What Is a Nazir?

The nazir (nazirite) is a person who decided to take upon him or herself a vow to live a strict and holy lifestyle. Chief among the nazirite laws is that the nazir is not allowed to drink wine, cut one’s hair, or come into close contact with the dead. The nazir would end her or his term by bringing a sin offering to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, during that era.

The Nazir in the Bible

We read in Numbers 6:

… A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of the L‑rd. He shall abstain from new wine and aged wine; he shall not drink [even] vinegar made from new wine or aged wine, nor shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, 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, from seeds to skins.

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 L‑rd, 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 L‑rd, 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 his G‑d is upon his head. For the entire duration of his abstinence, he is holy to the L‑rd.

If someone in his presence dies unexpectedly or suddenly, and causes the nazirite head to become defiled, he shall shave off [the hair of] his head on the day of his purification; on the seventh day, he shall shave it off. And on the eighth day, he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the kohen, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The kohen shall prepare one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering and atone on his behalf for sinning by coming into contact with the dead, and he shall sanctify his head on that day. He shall consecrate to the L‑rd the period of his abstinence and bring a lamb in its first year as a guilt offering; the previous days shall be canceled because his naziriteship has been defiled.

The Torah then enumerates the specific offerings and rites that are associated with the end of the nazirite’s period of consecration.This includes shaving his or her hair and placing it on the pyre, upon which his offerings were burnt on the altar in the Holy Temple.

Read the entire chapter in Hebrew and English with Rashi’s commentary.

What Does “Nazir” Mean?

The word nazir means to “separate,” which makes perfect sense considering that the nazir separates himself from worldly pleasures and the trivial pursuits of society.1 At the same time, the same Hebrew letters can also be read as neizer, which means “crown.” Indeed this is alluded to in scripture itself, which states that he may not come in contact with the dead for the “nezer [crown] of his G‑d is upon his head.”2

How Does the Nazirite Vow Work?

Generally speaking, the nazir undertakes a vow of abstinence for a specific amount of time. If he or she did not specify, it is assumed that the period lasts for 30 days.

Male or female Jews can become nazirites, but non-Jews cannot.

The nazirite vows apply in all times. If a person were to take a nazirite vow in the present era, he must observe it forever because we do not currently have a Temple to offer sacrifices when the vow is concluded.

The nazirite laws are only observed in the Holy Land, and one who takes the vow in the diaspora is compelled to move to Israel to observe the naziriteship there.

The nazirite is forbidden to consume an olive-sized portion of grape-product or drink a reviit (liquid measure) of wine. As an extra precaution, the sages even forbid the nazir to go near a vineyard or sit among drinkers. However, alcoholic beverages from other substances are permitted.

The nazirite should be careful not to pluck-out or cut-off even a single hair. Neither should she or he brush with anything that is likely to remove even a strand of hair. It is, however, acceptable to rub or scratch one’s head. If the majority of the hair was removed, the nazirite must wait until the hair grows back (30 days) and then observe the remainder of the nazirite term.

The laws of the nazir are recorded in the Talmudic tractate Nazir and codified by Maimonides in the Laws of Nezirut.

Famous Nazirites

Samson was a mighty Jewish leader who waged wars against the Philistines, the Jews’ arch-enemies. Before he was born, an angel of G‑d told his parents that they would have a special child and should let his hair grow; his superhuman strength derived from his long hair. His mother was also cautioned not to drink wine or eat anything that was impure during her pregnancy. Ultimately Samson’s wife, Delilah, betrayed his secret to the Philistines and they managed to overcome him. Samson died in a building full of Philistines, but not before he managed to crumble the entire building.

Read more about Samson and Delilah

Samuel, the great prophet and leader of the Jewish people, was a nazirite from birth. His mother, Chanah, had not initially been blessed with children and prayed with all her heart at the Tabernacle that she give birth to a son, saying, “If You will give Your bondswoman a man-child, and I shall give him to the L‑rd all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” Samuel went on to lead the people of Israel for the rest of his life, appointing King Saul and then King David to lead after him.

Read more about Samuel the Prophet

Today, without a Temple (may it be rebuilt speedily), there is no way for a nazirite to end a period of nazirhood, and it is therefore very rare for anyone to take the vows of the nazir. However, there have been notable exceptions. One was Rabbi David Cohen (1884-1972), known as the Nazir of Jerusalem. The scion of a rabbinical family with roots in the Kopust branch of the Chabad movement, he was a Talmudist, Kabbalist, and philosopher, with a unique worldview, much of which has been recorded in his prolific writings.

The Rabbinic Approach to the Nazir

Is it good or bad to become a nazir? On the one hand it seems to be a holy path that is rooted in the Torah. On the other hand, the nazir offers a sin offering at the end of the nazirite term, implying that the entire exercise had been a sin.

It depends on the intent.

Maimonides3 states: “Our sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things by vows and oaths. Thus our sages4 rhetorically asked: ‘Are not the things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you? [Why] must you add further prohibitions?’ ”

However, if a person sees that he or she is excessively vain or indulgent, a vow of abstinence may have a proper place in that person’s service of G‑d. Consider the following story:5

Rabbi Shimon the Just would rarely partake of the sacrifices of a nazirite. Once, however, he saw a particularly handsome young man who had taken a nazirite vow. He asked him why he had done so and the young man explained that due to his good looks (which he became aware of when he saw his reflection in a well), he was being tempted by his evil inclination. To rise above the temptation, he took the nazirite vow. Rabbi Shimon praised him for his actions.

Thus it seems that the nazirite is a holy calling—rising above the mundane by observing a meticulous lifestyle—but it is not right for everybody. For if G‑d willed it, He would have created a world with no wine and no temptations. Rather, He wants us to live within His world and uncover the wonder and meaning that He embedded within it.

Read more: Two Versions of Moral Life