Naso: Seizing the Crown

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01 Jun 2009

It’s a Rambam-Ramban classic heavyweight duel. As the Torah introduces us to the nazir, the simple Jew who abstains from wine and grape byproducts, ritual contact with the dead and does not cut his hair (taking upon himself kohen-like status (1)), we must rightly consider what should our attitude be towards this fellow? (I’m sure he/she is a nice person, but we speak of the nazirite institution)

Many a cute or silly Rabbinic title on the topic usually goes something like this: Nazir-Concession or Ideal?; Nazir- Sinner or Saint? (a borrowed term); Nazir- Maven or Meshugenah? (actual title – we’ll stop at this point). Inevitably, it comes down to a classic dispute between the two aforementioned titans. The Biblically literate amongst the readers will intuitively line up the opinions. In truth, the clash probably goes back 1000 years earlier between Rav Eleazar and Rav Elazar HaKapar. A classic text reads [Ta’anit 11a]

[Samuel said: Whosoever fasts [for the sake of self-affliction] is termed a sinner].. Eleazar haKapar .. What is Scripture referring to when it says [of the Nazir], “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the soul”. Against which soul did he sin?[It must refer to the fact that] he denied himself wine. [We can now make this inference from minor to major: If this man [Nazir] who denied himself wine only is termed, Sinner, how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things]. R. Eleazar says: He is termed, Holy. As it is said, He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.- If this man [Nazirite] who denied himself wine only is termed, Holy. how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.

On the one hand, the Nazir is called kadosh (twice). Yet the Torah teaches he must bring an “atonement for the soul” (6:11) (2)). In classic Talmudic style, each approach must account for the other’s text.

A fascinating Talmudic omission is the requisite korban chatat (sin offering) that the Nazir must bring when he successfully completes his vows, a strange siyum (conclusion) to his significant efforts; so strange indeed, that the Talmud acknowledges his offering as a chiddush shechidsha Torah, one that occupies a category of its own. Nevertheless, commentators do not refrain from presenting a ta’am (rationale) for this unique sacrifice.

Consider this Ramban classic [Bamidbar, 6:14]:

This man sins against his soul when he completes his nezirut – for now he is leaving his holiness and Divine service; it would have been more fitting to remain a nazir forever, all his day as a nazir and Holy to his God. Behold he requires atonement when he returns to be besmirched with worldly passions

Rambam also weighs in, but what a difference in perspective! Herein a few choice words: [Deiot,3:1]

If man should argue, since envy, passion and pride are evil, .. then I shall divorce and separate myself utterly from them till I eat no meat nor drink wine, nor marry .. after the manner of the gentile priests .. this is also an evil path and it is forbidden to walk on it. One who walks in the path is called a sinner and needs atonement .. (a veiled reference to the sin offering)

One’s ideal engagement with the material world, – guarded/separated or integrated/holistic – appears to be a major philosophical dispute. Three caveats come to mind

1. Even Rambam agrees that at times being a Nazir is good. Listen to his words: (Vows,13:23)

Whoever makes a vow in order to discipline his moral disposition and to improve his conduct displays commendable zeal and is worthy of praise. For instance one who is a glutton and forbids to himself meat for a year or two; or one who is addicted to wine and forbids it to himself for a long time (3)) .. or one who is proud of his good looks and vows to become a nazir .. all such vows are ways of serving God

2. Even Ramban must admit that complete disengagement from the material world is not a Jewish ideal. Consider the following Rabbinic statements and halachot:

So what is the dispute here – is it merely a question of degree? Something like: to Rambam, more is more and to Ramban, less is more. That seems too tidy and trite – which leads us to the 3rd point:

3. The golden idea and incredible Ibn Ezra, who in speculating nazir comes from neizer (crown) formulates:

And know that all mortals are servants to the desires of this world – and the true king – the one who is adorned with the Royal crown is one that has become free from his desires

Freedom then is what it’s all about. Not the base kind to free-fall into the abyss of endless consumption; nor liberation to experiment with new and novel ways of expressing vice. Rather, exalted, heilege freedom, the type which allows one to freely exercise control to express higher values. Ironically, we all have observed formal leaders of the free world imprisoned by their passions, while many a formal prisoner, denied physical movement, have scaled the heights of higher freedom (e.g. Scharansky, Mendelovich, Essas).

The Nazir wants the crown. He pines for higher freedom. He denies, in order to exercise control and bask in ultimate freedom – one that allows him to beckon at will, the complete spectrum of his strengths. He wants to be the one who may summon healthy jealousy when observing a more refined character trait and quash it when it leads awry; that individual who can evoke anger when watching a chillul Hashem while squelching it when it threatens to consume him.

Perhaps he is like the Yom Kippur Jew who exercises restraint to achieve the freedom to be focused on real stuff(4)). Somehow, the Purim Jew, the one who drinks the wine and engages the world must end up in the same place. For many, the former is easier than the latter. The goal however remains the same; complete connectedness with the source of all truth, the prize of every servant of God.

Read Rambam carefully and it is clear that this goal only comes with control. (It is this focus on self mastery that dominates the writings of the classical baalei mussar) The dispute then is one of means, i.e. how does one achieve that total self-control. Disengage from the material or engage and conquer. Do I eat the cake, but only one piece or do I stay away completely. Both require incredible discipline.

One final thought: In our opulent land, many desire to give our children everything. (I am thinking of a student who drives to school in an open topped red brand-new convertible) In so doing, we might just be crippling their ability to express values by choosing and controlling. By giving them all, we might just be denying them the crown of ultimate freedom.

We wish everyone a gutten Shabbat wonderful taste of Torah freedom,

Asher Brander


1. In Hirschian terms, he is like a kohen ensconced in constant service, and just as the kohen may not be intoxicated during his service so too the nazir. (What to do with the hair is a different topic.)

2. Cf Kli Yakar and Netziv who point out that the simple meaning of the text is the sin of defilement incurred during the Nazirite period by ritual defilement.

3. Note the distinction between overcoming food addiction (year or two) vs. alcohol (a long time)

4. Thus, it is not a coincidence that all slaves are liberated on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year – for Yom Kippur serves as a paradigm of freedom.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.