Parashat Nasso introduces us to the nazir, a person who vows to take upon him or herself additional commitments so as to draw closer to God. A nazir vows not to drink wine or eat grapes, not to shave or get a haircut, and not to come into contact with the dead. An entire tractate of the Talmud is about the laws governing the nazir, which is surprising – why devote all this attention to a person engaged in self-denial within a tradition that is anything but ascetic? What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the nature of holiness, commitment, and our enjoyment of worldly pleasures?
In discussing the laws of the nazir, our parashah teaches that a nazir may not defile him/herself by a dead person, “even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die” (6:7). That is, the vow taken by the nazir is so strict that even if one of the nazir’s closest relatives were to die, he or she is not permitted to come near the body or attend the burial. To do so would violate the terms of the vow, and the nazir would have to bring a sin offering and a burnt offering to the Temple and start out as a nazir all over again. This stringency is surprising because even the priests—who were not ordinarily permitted to come into contact with the dead—were permitted to defile themselves for the sake of their close relatives. The priests serve in the Temple and are devoted to holy matters year-round, whereas a nazir is just someone who decides to undergo a period of more intense religiosity. Why then are the laws governing the nazir even stricter than those governing the priests?
The Talmud considers the relationship between the nazir and the priesthood in the opening mishnah of the seventh chapter of the eponymous tractate (Nazir 47a), which is about the prohibition on coming into contact with the dead. They explain that while the nazir may not defile him or herself by contact with the dead even in the case of the death of a close relative, there is one case in which a nazir may attend to a dead body. This is the case of a met mitzvah, an individual who has passed away leaving no one to take care of his or her burial. That is, if a nazir stumbles upon the dead body of an unknown individual, that nazir is obligated to violate the terms of his or her vow so as to perform the burial. The rabbis rule that if a priest and a nazir both come upon a met mitzvah, it is in fact the nazir—and not the priest—who should care for the corpse. And yet this, too, is puzzling. Why may the nazir defile him or herself for the sake of an anonymous individual but not for his or her own family member? And why is the opposite true of the priest, who may defile himself for his own family member but not for the met mitzvah?
We can begin to answer these questions by considering the specific requirements of the nazir’s vow. For the duration of that vow, the nazir may not get a haircut or shave. The Torah states that the nazir has “the crown of God on his head” (6:7), presumably because his or her hair is grown long and consecrated to God. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:11) explains that most people are uncomfortable with long and unruly hair, but the nazir tolerates it as a sign of commitment to God. As such, a head of long, ungroomed hair becomes a sign of the nazir’s willingness to neglect his or her own physical appearance for the sake of a spiritual commitment. Similarly, the nazir’s vow to abstain from wine and grape products reflects a readiness to suppress his or her own appetites and desires for the sake of a higher end. And finally, the nazir does not even attend the funeral of close relatives, a sign that he or she has withdrawn from the world of human emotions. While the rest of the family is mourning at the graveside, the nazir remains off at a distance, fixated on his or her own holiness and relationship with God.
In neglecting his or her physical appearance, suppressing his or her appetites, and shutting down his or her emotions, the nazir becomes a sort of religious automaton, single-mindedly focused on the spiritual and unwilling to allow any intrusions by the messiness of the mundane. Grooming? Grape juice? Grieving? The nazir has no use for any of it. In this sense, the nazir is the opposite of the priest, who is very much preoccupied with human emotion and the messiness of real life. The priests spend their days among people – they tend to lepers, listen to confessions, and help individuals atone for sin. Their work is never anonymous, which is why they are unsuited to bury the met mitzvah. This is the perfect job for the nazir – it is a religious obligation that should be devoid of any emotional involvement because the identity of the met mitzvah is by definition unknown. Like a robot programmed for the task, the nazir is better able to go through the motions of purifying the body and ensuring that the burial proceeds in accordance with halakhah.
In comparing the nazir and the priests, the rabbis of the Mishnah (Nazir 7:1) note that whereas the priest is sanctified to God forever, the nazir assumes this status for a limited time only. If a person vows to be a nazir, then we assume by default that the commitment lasts thirty days, at which point the nazir is obligated to get a haircut and bring sacrifices to the Temple. One of those sacrifices is a sin offering, and in the Talmud (Nazir 19a), Rabbi Elazar HaKappar explains that the nazir sinned by abstaining from wine, since God wants people to enjoy the delights of this world. Perhaps the rabbis recognized that people cannot sustain that kind of single-minded spirituality forever, nor would we want them too. We are expected to experience the pleasure and pain of life, and not to neglect our bodies, suppress our appetites, or repress our emotions.
Self-denial remains, to this day, a tempting prospect for many. Some are drawn to monastic retreats; others are lured by juice fasts and restrictive diets. The nazir serves as a reminder not to take our asceticism too far. We are not meant to live above the world, but in it. At some point we have to come back from the monastery and sit down to break bread or raise a glass of wine with our closest family members, rejoining the very messy world of which we are fortunate to be a part.