A Head Full of Holiness
In Parshat Naso we are introduced to a new type of individual, a person who is not satisfied with the multitude of other commandments and prohibitions which all Jews are commanded; instead he/she looks for further limitation, with a vow becoming a Nazir.
And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves for God; he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, nor shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is produced from the grape vine, from the seeds to the grape skin. All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled, during which he separates himself for God, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. All the days that he separates himself for God he shall not come near a dead body. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because the consecration of his God is upon his head. (Bamidbar 6:1-7)
In his commentary on these verses, the Recanati observes that the holiness which the Nazir accepts is reminiscent of a Kohen - or even of a Kohen Gadol.1 The wine which he has sworn off is one of the conditions of a Kohen who is on active duty, serving in the Temple.2 The prohibition of defiling himself to the dead is like the Kohen, though in this case it is even more severe than the normal restriction: A regular Kohen is permitted to defile himself if a member of his immediate family passes away, whereas the Nazir is prohibited from doing so even in these circumstances.
INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL HOLINESS
This additional level of prohibition against defilement (tum'ah) may be understood as an indication of the holiness achieved by the Nazir, placing him on a level equal to that of a Kohen Gadol. Yet the commentaries offer a more technical explanation: A regular Kohen achieves his holiness from his bloodline; had his father not been a Kohen - neither would he. Had his mother not possessed the requirements necessary to marry a Kohen, he - her son - would not be a Kohen. However the Kohen Gadol achieves his higher level of holiness due to external factors: He is chosen for this exalted task, not as an automatic result of his bloodline. He therefore cannot defile himself for family.3 Likewise, the Nazir's status is based on a vow, and is independent of his family line and his parents' level of holiness; hence, he may not defile himself even for his parents.4
The third aspect of the Nazir's "holiness" manifests itself in the proscription against cutting his hair. This stands in stark contrast to the law of the Kohen, and of the Kohen Gadol. A person whose hair is long is not permitted to function as a Kohen, and a Kohen Gadol must always see to it that his hair is not wild. In fact, the length of hair prohibited to the Kohen is derived from the minimum length that a Nazir must grow his hair: 30 days' growth.5
Why is it specifically regarding the Nazir's hair that we find a deviation from the laws of the Kohen? The Torah contains a precedent regarding wild hair - in the section immediately preceding the discussion of Nazir, where the Torah describes the ordeal endured by the Sotah: A woman is known to have secluded herself with a man other than her husband, a man her husband specifically asked her not to be alone with. While she denies infidelity and claims virtue, the circumstantial evidence is damning. The Torah introduces a rite that will prove her innocence - or guilt.
This woman, who is guilty of poor judgment at least insofar as her choice to place herself in this compromising situation, is brought to the Beit Hamikdash. Her hair is uncovered - literally, "made wild":
And the Kohen shall set the woman before God, and loosen the hair of the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the Kohen shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse. (Bamidbar 5:18)
Rashi defines the word para as 'to make wild': her hair should be released, her braids undone.6 This is the same word (see Bamidbar 6:5 cited above) used to describe the Nazir, and what happens when he refrains from cutting his hair. This linguistic connection strengthens the textual bond created by the proximity of these two sections, a connection amplified by the rabbinic tradition that delves into the psychology of the Nazir: The reason a person takes such stringency upon themselves, the impetus for becoming a Nazir, is the trauma of the Sotah ritual. A bystander or witness to the Sotah's disgrace would not be left untouched by the entire scenario. Having witnessed a Sotah in her moment of embarrassment, any man or woman might be led to seek out a spiritual remedy. This tradition is recorded by Rashi:
Why is the section of Nazir placed next to Sotah, to tell you that whoever sees a Sotah in her disgrace should take upon himself to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery. (Rashi Bamidbar 6:2)
Rashi traces the scenario back to its roots cause: Wine causes confusion7; when intoxicated, one's judgment is impaired. This woman displayed poor judgment by secluding herself with a man -not just any man, but specifically one whom her husband didn't trust - and has thus caused damage to her relationship with her husband. She is sent to the Kohen, who is himself prohibited from having any wine when he performs the service in the Beit Hamikdash. Meanwhile the "innocent" onlooker witnesses the disgrace, sees how the delicate balance between spiritual and physical is upset by wanton desire, and makes a gesture in the opposite direction. He swears off wine, and grows his own hair. Simply stated, the laws of the Nazir combine the laws of the Kohen with a reaction to the disgrace of the Sotah.
The Talmud regards the Nazir's vow of asceticism as a concession, a necessary though drastic measure undertaken by the onlooker who attempts to regain his own equilibrium. Even an outsider, an innocent bystander, is affected and impacted by witnessing the sexually charged situation. The Torah laws surrounding the Nazir bear out this attitude: While on the one hand the Torah condones this method of spiritual healing (for a period of thirty days), the Nazir concludes this process by bringing a sin offering, penance for the legitimate pleasure that could have been enjoyed but was voluntarily forfeited.8
The complex set of reactions and attitudes of the Nazir to sin may help explain a very difficult relationship recorded in the Prophets. King David was the first anointed king, the founder of the Davidic dynasty. Clearly, David would have preferred to choose the son who would rule after him, and would certainly have expected the succession to take place only after his own passing. Yet one of his sons, Avshalom, declared himself king - regardless of the fact that his father, King David, was still quite alive at the time. Avshalom's rebellion began when his half-brother Amnon (they shared a father, but had different mothers) developed an obsession for his own half sister: the beautiful Tamar, Avshalom's full sister. Amnon plotted until he was secluded with his sister and then took her by force.
And it came to pass after this, that Avshalom the son of David had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. And Amnon was so tormented, that he fell sick for his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin; and Amnon thought it hard for him to do anything to her. So Amnon lay down, and feigned to be sick; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, I beg you, let Tamar my sister come, and make me a couple of cakes in my sight, that I may eat of her hand. And when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, Come lie with me, my sister. But he would not listen to her voice; but, being stronger than she, forced her, and lay with her. (Shmuel II 13:1-2,6,11,14)
When Avshalom found out he plotted what he thought to be the proper revenge - and saw to it that Amnon would die. Soon after, Avshalom declared himself king.
According to the Talmud, Avshalom (and Tamar) were children of a relationship which David had with a woman captured in battle - a beautiful captive (Yefat Toar).9
The Talmud teaches that the permissibility of taking such captives in war is a concession to man's frailty, a compromise with the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination).
"Of beautiful countenance": The Torah only provided for human passions: it is better for Israel to eat flesh of [animals] about to die, yet [ritually] slaughtered, than flesh of dying animals which have perished. (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 21b)
Avshalom, as the product of such a union, may have drawn a mental and moral line connecting Amnon's despicable behavior back to its roots in their father's libidinous behavior.10 Whether this idea was fully formed in his mind or not, we can never know; what we do know is that he decided to usurp the kingdom from his father after this episode. Presumably, he felt he had found a more deserving occupant for the throne - himself.
There is another aspect of Avshalom's personal story recorded in rabbinic tradition: Avshalom was a Nazir.
Rabbi said that Avshalom was a life-nazirite, for it says, And it came to pass at the end of forty years that Avshalom said to the king: 'I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow which I have vowed to God in Hevron.' He used to cut his hair every twelve months… R. Nehorai said: [Avshalom] used to cut his hair every thirty days. R. Jose said: He used to cut it on the eve of each Sabbath, for princes usually got haircuts on the eve of each Sabbath. (Talmud Bavli Nazir 4b-5a)
Perhaps this was his response to the corrupt world he saw around him. His personal response to the Yetzer Hara was to become a Nazir. Perhaps he convinced himself that asceticism would safeguard him from sin. But the battle against the Yetzer Hara is tricky: The opponent wears many different masks and costumes. Confidence of victory on this battlefield is almost a sure sign of defeat.
Ironically, it was Avshalom's hair that brought about his demise:
And Avshalom met the servants of David. And Avshalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the sky and the earth; and the mule that was under him walked on. (Shmuel II 18:9)
Not only was it his hair which brought his demise, the Talmud teaches that the rebellion was through his hair:
But in all Israel there was none so much praised as Avshalom for his beauty; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. And when he shaved his head, for it was at every year's end that he shaved it; because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he shaved it; he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels according to the king's weight. (Shmuel II 14:25-26)
AVSHALOM GLORIED IN HIS HAIR etc. Our Rabbis have taught: Avshalom rebelled [against his father] through his hair, as it is said: There was none to be so much praised as Avshalom for his beauty . . . And when he cut his hair, at every year's end that he cut it because the hair was heavy on him. Therefore he cut it, and he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels, in the king's weight. It has been taught that [the king's weight] was the weight with which the men of Tiberias and Sepphoris weigh. Therefore he was hanged by his hair, as it is said: And Avshalom chanced to meet the servants of David. And Avshalom rode upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth, and the mule that was under him walked on. He took a sword and wished to cut himself loose. (Talmud Bavli Sotah 10b)
Avshalom felt that his hair, the hair of a Nazir, "weighed" more than his father the king. His sense of superiority, of entitlement, was born of this self- righteousness. He took pride in his own virtue, his Nazirite vows of chastity and abstinence. He saw himself as clearly superior to David, for he, Avshalom, would not be tempted by beauty, he would not succumb to lust as David (and Amnon) had. He would sooner cut off his flowing Nazirite locks and dedicate them to God.
But Amnon's Yetzer Hara took a different form; his own personal Evil Inclination focused on a different weakness: obsession for power. Soon enough, his desire for power led him to commit an act that even he - especially he - should have seen as immoral.11
And Ahithophel said to Avshalom, 'Go in to your father's concubines, whom he has left to keep the house; and all Israel shall hear that you have made yourself odious to your father; then shall the hands of all who are with you be strengthened.' So they spread Avshalom a tent upon the top of the house; and Avshalom went in to his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel. Shmuel II 16:21-22
Avshalom's lapse in judgment did not play out in seclusion, like the Sotah suspected of infidelity; his folly was placed on display, in broad daylight, demonstratively - "in the sight of all of Israel". He thought that being a Nazir protected him. He believed himself to be more righteous than his father. In the end, the very hair that symbolized his "holiness" betrayed him, just as he had betrayed his own vows of purity, and as he had betrayed his father.
THE FIRST NAZIR
The first time the word Nazir appears in the Torah is in connection with Yosef. It is part of a glorious blessing which Yaakov bestows upon his beloved son:
Yosef is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a wellspring; whose branches run over the wall. The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Yaakov; from there is the shepherd, the Stone of Israel. By the God of your father, who shall help you; and by the Almighty, who shall bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. The blessings of your father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Yosef, and on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers (literally," Nazir of his brothers"). Bereishit 49:22-26
The use of the word Nazir in this context is unclear. The Rashbam relates it to the word nezer - crown, for Yosef ruled over the others. In Yosef's dreams, he saw his father bowing down to him; perhaps Yosef, too, suffered from the sense of superiority and entitlement we saw in Avshalom? Perhaps Yosef, like Avshalom, would be guilty of usurping his father's place? The brothers hated him for his dreams, suspected him of this very same sense of superiority; even his father was unsure, reserving judgment about his youngest son's attitude. What they all failed to understand was that Yosef would indeed rule, but not at the expense of his father or his family. Yosef would rule the mighty Egyptian empire.
The Talmud understands Yaakov's blessing more literally: Yosef was a Nazir.
R. Melai also said in the name of R. Isaac of Magdala: From the day that Yosef departed from his brothers he did not taste wine, for it is written, "[The blessings of thy father ... shall be on the head of Yosef], and on the crown of the head of him who was a nazirite [since his departure] from his brothers." (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 139a)
There are other details of Yosef's path to greatness that are bringus to an examination of Yosef as a Nazir. Most interesting is the incident in the House of Potiphar whichthat led to Yosef's incarceration. Yosef found himself secluded with a woman who had every intention to commit adultery with him.
And he left all that he had in Yosef's hand; and he knew not what he had, save for the bread which he ate. And Yosef was handsome and good looking. And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Yosef; and she said, Lie with me. But he refused, and said to his master's wife, Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is none greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? And it came to pass, as she spoke to Yosef day by day, that he listened not to her, to lie by her, or to be with her. And it came to pass about this time, that Yosef went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there inside. And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me; and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and had fled out. (Bereishit 39:6-13)
Yosef, like Avshalom, was good looking; ultimately, this caused his troubles and led to his incarceration. Yosef found himself in a situation fraught with sexual energy, at the verge of the abyss of moral decay: He was the object of the desire of a married woman, and indeed he entered her home and was secluded with her. But Yosef's purity remained untainted. He emerged victorious. Yosef responded to this situation by becoming the first Nazir, voluntarily abstaining from certain pleasures that had not been forbidden to him. He himself did not see the path that this would take him; he had no ulterior motives, seeking only to remain pure and true to God. He did not demand greatness or reward for his heroic behavior; he ended up in a cell, together with political prisoners. He did not see how his escape from Potifar's wife would one day lead him to the Palace. Like Avshalom, Yosef was a Nazir - and he did, in fact, rule in Ya'akov's lifetime. Unlike Avshalom, Yosef did not feel entitled because of his beauty, his virtue, his abstinence. Yosef is known for eternity as Yosef the Tzadik, Yosef the Righteous; Avshalom is remembered in infamy.
Yosef is the prototypical Nazir: The true Nazir should not feel entitled; he should see his chosen path as a necessary step in his personal battle against the Yetzer Hara. When his oath is fulfilled, the Nazir brings a sin offering, to atone for the very necessity of this path, for having been so profoundly impacted by the Yetzer Hara.
Many years later another Tzaddik came across a Nazir:
For it was taught: Shimon the Tzaddik said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the trespass-offering brought by a defiled Nazir. On one occasion a Nazir came from the South country, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. Said I to him: 'My son, what [reason] did you see to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?' He replied: 'I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said unto it [my lust]: "Wretch! why do you vaunt yourself in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave off [this beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven." Immediately [Rabbi Shimon] arose and kissed his head, saying: 'My son, may there be many Nazirites such as you in Israel! Of you the Holy Torah says, 'When either a man or a woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves unto God.' (Talmud Bavli Nedarim 9b)
Recognizing the Yetzer Hara as his enemy, this Nazir sets off to battle, and removes the object of his own pride. Seeing his own reflection jarred him into this new awareness, and with the very act that breaks the Nazir's vow, he became a Nazir.
One of the great Kabbalists of the middle ages, Rav Menachem Azarya DeFano, adds an interesting postscript to this passage. He says that this Nazir fixed the blemish in the soul of Avshalom. Whereas Avshalom allowed his hair to be the source of his pride, this man used his hair to truly serve God, and subdue his pride.12 This is the challenge of the true servant of God: to identify their own personal Yetzer Hara and wage the battle against it, without any expectation of congratulation or reward but simply in order to overcome the artificial barriers that hinder our closeness to God. Each of us possess the capability to fight and win this war.
1. Commentary of Recanati to Parshat Naso.
2. See Comments of the Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz in his Shnei Luchot Habrit Parshat Naso.
3. There is, however, a preference to appoint a son, or someone who would otherwise inherit the position of Kohen Gadol - if the latter is worthy. See Rambam Laws of Klei Hamikdash 4:20.
4. See Sod Eser Sefirot by Rav Moshe DeLeon.
5. See Rambam Hilchot Biat Hamikdash.
6. See Rashi Bamidbar 5:18.
7. According to the Mishna in Sotah (found in the Talmud Bavli Sotah 7a), this is one of the things said to the suspected woman, in hopes that she admit her guilt.
8. See Rashi Bamidbar 6:11 based on Talmud Bavli Nazir 19a.
9. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a) records this fact in the context of a discussion regarding Tamar, and we know from the Biblical text that she was Avshalom's full sister: Rav Yehuda further said in Rav's name: Tamar was a daughter of a yefat to'ar, as it is written: Now therefore I pray thee, speak unto the King, for he will not withhold me from thee. Now, should you imagine that she was the offspring of a legitimate marriage, how could his sister have been granted him [in marriage]? We must infer therefore, that she was the daughter of a yefat to'ar.
10. See the comments of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin in Yisrael Kedoshim section six, who says that Avshalom hated Amnon for his sexual indiscretions.
11. See the comments of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, ibid.
12. Writings of Menachem Azarya Defano, Sefer Gilgulay Nishamot ot aleph section 20.