Parshat Naso: The Association of the Convert to the Kohanim

The Association of the Convert to the Kohanim

If there is no relative to whom to return the dishonest gain, it must be returned to Hashem and given to the Kohen. This is in addition to the atonement offering through which he atones for the sin. (BeMidbar 5:8)

The meaning of our pasuk is not readily apparent. Our Sages discuss the passage. They explain that the section in which the passage appears deals with a person who has been accused of owing money to another individual. The accused has taken an oath that he does not owe the money. Based on this oath, the court released the accused of any liability. Subsequently, the accused admits that he does owe the money. He is required to restore the dishonest gain, add an additional 20%, and offer a sacrifice[1].

Our passage discusses a special application of this law. The law is predicated on the assumption that the wronged party or his heir is available to receive restitution. If the wronged party has died without heirs, how does the accused make restitution? To whom does the accused give the dishonest gain and the 20% fine?

Before we consider our passage’s solution to this dilemma, we must consider another issue. How is it possible for a person to die without any heir? Certainly, through tracing the victim’s ancestry, we can find some distant heir! Our Sages respond that the passage deals with a victim who is a convert and dies without children.[2] Those non-Jews who were related to the convert prior to conversion are no longer regarded as heirs. Conversion severs the familial tie between the convert and the non-Jewish community. Therefore, the childless convert truly has no heirs!

Now, let us return to our passage’s response. Who receives the money? Our pasuk answers that both the principle amount of the wrongful gain and the 20% fine are given to the kohen.

Why does the kohen receive the money? Gershonides offers a very important answer. He explains that the Torah apparently wishes to associate the convert with the kohen. In effect, the Torah makes the kohen the heir of the convert. The kohanim are the most honored group within the nation. Creating an association between the convert and the kohen elevates the status of the convert.

Why does the Torah wish to elevate the status of the convert? Gershonides proposes that the Torah is concerned with the welfare of the convert. The convert does not have extensive family ties within Bnai Yisrael. This might mark the convert as an attractive victim for the unscrupulous. In order to protect the convert from such scheming, the Torah assigns to the convert the most respected relatives in the nation. In short, the message communicated by this law is that one who steals from this lonely convert will have to answer to the honorary relatives – the kohanim![3]

The “Bitter” Mixture Given to the Sotah

And the kohen shall stand the woman before Hashem. And he shall uncover the woman’s head. And he shall place on her hands the reminder offering, the jealousy offering. And in the hand of the kohen shall be the bitter, curse-bearing water. (BeMidbar 5:18)

This pasuk discusses the test of the sotah. This test culminates in the woman drinking a special mixture. This test is based on a miracle. If the woman is guilty of the suspected crime, then she dies. If she is innocent the mixture does not harm her.

The Torah describes the drink given to the sotah as “bitter”. There are various explanations for this characterization. The simplest interpretation is offered by the Talmud in Tractate Sotah. The Talmud explains that a bitter ingredient is added to the water. This water actually tastes bitter.[4] The Midrash Sifri offers an alternative interpretation. The water is referred to as bitter because of its effect. If the woman is guilty of adultery, then the mixture will cause the woman to die. This is a “bitter” outcome.[5] Nachmanides offers another interpretation. He explains that the term “bitter” refers to an aspect of the miracle. When the woman drinks the water, it initially tastes sweet. However, if she is guilty, the water’s initial sweetness is followed by a bitter taste.[6] The most obvious interpretation of the term “bitter” is offered by the Talmud. Why do Sifri and Nachmanides insist upon alternative explanations?

Let us begin by considering more carefully the position of the Talmud. According to the Talmud, an ingredient is added to the water that provides a bitter taste. Why is this ingredient needed? Why should the water have a bitter taste? The ordeal to which the sotah is subjected is not a neutral test. This is because there is no question that the sotah acted promiscuously. The test to which she is subjected – the drinking of the special mixture – is designed to determine whether this promiscuous behavior extended to adultery. This presumption of guilt – in regards to promiscuity – extends to specific details of the test. Essentially, the test is actually formulated as a punishment for adultery. The mixture given to the woman is a potential poison. The sotah vindicates herself through surviving the ordeal. In other words, the sotah subjects herself to an ordeal that is designed as a punishment for adultery. The test has the potential to kill her. She establishes her innocence surviving the ordeal; thus proving that she is not guilty of adultery. This explains the addition of a bitter ingredient to the mixture. This ingredient communicates the message that the drink is not a neutral test. It is a bitter punishment for the adulterous woman.

Sifri and Nachmanides disagree with this simple interpretation of the term “bitter”. It seems that both are guided by a shared consideration. The ordeal is designed to stress the miraculous nature of the adjudication. The addition of an extraneous ingredient to the mixture can only detract from this design. If the ingredient is bitter, this is especially true. One might erroneously attribute the lethal effect of the mixture to its ingredients. Therefore, it is important to create the mixture from innocuous ingredients.

We can now understand the dispute between Nachmanides and Sifri. Sifri maintains that the term “bitter” refers to the ultimate fate awaiting a guilty sotah. Nachmanides interprets the term in a more literal sense. The guilty sotah will feel an actual bitter taste. But this sensation only occurs after ingesting the sweet tasting mixture.

Nachmanides apparently maintains that the guilty woman must know that her death is a result of the mixture. She cannot be allowed to believe that her death is coincidental. In order to communicate this message to the woman, she is immediately affected by the water itself. She now knows that the mixture has tested her and found her guilty. She will know that the water has caused her demise.

The Trial of the Sotah and Our Responsibility to Uphold the Laws of the Torah

And the man shall be free of sin and the woman will bear the consequence of her sin. (BeMidbar 5:31)

The test administered to the sotah requires that she drink a mixture prepared by the kohen. The woman drinks the mixture. If she is guilty, both she and the adulterer die. If she is innocent, she is rewarded with offspring.

This entire trial is based upon a miracle. Nachmanides observes that this is the only element of the Torah’s judicial system in which justice is dependent upon a miracle.[7] The Talmud explains that this miracle was a blessing from Hashem. However, Hashem only performed this miracle during the period in which the prohibitions against adultery and sexual promiscuity were scrupulously observed. Once the nation became lax regarding these laws, Hashem no longer performed this miracle.[8]

At first glance, this statement from the Talmud seems difficult to understand. It would seem that when the people are devoted to the law, the test of the sotah is less necessary. If there is general observance, what harm is there to society in the failure to detect an occasional deviation? In contrast, if the law is generally disregarded, every opportunity and tool is needed to assure its enforcement.

The Talmud is teaching us an important concept regarding our responsibilities for enforcement of the law. Hashem will not perform our duties for us. We are responsible for enforcement of the Torah’s mitzvot. We cannot expect Hashem to assume this responsibility, in our place. However, if we demonstrate devotion to the Torah, through careful observance, then Hashem will help us fulfill our desire to enforce the law.

With this principle, we can understand the comments of the Talmud. At the time that the people were devoted to observance of the mitzvot, Hashem assisted the people in enforcing the law. Hashem helped resolve the innocence or guilt of the sotah – the suspected adulterer. The sotah was not able to escape justice. When the people were not devoted to observance, this miracle could not longer be expected. If the people did not care about adultery, they could not turn to Hashem to assume responsibility for enforcement of this prohibition.

Placing the Hair of the Nazir on the Fire under His Shelamim Sacrifice

And the nazir shall shave his crown of hair from his head. And he shall take the hair of his crown and place it upon the fire that is under the Shelamim sacrifice. (BeMidbar 6:18)

The nazir is an individual who takes a vow to separate himself from the material world. The nazir may not drink wine, cut his hair or come into contact with a dead body. The ultimate purpose of this abandonment of material affairs is to encourage greater devotion to Hashem and the Torah.

Upon completion of the period of the vow, the nazir performs a series of activities in the Temple. These include bringing a number of sacrifices. As part of the process of offering his sacrifices, the nazir shaves his head and throws the hair upon the fire under the Shelamim sacrifice. What is the meaning of this unusual requirement?

It is possible for a person to undertake the vow of the nazir for various reasons. A person may wish to demonstrate religious superiority over others. This is a misuse of the institution of nazir. The only acceptable motivation is to improve one’s devotion to Hashem. This concept is demonstrated through the throwing of the nazir’s hair under the sacrifice. The hair represents the nazir’s vow and subsequent abstention from the material world. The sacrifice represents service to Hashem. If the nazir has undertaken the vow in order to “fuel” service to Hashem, then the vow was proper. However, if the vow was merely an expression of religious elitism, then it did not serve its true purpose.

The Nazir Status of Shimshon

And the messenger of Hashem appeared unto the woman, and said to her: Behold now, you are barren, and have not borne; but you will conceive, and bear a son. Now, beware, I pray thee, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing. For it will be that you will conceive, and bear a son. And no razor shall come upon his head. For the child shall be a Nazir unto G-d from the womb. And he shall begin to save Yisrael from of the hand of the Pelishtm. (Shoftim 13:3-5)

These passages are taken from the haftarah of Parshat Naso. They introduce the birth of the shofet – the judge – Shimshon. A messenger appears to Shimshon’s mother before his birth. He tells her that she will give birth to a son. This son is destined to save Bnai Yisrael from the oppression of the Pelishtim. However, the messenger also tells her that Shimshon must be raised as a nazir and he must observe the nazir restrictions for his entire life.

Why was it necessary for Shimshon to conduct himself as a nazir? According to Ribbe Eliezer HaKafar, this is not an ideal mode of behavior. It is odd that Shimshon should be required to conduct himself in a manner that seems at odds with the Torah’s values.

Gershonides offers an interesting response to this question. He explains that Shimshon was destined for greatness. He was destined to lead Bnai Yisrael and rescue the nation from oppression. However, Shimshon’s potential to achieve greatness was coupled with another characteristic that could threaten his development. Shimshon also possessed very intense material desires. These desires eventually proved overwhelming. But Hashem provided Shimshon – through this message to his mother – with a strategy for combating his intense material urges. Hashem commanded Shimshon’s mother that her son should be a nazir.[9] In other words, for most people, this behavior would not be appropriate. But because of Shimshon’s unusually strong urges, special measures were necessary.

The Sin Offering to the Nazir

The priest shall prepare one as a Chatat and one as Olah to atone for his inadvertent defilement by the dead. (BeMidbar 6:11)

Parshat Naso describes the laws governing the nazir. The nazir is a person who takes a vow to separate oneself from material pleasures. The nazir may not drink wine or cut his hair. The nazir is also prohibited from defilement through contact with a dead body.

A nazir who does come in contact with a dead body is defiled. This defiled nazir must bring a series of sacrifices as atonement. One of these sacrifices is a Chatat – a sin offering. Rashi explains that this sin offering is required because the nazir did not exercise adequate care in keeping the vow.[10]

Rashi offers a second interpretation of the Chatat offering. He quotes the comments of the Talmud in Tractate Nazir. Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar explains that the sin of the nazir is not merely unintentional contact with a dead body. The nazir vowed to abandon the pleasure of drinking wine. The sin of the nazir is the self-affliction and denial that he has accepted upon himself. The Talmud further comments that we learn an important lesson from this law. The nazir is obligated to bring a Chatat because of a vow not to drink wine. A person who, as a general practice, abandons the material pleasures is even more guilty.[11]

This explanation of the Chatat is clearly supported by another law. A nazir who successfully completed the vow must also bring a Chatat.[12] In this case, the vow has not been violated. Why is a Chatat required? Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar’s explanation resolves this issue. Even the successful nazir requires atonement. The nazir must atone for the self-affliction and deprivation.

According to Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar, the nazir has acted improperly. Yet, the Torah created the mitzvah of nazir! This interpretation raises an obvious question. How can the Torah define an inappropriate behavior as a mitzvah?

Maimonides deals with this question in his introduction to Perkai Avot. He explains the Torah is designed to help us achieve moderation in all of our attitudes. But what constitutes moderation? The term “moderation” assumes that the moderate attitude is balanced between extremes. In other words, every attitude occupies a midpoint along a continuum of possible attitudes. An example helps illustrate Maimonides’ position. A person who has a moderate attitude towards personal wealth is able to use his wealth in order to secure a meaningful improvement in his condition. This attitude is balanced between the extreme attitudes demonstrated by the spendthrift and the miserly person. The miser cannot part with his wealth even when circumstances dictate that the expenditure is worthwhile. The spendthrift expends his wealth with abandon, unable to consider the true value of the items he purchases. According to Maimonides, we should strive for to conduct ourselves in a manner that is balanced between the two extremes. A person should not be a spendthrift. Neither should one be stingy. Similarly, we are not permitted to act cowardly. We also may not endanger ourselves unnecessarily. Instead, our attitude towards risk should reflect moderation. We should be willing and able to subject ourselves to a reasonable risk if the circumstances so demand. The same pattern applies to all behaviors and attitudes. We must seek the middle road.

Inevitably, we all have attitudes that are not moderate but instead somewhat extreme. Some of us may be overly shy. Others may be egotistical. How does one correct a flaw? Maimonides explains that the Torah suggests that we temporarily force ourselves to adopt the behavior and attitude of the opposite extreme. The stingy person practices being a spendthrift. The glutton adopts a very restricted diet. With time, this practice will enable the person to break the original attachment. One will be able to adopt the moderate behavior and attitude required by the Torah.

Maimonides explains that the mitzvah of the nazir should be understood in this context. The nazir is a person who was overly attached to the material pleasures. The nazir makes a vow to adopt the behavior associated with the opposite extreme. He embraces self-denial for a period of time. The ultimate goal is to free the personality from his inordinate attachment to material pleasures. This will allow him to ultimately achieve an attitude of moderation.

However, the Torah did not want us to mistakenly view the nazir’s behavior of self-denial as an ideal. We must recognize that the nazir’s vow is intended as a corrective measure for an extreme attitude and behavior. How was this message communicated? This was accomplished through the Chatat of the nazir. The Chatat teaches that the lifestyle of self-denial adopted by the nazir is not inherently proper. The measures adopted by the nazir are necessary in order to help him achieve moderation. The ultimate goal is balanced conduct, not the extreme behavior of the nazir.[13]

Maimonides seemingly contradicts this interpretation of the nazir and the Chatat in his Moreh Nevuchim. There, Maimonides explains that one of the goals of the Torah is to completely distance oneself from the material desires. Furthermore, Maimonides asserts that the nazir is considered a sanctified individual. How does the nazir earn this status? Maimonides responds that the nazir has given up wine![14]

These comments seem to contradict completely the position Maimonides outlined in his introduction to Perkai Avot. In the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides endorses extreme behavior of the nazir as an ideal. He also asserts that the nazir’s abandonment of wine is laudable! How can these two positions be reconciled?

In these two texts Maimonides is dealing with two completely separate issues. In his introduction to Perkai Avot, he is discussing the basis for a healthy personality. He explains that psychological health requires, and is manifested, in moderation in behavior and attitudes.

However, the objective of the Torah is to guide an individual to truth and spiritual perfection. As a person grows spiritually and embraces truth, the individual begins to re-evaluate the meaning of life. Material pleasures loose their glamour and attraction. This abandonment is not the result of vows of self-denial. The tzadik – the righteous person – simply loses interest in material affairs. This tzadik is the individual Maimonides describes in the Moreh Nevuchim. The tzadik is a truly spiritual person guided solely by his appraisal of reality and is assessment of what is truly important. In other words, the Torah views moderation in one’s attitude towards material pleasures as the ideal attitude to most people However, the Torah also acknowledges that as a person grows intellectually and spiritually, his interest with and attachment to material pleasures declines. With this re-orientation, he naturally abandons material pleasures that were previously far more significant to him.

As explained above, the nazir is not the tzadik described in the Moreh Nevuchim. This tzadik does not require a vow to moderate his interaction with the material world. Instead, the nazir is a person attempting to move away from an extreme attachment to material pleasure. The nazir is striving to achieve the middle road. The Torah constructed a mitzvah to help this person – the mitzvah of nazir. However, this mitzvah is not merely a set of arbitrary restrictions. The nazir adopts the behaviors of the tzadik. He experiments with living the life and adopting the attitudes of a truly spiritual individual. He learns that although he is not nearly ready to be this exalted person, he can live without the material pleasure to which he previously regarded as necessities. In short, the nazir is not the perfected individual described in the Moreh Nevuchim. However, he does adopt the behaviors associated with the tzadik.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:6.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:8.

[3] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 5:5.

[4] Mesechet Sotah 20a.

[5] Sifrei Parshat Naso, Chapter 11.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 5:18.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BMidbar 5:20.

[8] Mesechet Sotah 47a.

[9] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shoftim 13:3.

[10] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 6:11.

[11] Mesechet Nazir 19a.

[12] Sefer BeMidbar 6:7.

[13] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Perkai Avot, Chapter 4.

[14] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, Volume 3, Chapter 34.