for spiritual leaders and teachers, but few outlets for people who would have been prophets or nezirim in ancient Israel.
When prophets in the Bible are overcome by the spirit of God they can at least speak, turning the divine message into human language. But nezirim have no words. When Samson feels the divine spirit, he is filled with physical strength that he uses for killing.
In the book of Numbers, nezirim can still be identified by big, unbound, bristling hair, but they are also required to follow extra rules. Perhaps these rules and abstentions satisfy the spiritual impulse of the nezirim enough so that when the spirit of God comes over them, they can rejoice in their self-discipline—as well as in their neizer, their visible crown of consecration.
I wonder if an equivalent discipline would work today to provide an outlet for those with the spirit of a nazir?