In the Hebrew Bible, a nazirite or nazarite is one who voluntarily took a vow described in Numbers 6:1–21. "Nazarite" comes from the Hebrew word נזיר nazir meaning "consecrated" or "separated". This vow required the person to:
- Abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, intoxicating liquors, vinegar made from such substances, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes.
- Refrain from cutting the hair on one's head; but to allow the locks of the head's hair to grow.
- Not to become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.
After following these requirements for a designated interval (which would be specified in the individual's vow), the person would immerse in a mikveh and make three offerings: a lamb as a burnt offering (olah), an ewe as a sin-offering (hatat), and a ram as a peace offering (shelamim), in addition to a basket of unleavened bread, grain offerings and drink offerings, which accompanied the peace offering. They would also shave their head in the outer courtyard of the Temple (the Jerusalem Temple) and then place the hair on the same fire as the peace offering. (Numbers 6:18)
The nazirite is described as being "holy unto YHWH" (Numbers 6:8), yet at the same time must bring a sin offering. This has led to divergent approaches to the nazirite in the Talmud, and later authorities, with some viewing the nazirite as an ideal, and others viewing him as a sinner.
Laws of the nazirite
Halakha (Jewish law) has a rich tradition on the laws of the nazirite. These laws were first recorded in the Mishna, and Talmud in tractate Nazir. They were later codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah Hafla'ah, Nazir. From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism these laws are not a historical curiosity but can be practiced even today. However, since there is now no temple in Jerusalem to complete the vow, and any vow would be permanent, modern rabbinical authorities strongly discourage the practice to the point where it is almost unheard of today.
As a vow
All the laws of vows in general apply also to the nazirite vow. As with other vows, a father has the ability to annul the nazirite vow of his young daughter, and a husband has the ability to annul a vow by his wife, when they first hear about it (Numbers 30). Likewise all of the laws related to intent and conditional vows apply also to nazirite vows.
In general there are three types of nazirites:
- A nazirite for a set time
- A permanent nazirite
- A nazirite like Samson
Each one of these has slightly different laws. For example, a permanent nazirite is allowed to cut his hair once a year if the hair is bothersome. A Samson-like nazirite is a permanent nazirite. These types of nazirites have no source in the Bible but are known through tradition.
A person can become a nazirite whether or not the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. However, lacking the temple there is no way to bring the offerings that end the nazirite vow. As such the person would de facto be a permanent nazirite.
Redoing the nazirism
If a nazirite fails in fulfilling these three obligations there may be consequences. All or part of the person's time as a nazirite may need to be repeated. Furthermore, the person may be obligated to bring sacrifices. Whether a nazirite has to repeat time as a nazirite depends on what part of the nazirite vow was transgressed. A nazirite who becomes defiled by a corpse is obligated to start the entire nazirite period over again. In the Mishna, Queen Helena vowed to be a nazirite for seven years, but became defiled near the end of each of two of her first nazirite periods, forcing her to twice start over. She was a nazirite for a total of 21 years. Nazirites who shave their hair are obligated to redo the last 30 days of the nazirite period. However, if the nazirite drinks wine, the nazirite period continues as normal.
Becoming a nazirite
An Israelite (Numbers 6:2) can only become a nazirite by an intentional verbal declaration. This declaration can be in any language, and can be something as simple as saying "me too" as a nazirite passes by. A person can specify the duration as an interval of 30 days or more. If a person does not specify, or specifies a time less than 30 days, the vow is for 30 days. A person who says "I am a nazirite forever" or "I am a nazirite for all my life" is a permanent nazirite and slightly different laws apply. Likewise if a person says "I am a nazirite like Samson," the laws of a Samson-like nazirite apply. However, if a person says that he is a nazirite for a thousand years, he is a regular nazirite. A father, but not a mother, can declare his son, but not his daughter, a nazirite. However the child or any close family member has a right to refuse this status.
Being a nazirite
This vow required the nazirite to observe the following:
- Abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins;
- Refrain from cutting the hair on one's head;
- Avoid corpses and graves, even those of family members, and any structure which contains such.
It is also forbidden for the nazirite to have grape or grape derivatives, even if they are not alcoholic. According to traditional Rabbinic interpretation, there is no prohibition for the nazirite to drink alcoholic beverages not derived from grapes. According to less traditional Rabbinic interpretation, a Nazirite is forbidden to consume any alcohol, and vinegar from such alcohol, regardless of its source. The laws of wine or grapes mixing in other food is similar to other dietary laws that apply to all Jews.
A nazirite can groom his hair with his hand or scratch his head and needn’t be concerned if some hair falls out. However a nazirite cannot comb his hair since it is a near certainty to pull out some hair. A nazirite is not allowed to use a chemical depilatory that will remove hair. A nazirite that recovers from Tzaraath, a skin disease described in Leviticus 14, is obligated to cut his hair despite being a nazirite.
The nazirite (except for a Samson-like nazirite as stated above) may not become ritually impure by proximity to a dead body. Causes include being under the same roof as a corpse. However a nazirite can contract other kinds of ritual impurity. A nazirite that finds an unburied corpse is obligated to bury it, even though he will become defiled in the process.
Ending of the nazirite vow
At the end of the nazirite vow the nazirite brings three sacrificial offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. The first is a ewe for a chatat (sin offering), the second is lamb for an olah (elevation offering), and finally a ram as a shelamim (peace offering) along with a basket of matzah and their grain and drink offerings. After bringing the sacrificial offerings the nazirites would shave their heads in the outer courtyard of the Temple. Part of the Nazir's commencement offering is given to the Kohen. This gift is listed as one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts.
Attitudes toward Nazirites
The nazirite is called "holy unto the Lord" (Numbers 6:8), but at the same time must bring a sin-offering (Numbers 6:11) and his sins are explicitly referred to ("and make atonement for that which he sinned"). This apparent contradiction, pointed out in the Babylonian Talmud, led to two divergent views. Samuel and Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar, focusing on the sin-offering of the nazirite, regarded nazirites, as well as anyone who fasted when not obligated to or took any vow whatsoever, as a sinner. A different Rabbi Eliezer argues that the nazirite is indeed holy and the sin referred to in the verse applies only to a nazirite who became ritually defiled.
Simeon the Just (a High Priest) was opposed to the nazirite vow and ate of the sacrifice offered by a nazirite on only a single occasion. Once a youth with flowing hair came to him and wished to have his head shorn. When asked his motive, the youth replied that he had seen his own face reflected in a spring and it had pleased him so that he feared lest his beauty might become an idol to him. He therefore wished to offer up his hair to God, and Simeon then partook of the sin-offering which he brought.
Maimonides, following the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar, calls a nazirite a sinner, explaining that a person should always be moderate in his actions and not be to any extreme. Nevertheless, he does point out that a nazirite can be evil or righteous depending on the circumstances.
Nahmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, sides with Samuel and Rabbi Eliezer. He explains that ideally the person should be a nazirite his whole life. Therefore, ceasing to be nazirite requires a sin-offering.
Nazirites in history
Nazirite vows in the Hebrew Bible
Two examples of nazirites in the Hebrew Bible are Samson (Judges 13:5), and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). Both were born of previously barren mothers and entered into their vows through their mothers' oaths rather than their own volition:
- In the first case, God sent an angel to make the vow known to the mother for her not-yet-conceived son, Samson, of what He wanted the child to be like in his life
- 6. 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.
- 7. 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 vow before Samuel was even conceived, because she was barren.
These vows required Samson and Samuel to live devout lives, yet in return they received extraordinary gifts: Samson possessed strength and ability in physical battle against the Philistines, while Samuel became a prophet.
Samson appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a משׁתה, "drinking party", in Judges 14:10). Goswell suggests that "we cannot understand the career and failings of Samson without attention to his Nazirite status."
The prophet Amos later condemned the Israelites for their failure to respect the Nazirite vow, along with their failure to hear the prophets:
- 11. And I raised up some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as nazirites; is this not so, O children of Israel? says the Lord.
- 12. And you gave the nazirites to drink wine, and you commanded the prophets saying, "Do not prophesy."
In the intertestamentary period
This vow was observed into the so-called intertestamental period (the interval between the writing of the Hebrew Bible and the writing of the Christian New Testament). 1 Maccabees (part of the Christian Deuterocanon) 3:49 mentions men who had ended their nazirite vows, an example dated to about 166 BCE. Josephus mentions a number of people who had taken the vow, such as his tutor Banns (Antiquities 20.6), and Gamaliel records in the Mishna how the father of Rabbi Chenena made a lifetime nazirite vow before him (Nazir 29b).
The Septuagint uses a number of terms to translate the 16 uses of nazir in the Hebrew Bible, such as "he who vowed" (euxamenos εὐξαμένος) or "he who was made holy" (egiasmenos ἡγιασμένος) etc. It is left untranslated and transliterated in Judges 13:5 as nazir (ναζιρ).
In the New Testament
The practice of a nazirite vow is part of the ambiguity of the Greek term "Nazarene" that appears in the New Testament; the sacrifice of a lamb and the offering of bread does suggest a relationship with Christian symbolism (then again, these are the two most frequent offerings prescribed in Leviticus, so no definitive conclusions can be drawn). While a saying in (Matthew 11:18–19 and Luke 7:33–35) attributed to Jesus makes it doubtful that he, reported to be "a winebibber", was a nazirite during his ministry, the verse ends with the curious statement, "But wisdom is justified of all her children". The advocation of the ritual consumption of wine as part of the Passover, the tevilah in Mark 14:22–25 indicated he kept this aspect of the nazirite vow when Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God." The ritual with which Jesus commenced his ministry (recorded via Greek as "Baptism") and his vow in Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:15–18 at the end of his ministry, do respectively reflect the final and initial steps (purification by immersion in water and abstaining from wine) inherent in a Nazirite vow. These passages may indicate that Jesus intended to identify himself as a Nazirite ("not drinking the fruit of vine") before his crucifixion.
Luke the Evangelist clearly was aware that wine was forbidden in this practice, for the angel (Luke 1:13–15) that announces the birth of John the Baptist foretells that "he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb", in other words, a nazirite from birth, the implication being that John had taken a lifelong nazirite vow.
Acts of the Apostles is also attributed to Luke (see Luke-Acts) and in Acts 18:18 it is reported that the apostle Paul cut off his hair "because of a vow he had taken". From Acts 21:23-24Acts we learn that the early Jewish Christians occasionally took the temporary Nazarite vow, and it is probable that the vow of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 18:18, was of a similar nature, although the shaving of his head in Cenchrea, outside of Palestine, was not in conformity with the rules laid down in the sixth chapter of Numbers, nor with the interpretation of them by the Rabbinical schools of that era. If we are to believe the legend of Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius, St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, was a Nazarite, and performed with rigorous exactness all the practices enjoined by that rule of life. In Acts 21:20–24 Paul was advised to counter the claims made by some Judaizers (that he encouraged a revolt against the Mosaic Law). He showed the "believers there" (believers in Jesus, i.e. the Jewish Christians) in Jerusalem otherwise by purifying himself and accompanying four men to the temple who had taken nazaritic vows (so as to refute the naysayers).
This stratagem only delayed the inevitable mob assault on him. This event brought about the accusation in Acts 24:5–18 that Paul was the "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes", and thus provides further verification that the term Nazarene was a mistranslation of the term Nazirite. In any case, the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed.
What is curious is that Luke does not here mention the apostle James the Just as taking nazirite vows, although later Christian historians (e.g. Epiphanius Panarion 29.4) believed he had, and the vow of a nazirite would explain the asceticism Eusebius of Caesarea ascribed to James (something the Jewish Nazarite Vow was never intended to do), a claim that gave James the title "James the Just".
In modern religions
The tradition of the nazirite vow has had a significant influence on the modern Rastafari Movement, and elements of the vow have been adopted as part of this religion. In describing the obligations of their religion, Rastafari make reference to the nazirite vow taken by Samson. Part of this vow, as adopted by the Rastafari, is to avoid the cutting of one's hair. This is inspired by the text of Leviticus 21:5 "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh." The visible sign of this vow is the Rastafarian's dreadlocks. Some Rastafari have concluded that Samson had dreadlocks, as suggested by the description stating that he had seven locks upon his head.
Additionally, the Rastafari are taught to abstain from alcohol in accordance with the nazirite vow. They have also adopted dietary laws derived from Leviticus, which accounts for some similarity to the prohibitions of the Jewish dietary law of Kashrut.
- Independent Order of Rechabites
- Naso (parsha)
- Nazir (Talmud) – The tractate of the Mishnah and Talmud, devoted chiefly to a discussion of the laws of the Nazirite
- David Cohen
- See: Chepey, S. Nazirites in Late Second Temple Judaism: A Survey of Ancient Jewish Writings, the New Testament, Archaeological Evidence, and other Writings from Late Antiquity. AJEC 60. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005.
- Alternatively "crowned", see Abraham ibn Ezra's biblical commentary
- The New JPS translation is: "wine and any other intoxicant". Classical Rabbinical interpretation permits non-grape alcohols.
- Numbers 6:3. The Bible, King James Version
- Numbers 6:3-4
- Numbers 6:5
- Numbers 6:6-7
- Hecht, Mendy. "What is a nazir?". Ask Moses. Retrieved 2007-08-09.
- Mishneh Torah Hafla'ah, Nazir 2:16
- Mishneh Torah 3:13
- Mishneh Torah 2:20–23
- Alternatively for a total of 14 years—see Mishna tractate "Nazir" 3:5
- Mishneh Torah 6:1–3;Mishna Tractate "Nazir" 6:5
- Mishneh Torah Hafla'ah, Nazir 2:16-17 online english version chapter 2
- Mishneh Torah 1:5
- Mishneh Torah 1:6
- Mishneh Torah 3:1,2
- Mishneh Torah 2:14–15
- Mishneh Torah 5:1–3
- Mishneh Torah 5:7
- However no lashes are incurred Mishneh Torah 5:14
- Mishneh Torah 7:14
- Mishneh Torah 8:1–3
- Talmud Taanis 11a
- Nazir 4b, Nedarim 9b, Yerushalmi Nedarim 35d; Tosefta Nazir 4; Yerushalmi Nazir 1:7
- Mishneh Torah Maadah, Deot 3:1–4; See also Maimonides Introduction to Pirke Avot in his commentary on the Mishna
- Mishneh Torah Haphlah, Nazir 10:21
- Talmud, Taanis 11a Tosafot "Samuel says..."
- Numbers 6:2
- Judges 13:2-7
- Judges 13:6-7 Judaica Press
- 1 Samuel 1:11
- Gregory Goswell, "The Hermeneutics of the Haftarot," Tyndale Bulletin 58 (2007), 95.
- Amos 2:11-12 Judaica Press
- "Numbers 6:21 LXX". Blueletterbible.org. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
- "Amos 2:12 LXX". Blueletterbible.org. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
- LXX 13:5 ὅτι ἰδοὺ σὺ ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχεις καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν καὶ σίδηρος οὐκ ἀναβήσεται ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ ὅτι ναζιρ θεοῦ ἔσται τὸ παιδάριον ἀπὸ τῆς κοιλίας καὶ αὐτὸς ἄρξεται τοῦ σῶσαι τὸν Ισραηλ ἐκ χειρὸς Φυλιστιιμ
- Bauer lexicon, 2nd ed., 1979; Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, editor, 1992, translation note to Matthew 2:23, page 62: "Nazorean: This quote may be dependent upon the Septuagint of Judg 13:5 or 16:17. Matthew's spelling of the word differs from Mark's "Nazarene" (e.g., 1:24)."
- Taylor Marshall, Ph.D. The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of the Catholic Christianity, Saint John Press, 2009 ISBN 978-0-578-03834-6 page 136.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Nazarite: "Nazarites appear in New Testament times ... Foremost among them is generally reckoned John the Baptist, of whom the angel announced that he should "drink no wine nor strong drink". He is not explicitly called a Nazarite, nor is there any mention of the unshaven hair, but the severe austerity of his life agrees with the supposed asceticism of the Nazarites."
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Nazarite: "
- Eaton, D. (1900). "Nazirite". In James Hastings. A Dictionary of the Bible. pp. 497–501.
- Ecclesiastical History, II, xxiii.
- McGarvey: "It is evident, from the transaction before us, as observed above, that James and the brethren in Jerusalem regarded the offering of sacrifices as at least innocent; for they approved the course of the four Nazarites, and urged Paul to join with them in the service, though it required them to offer sacrifices, and even sin-offerings. They could not, indeed, very well avoid this opinion, since they admitted the continued authority of the Mosaic law. Though disagreeing with them as to the ground of their opinion, as in reference to the other customs, Paul evidently admitted the opinion itself, for he adopted their advice, and paid the expense of the sacrifices which the four Nazarites offered."
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers notes: "Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1 Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after [the Council of Jerusalem] circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (21:26 sqq.)."
- Historia Ecclesiastica 2.23.
- The Kebra Negest: The Lost Bible of Rastafarian Wisdom and Faith, p. 49
- "Dreadlocks Hair Style". Retrieved 2007-05-06.
- Nazarite in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia
- Nazarite in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia
- Nazarite in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- Full text of the Mishna nazir and Mishneh Torah nazir at Machon Mamre.
- Book, Title- Hebrew Bible and ancient versions: selected essays of Robert P. Gordon, Chapter 6 Title – Who Made The Kingmaker? Reflect On Samule And The Institution Of The Monarchy; Terms- Nazirite, etymology: p. 65, p. 66 and etymology select pages