(Gerbrand van den Eeckhout/Wikimedia)
Hannah brings Samson to Eli

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

The word “nazirite” comes from the Hebrew “nazir,” meaning “consecrated” or “separated.” Jewish law has a rich tradition on the life and laws of the nazirite.

A nazirite is one who voluntarily takes the vow described in Numbers 6:1–21. The word “nazirite” comes from the Hebrew “nazir,” meaning “consecrated” or “separated.” This nazirite vow required a man or woman to abstain from wine and grapes, including raisins. A nazirite was also forbidden to cut his hair or to become ritually impure by contact with a corpse or graves, even those of family members.

After living the nazirite lifestyle for a designated period of time (which would be specified in the individual’s vow), the person would immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) and make three offerings: a lamb, an ewe and a ram. Grain offerings were brought as well. The nazarite would then shave his head in the outer courtyard of the Temple and place the hair on the same fire as the peace offering.

Jewish law has a rich tradition on the life and laws of the nazirite. These laws were first recorded in the Talmud, which devotes an entire tractate to the issue. They were later codified by Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah. From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism these laws are not a historical curiosity, but can –theoretically- be practiced even today. A person can become a nazirite whether or not the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. However, since there is currently no Temple in Jerusalem to annul the vow and offer the required sacrifices, any nazirite vow would have to be permanent. As such, modern rabbinical authorities strongly discourage the practice to the point where it is almost unheard of today.


A Nazirite is prohibited from drinking wine, among other restrictions. (flickr)

If a nazirite fails in fulfilling his obligations there may be consequences.  In some situations, all or part of the person’s time as a nazirite may need to be repeated – it would depend on which part of the nazirite vow was transgressed. For example, a nazirite who becomes defiled by a corpse is obligated to start the entire nazirite period over again. Furthermore, the person may be obligated to bring additional sacrifices to atone for the violation. In the Mishna, Queen Helena vowed to be a nazirite for seven years, but became defiled near the end, forcing her to start over! She was a nazirite for a total of 21 years. Nazirites who cut their hair are obligated to observe an additional 30 days of the nazirite period. However, if the nazirite drinks wine, the nazirite period continues as normal, although he or she committed a very severe transgression.

A man or woman can only become a nazirite by an intentional verbal declaration. This declaration can be in any language, and can be something as meager as saying “me too” as a nazirite passes by. A person can specify the duration of the nazirite vow as any period of thirty days or more. If a person does not specify, or specifies a time less than 30 days, the vow is automatically for 30 days.  A person who says “I am a nazirite forever” or “I am a nazirite for all my life” is indeed a permanent nazirite. Likewise if a person says “I am a nazirite like Samson,” the laws of a Samson-like nazirite apply. Although a parent can declare his child a nazirite, the child has a right to reject this status.

Most Famous Examples: Samson and Samuel

Two good examples of nazirites in the Bible are Samson (Judges 13:5), and Samuel (Samuel 1:11). Both were born of previously barren mothers and both became nazirites through their mothers’ oaths rather than their own volition. In the first case, God sent an angel to inform the mother of her not-yet-conceived son as follows:

“And the woman came and said to her husband, saying, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of an angel of God, very awesome; and I did not ask him from where he was and his name he did not tell me.

“And he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son; and now do not drink wine and strong drink, and do not eat any unclean (thing), for a nazirite to God shall the lad be, from the womb until the day of his death.”

In the second case, the mother (Hannah) made the nazirite vow before her son Samuel was even conceived, as she was barren. These vows required Samson and Samuel to live devout lives, yet in return they received extraordinary gifts: Samson possessed remarkable strength and ability in physical battle against the Philistines, while Samuel became an esteemed prophet.