Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Naso
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Nasso: How the Rambam Views Nazirism


5 Sivan 5783
How would we react if someone would tell us he wants to add prohibitions to those already included in the Torah, because he is simply more righteous than most people? Would we look kindly upon these aspirations for holiness?

It appears that this is the puzzling question we face when we come to study the Nazir and his status in the Torah – a fascinating topic found in this week's Torah portion of Naso. Even the Biblical verses themselves on this matter appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, the Nazirite - he who wishes to forbid himself to wine and haircuts - is called a "holy person" (Bamidbar 6,5), while on the other hand, he must bring a sin-offering when he completes his term of Nazirut (6,11), just like a regular sinner. How are we to relate to this duality?

The Ramban (Nachmanides), in his commentary to the Torah, states that a Nazirite is on a high spiritual level, and that he brings a sin-offering only at the end of the Nazirut period, when he drops back down to a lower level. The Rambam (Maimonides), however, in Chapter 4 of Shmoneh Prakim, indicates that to be a Nazirite is not something one should ideally do, and might even be sinful. He quotes a Rabbinic statement that the very fact that he withdrew himself from wine is a sin. This approach can be supported by other Rabbinic sources. The Talmud (Taanit 11a), for instance, says: "One who fasts is considered a sinner. How do we know? Because if one who refrains only from wine is called a sinner, how much more so is this true for one who refrains from all food?"

Another source along these lines is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9,5): "Are the Torah's prohibitions not sufficient, that you must prohibit other things as well?" 

It is based on these and other sources that the Rambam constructed his basic approach known as the "Golden Path." That is, one must seek to find a balanced approach in fulfilling the Torah's commandments and improving one's character; extremism is unacceptable. He thus writes (Laws of Deot 3): "One should not say that since jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of personal honor are bad traits that remove one from the world, he will therefore go to the other extreme and be totally devoid of these traits – for this is also a bad approach, and one must not take this path; if he does, he is called a sinner."

But on the other hand, the Rambam himself takes a positive approach towards the Nazir in his Guide to the Perplexed, likening him even to the High Priest: "The idea of Nazirism… the renunciation of wine… such a person is called 'holy,' and is placed on the level of the High Priest in sanctity, to the point that the Nazir may not come in contact with even his own parents' corpses, just like the High Priest."

And in the Laws of Nazir the Rambam writes: "One who becomes a Nazir… this is a path of sanctity, and is praiseworthy, and for all this he is called… holy unto G-d, and the Scriptures liken him to a prophet…"

As such, the following question arises: How can the Rambam say both that the Nazir is like a High Priest and prophet, and also that he is doing something against the Torah?

The Sefer HaChinukh relates to the complexity evident in the status of the Nazirite. He agrees with the Rambam's words in his Guide that one acquires a high level by taking upon himself the status of a Nazir – but adds that this is only on condition that he does not thereby repress his life forces: "This is the sanctity and virtue of the Nazir, leaving materialism and breaking his lusts in that which is not total destruction - [and then] his intellect will be strengthened, his ways will be enlightened, and G-d's glory will dwell upon him, and the intention of Creation will be fulfilled through him."

The Chinukh then explains why the Nazir must bring a sin-offering. He says we must distinguish between the positive aspects of Nazirism and the damage to which it could potentially lead: "Do not catch me on [this seeming contradiction regarding the sin-offering], for it is appropriate to bring an atonement sacrifice because he may have overstepped the boundaries regarding his body and soul."

Thus, according to the Chinukh, the state of Nazirism is a mixed blessing: On the one hand, it helps one focus on the important things in life, but on the other hand, it presents the danger that it may detract from his joy of life and burden him beyond his abilities.

In this way it is also possible to reconcile the Rambam's words as well. The positive side of Nazirut, which the Rambam emphasized, lies in the strengthening of one's spiritual aspects, while his reservations about being a Nazir concern the lessening of one's joy and vitality, which, even if only minimal, requires atonement.

We might also be able to explain the Rambam's apparent dual approach to Nazirite in a different manner. The Rambam views the drinking of wine, forbidden to the Nazir, as a symbol of an individual's overriding lust for physical pleasures – and which is then liable to overtake all of society. He describes this situation as one in which the "evil ones" are "awash with eating and drinking and immorality."

The antidote to this deterioration into the material and the exclusive pursuit of lusts is: Nazirism to G-d. This is where the Nazir directs his compass of values to that which is true and purposeful. This is why the Rambam writes that Nazirut comes not only to protect one from sinning, but also in order to redirect one's goals and direction.

When a person becomes a Nazir and changes direction in this fashion and becomes focused on aspirations of holiness, this is very similar to the unique status of a Prophet. As the Rambam writes: "The prophet becomes increasingly holy, separating from the ways of the rest of those who take the path of the darkness of the times… His mind is constantly directed upwards, bound beneath the Divine throne to comprehend the holy and pure forms…"

There are things in life that influence one's deepest desires, causing him to shape his personality differently. The Rambam holds that Nazirut touches a person at this very deep point, and turns him into a different person than he would have been: "The Nazir becomes more sanctified, separate from the masses who walk in the darkness of the time, and he motivates himself and learns… The Divine Spirit then dwells upon him… He becomes a different person, above even the other wise men, as written about [King] Saul: 'You shall prophecy with them and you will become a different man' (Samuel I 10,6)."

According to these words of the Rambam, it can likely be said that his reservations about being a Nazir stem from the 'desist from evil' aspects of Nazirut, which involve withdrawing from the pleasures of the world in order not to sin – but which can also harm one's life balance. But the Rambam's praise of Nazirut are directed at its positive aspects of 'do good' – the attainment of high intellectual achievements and of spiritual self-fulfillment, as he wrote regarding prophets.

translated by Hillel Fendel

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