Abstain from wine

A Nazirite is a man or a woman who decides to withdraw from certain worldly pleasures in order to live a slightly ascetic life.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Nasso” (not to be confused with the space agency of a similar name!), and in it we read about the mysterious Nazirite. The word “Nazirite” comes from the Hebrew word “Nazir,” which means “consecrated” or “separated.” The word Nazirite can also be read as “Nezer,” meaning  “crown.” Indeed, this is alluded to in the verse itself where it says that for “nezer [crown] of his God is upon his head.”

A Nazirite is someone who decides to withdraw from some worldly pleasures to live a slightly ascetic life. As the Torah says (Numbers 6:1-21):

“A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow…will abstain from wine or grape juice…and he shall eat neither fresh grapes nor dried ones. For the entire duration of his abstinence, he shall not eat any product of the grape vine… All the days of his vow of abstinence, no razor shall pass over his head; until the completion of the term that he abstains for the sake of the Lord, it shall be sacred, and he shall allow the growth of the hair of his head to grow wild.

“All the days that he abstains for the Lord, he shall not come into contact with the dead. To his father, to his mother, to his brother, or to his sister, he shall not defile himself if they die, for the crown of God is upon his head. For the entire duration of his abstinence, he is holy to the Lord.”

As one can see, grapes and grape products are a major prohibition; there are no barbershop visits and no attending funerals. Both men and women can become Nazirites.

After following the Nazirite restrictions for whatever time period the individual had set for himself, the manner to formally leave the Nazirite status and return to “civilian life” was as follows: The person would immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) and make three offerings: a lamb as a burnt offering, a sheep as a sin offering, and a ram as a peace offering. The Nazirite would cut his hair in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. The hair would then be burned on the altar.

The question is famously asked and discussed by commentators throughout the ages: If the Nazirite is described as being “holy unto God,” why would he need to bring a sin offering in order to end the Nazirite vow? Is becoming a Nazirite commendable or condemnable? Holy…yet a “sin offering?”

Judaism does not encourage asceticism. In fact, the reverse is true: We believe in using all the pleasures of this world in the service of God. This position is emphasized in Chasidic writings based partly on the commandment to “serve God with joy” (Deut. 28:47). Yet some individuals were indeed praised for their asceticism. So why is that?

As a general rule, we should all enjoy the pleasures of this world in moderation, but everyone is different. Some people need certain pleasures more often than others. Some can suffice with meat once a week, others feel they are making a sacrifice if they eat meat only once a day. And that’s OK. But there are also people who need to keep away from pleasures, such as fattening food, because they know that their self control isn’t as good as it should be. Here is where the Nazirite idea comes in.

Some people look for a permitted and even praiseworthy manner to restrict even that which is permitted. This is an act of holiness. This is a person seeking a connection to God while knowing their weaknesses and limitations and looking to channel them. For some people, withdrawing from the world allows them to infuse their everyday experience with sanctity and elevation.

So becoming a Nazirite isn’t for everyone, and indeed, it is even frowned upon. But for those who are not afraid to come face to face with their weaknesses and who want to change and improve – they are holy!

This is an important lesson for us. We need to strive to live upright and sanctified lives. But we all have our weaknesses in different areas. For some people it is food, for others it is alcohol, and for yet others it could be a financial addiction. However, God doesn’t want us running away from our weaknesses, He wants us to acknowledge them, work on them and sanctify them!

Do not be afraid to acknowledge your weakness. We must take the Nazirite “attitude” to distance ourselves from our weaknesses, work on them, and seek help. By doing so, we sanctify every step of our path to change and growth and become “holy unto God.”

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.