The Nazir and the Priest

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Yoni Nouriel


Among the many laws of Parshat Naso is the fascinating law of Nezirut. The Nazir is enjoined from cutting their hair, touching a corpse, and consuming grape products. As described in the Torah, the Nazir is holy during their Nezirut period. At the end of their Nezirut period, the Nazir must go to the temple, shave their head, and offer sacrifices. The concept of Nazir is subject to a well-known debate in the Talmud: is a Nazir praiseworthy, on account of their holiness, or is the Nazir a sinner, for abstaining from what is permitted?[1] Whatever the answer may be, it is clear that the conception of the Nazir is understood by Talmudic sages in different ways. A fascinating take on the Nazir is displayed in another well-known, yet less studied, passage in the Talmud. Embedded in the text is a confluence of content and form, and each enriches the other to achieve a creative dynamic. This text bears a meditation on Nezirut, and in order to uncover it, one must mine the literary fabric of the story. It must be stressed that the meaning of the text exists beyond the text, and therefore the analysis should be considered fundamentally speculative. However, even the attempt to extract meaning from the text is itself a noble task.

The Talmud (Nedarim 9b and Nazir 4b) records the following story:

Shimon Ha-Tzadik said: Only once (ehad) in my life have I eaten of the trespass-offering brought by an impure Nazir. On one (ahat) occasion one man (ehad) who was 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. I said to him: “My son (beni), why did you see [it fitting] to destroy (le-hashhit) this beautiful hair of yours?”

He replied: “I was a shepherd for my father in my town (ro’eh…le-abba be-iri). [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed (pahaz) upon me and sought to drive me from the world (olam). But I said unto it [my lust]: ‘Wicked thing (rasha)! Why do you vaunt yourself in a world (olam) that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? [I swear by] the temple service (ha-avodah) that I will shave you off (agalehakha) for the sake of Heaven (shamayim)!’” 

I immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: “My son (beni), may there be many Nazirs such as you in Israel! Of you the scripture says, ‘when either a man or a woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves unto the Lord.’”

Browsing the contents of this story yields a fairly straightforward message. Shimon Ha-Tzadik, who lived at the end of the second temple period, tells a story of a Nazir who nearly falls to the temptations of his heart, but heroically recoils from them and consequently dedicates his life to God through the medium of the radical Nazir laws. The Nazir is accepted by Shimon Ha-Tzadik as commendable and is in fact the only authentic Nazir among those who had broken the Nezirut law of not touching a corpse, according to Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s testimony. However, this straightforward reading does not rely on the literary content of the passage. This story has deeper levels of meaning that can be discovered only by perusing and analyzing its literary content.

The legend opens with a threefold mention of the word ehad/ahat, literally “one” – Shimon Ha-Tzadik ate only one sacrifice once from one Nazir. This introduction has two purposes: it connotes added emphasis, as if to say: “pay attention – this is important!” But also, on a more fundamental plane, it highlights the uniqueness of this specific Nazir and the specific reason why Shimon Ha-Tzadik, a priest, partook of his sacrifice. Ehad/ahat can be rendered “unique,” meaning that this particular Nazir exemplifies the true, authentic meaning of the Nazir typology. Why exactly is this Nazir from the south the perfect example of a Nazir? What about his personal journey demonstrates the fact that he is a model that all other Nazirs should strive for?

The first step in answering this question lies in the first theme of the story. An interesting aspect of this passage is that Shimon Ha-Tzadik refers to the Nazir as beni, “my son.” This is a common term of endearment,[2] but Shimon Ha-Tzadik says it twice (one of the only two instances in the Talmud of the term being used twice as a term of endearment from one person to another)[3] – once when prompting the Nazir to tell his story, and once after hearing his story. Is it possible that calling the Nazir a son means more than just an informal sign of affection, and rather connotes a more familial bond? If we examine the story closely, we notice that in fact the Nazir’s spiritual awakening is precipitated by an uncomfortable confrontation with a lustful temptation which occurs as a result in helping his father, by being “a shepherd for [his] father in [his] town.” What emerges is a strong theme of familial relationships. The Nazir’s religious frustration is galvanized by his connection to his father and the task he is given by his father. Were it not for his father, the Nazir would not have confronted a religious crisis. Because of this, he is, in a sense, spiritually detached from his father. The first time Shimon Ha-Tzadik calls the Nazir his son perhaps does connote a term of endearment, but after the Nazir discloses his troubled relationship with his father, the second “my son” may mean that Shimon Ha-Tzadik has, in a sense, affirmed the Nazir’s actions and “adopted” him. What drives this message further is the kiss, an intimate act of affection. The theme of family already narrows the question of why this specific Nazir is special. The act of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s “adoption” of this Nazir represents the adoption of the Nazir typology by the auspices of the priest typology. Specifically, the Nazir is subsumed by the category of the priest, and this specific story thus engenders a Nazir-as-priest-offshoot ideal, that the Nazir’s service and lifestyle mirrors that of a priest’s. Yet, the question has been narrowed and not answered – why does this Nazir represent the Nazir-as-priest ideal?

The answer is in the Nazir’s autobiographical account, specifically its literary structure and words. The word olam, world, is uttered twice. The first time the Nazir makes mention of a world is when his lust “sought to drive [him] from the world.” The world at this juncture means the life which one is supposed to live, namely the realms in which one can achieve religious excellence, were it not for sagaciousness and sinful intentions. The world, here, is the place where the Nazir wants to be in – a life of religious-spiritual potential. The second time it is used it is exclusionary – “a world that is not [the evil inclination’s],” one in which the Nazir’s body will “become worms and dust.” Accordingly, this world is meant for spiritual achievements, not for ephemeral aesthetics and worldly pleasures. The contrast is stark – a plan of existence of the spiritual, real, eternal, and holy, and that of the physical, fraud, temporary, and mundane. Additionally, the theme of the contrast between the superior religious and inferior aesthetic, manifests in the eventual demise of the Nazir’s beautiful appearance. The contrast is reiterated many times: deathly “worms and dust” and the unchanging sky, or “heaven,” which represents spiritual heights an individual can attain; the personification of the Nazir’s lust, and thus the bifurcation of the lustful aspect of humanly existence and its contra, the Nazir himself; and, of course, the Nazir’s luscious hair, which almost executes the Nazir (it “sought to drive [him] from the world”), and the opposing force of “destroying” (le-hashhit) his hair, as Shimon Ha-Tzadik calls it, ultimately bringing him to the temple, the center of religious potential. This, then, is the second, albeit more dominant, theme – the opposition of temporary, and thus sinful, aesthetics, and eternal, and thus ideal, religiosity.

The most fascinating example of this theme is the contrast between the desert and water. The Nazir’s story is set in the south, a dry desert, and he comes upon a well. Whereas the desert is barren, devoid of beautiful icons and buildings, and is more or less unchanging and unchangeable (the southern desert is one of the more difficult locations in Israel to settle and cultivate), the well reflects the beautiful image of the Nazir’s ever-growing hair. Furthermore, water will quench his thirst and support his physical health, but only temporarily, yet it is that very water which almost drove this Nazir to sin by reflecting his beauty.[4] Although in Talmudic literature water usually represents the life-giving vitality of all things spiritual,[5] here it represents the negative of all things positive. (There is even no mention of ritual immersion, which occurs at the end of the purification process of an impure Nazir – a glaring omission, which only emphasizes the water-as-sin idea.) Taken in this sense, water symbolizes the physical, temporal, aesthetic plane, and the desert the non-physical and perpetual plane.

The imagery of water-as-sin (in the ephemeral and aesthetic sense) is not only explicitly mentioned – there is a powerful allusion to it as well. The Nazir proclaims that his personified lust “rushed upon [him] and sought to drive [him] from the world.” The word for “rushed” is pahaz. This is the only instance in Talmudic literature where pahaz is used as a verb. Its presence harkens back, as a sort of leitwort, key word, to the only other time it is used as a verb – Yaakov’s curse of Reuven’s licentious behavior with his father’s concubine: “you hurried[6] like water (pahaz ka-mayim), you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!” (Genesis 49:4). Reuven’s temperament, or more precisely his lustful temperament, is likened to water. This contrast, then can be summarized in the following way. There is a realm associated with the words: water; beautiful hair; aesthetic quality; physical life; temporal/worm; eventual death; finite; and impurity. There is an alternative realm that is associated with the words: desert; baldness; lack of aesthetics; spiritual life; constancy; transcend death; eternal; and holiness.

The allusion to Reuven’s action serves another purpose. Reuven violated the sacred father-son relationship by engaging in an illicit sexual encounter with his father’s concubine. As a result, Yaakov’s dying words reflected this broken relationship, cursing Reuven’s heated temperament. Thus, the reference to Yaakov’s curse presents a confluence of the two themes, that of familial relationships and the aesthetic-spiritual opposition. Just as Yaakov “disowned” Reuven because of his “water-like” lust – Reuven was stripped of the firstborn status (his birthright should have granted him respectable status, yet the tribe of Yehudah was given monarchal privilege, the Levites priestly status, and the tribe of Joseph a double portion of land) – similarly, the Nazir’s lust is linked with his relationship with his father, which climaxed in a “slippery” moment. The pahaz alai yitzripahaz ka-mayim equivalent is the culmination of a broken familial relationship precipitated by a salacious experience. Shimon Ha-Tzadik then becomes the spiritual father of the recently “orphaned” Nazir.

Yet, it is still unclear as to why the Nazir’s struggle with his temptations leads to his spiritual adoption by Shimon Ha-Tzadik. The answer in full finally reveals itself in the clever, intentional use of a few words. Shimon Ha-Tzadik prompts the Nazir’s story by asking him why he decided “to destroy” (le-hashhit) his hair, yet the Nazir declares that he is “shaving it off” (agalehakha) – this Nazir’s intent is not a reckless destruction of his beauty, which is described as the most salient of features noticed by Shimon Ha-Tzadik (it is a much fuller description than that of his eyes and appearance), but rather a calculated effort to shave it off for God. The Nazir seeks not to obliterate the passing moment, a moment that he instantly regrets and presumably wishes to obliterate; his intent is that of joining the temporary, illusory – his beautiful locks – with the eternal, the temple.[7] The Nazir’s heroic recoiling from the lustful act is pronounced by a swear which is indicative of this notion. There are many expressions of swears in Talmudic literature, and the one employed here is ha-avodah, which literally means “[by] the temple service.” Indeed, the Nazir pledges his beauty as a pseudo-offering in the temple. Not only does the Nazir come to the temple to sacrifice an animal as any Israelite would, but also actively deems his hair as a sacrifice! The Nazir channels his beauty for the sake of heaven.

The Nazir’s transvaluation receives fuller attention in the act of bringing a trespass-offering. This sacrifice is offered when a Nazir is defiled by a dead body. However, in this story, there is no mention of contact with a corpse. Textually, there is a death mentioned – the Nazir’s own death. His personified lust aimed to “drive [him] from the world,” or in simpler terms, to spiritually kill him, to cause him to become the Jewish Narcissus. It is possible that on the textual level, the death that the Nazir encountered was not only physical, but also metaphorical. This Nazir was defiled by his anthropomorphized desires, the desires that sought to kill his spiritual being.[8] Touching a corpse means a physical encounter with human demise. The Nazir encountered his own demise, albeit spiritual. In order to correct this death potential, the Nazir decided to transcend the temporary plane of beauty, his symmetrical locks, by adding it to the eternal – heaven – in the temple. He does this out of a creative impulse, to dedicate his hair to heaven thereby demonstrating his religious audacity to join his finite essence, his hair, with the infinite.

The last piece of the puzzle is the structure of the story. Shimon Ha-Tzadik, a priest, tells a story which begins in the temple on the temple mount. The autobiographical interlude of the Nazir’s spiritual transformation describes a story that takes place in a desert, and subsequently the text returns to the temple. There are three distinct units, or to be precise, there are bookends, and the story itself is almost chiastic. The frame serves to put the autobiography into context. Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s “adoption” of the Nazir is a microcosm of the typology of the priest, situated in the temple, “adopting” the Nazir typology. It is as if to say that this Nazir story demonstrates a specific Nazir typology which should be viewed as an offshoot of the priest typology. To put it bluntly, this Nazir attained honorary priestly status.

Anchoring the Nazir’s autobiography in the temple mount frame imparts the message that whereas the divine service, avodah, of the priest is confined to the temple, the divine service of the Nazir is in the world in general. The priest stands at the particular Jewish axis mundi, where heaven and earth meet, and attempts to join the ephemeral with the spiritual, bringing spiritual bounty down to the earth. This Nazir does exactly that – he strives to connect the finite to the infinite – but his domain is not that of the temple. The Nazir’s priestly “temple service” is accomplished even by a shepherd (a typology that the Talmudic sages generally did not view with favor),[9] even in the desert – regular, banal, day-to-day life. Shimon Ha-Tzadik recognizes the affinity between the priestly enterprise and this Nazir’s religious enlightenment and thus appropriates the Nazir paradigm, in this passage, as a priestly proxy.[10]

To return to the original question: when Shimon highlights the importance of this Nazir’s story with the threefold mention of ehad/ahat and says that this is the only true fulfillment of the Nazir paradigm, he does not mean that no one else benefited from Nazirite status, but rather that this specific Nazir fully recognized the goal of Nazirite status. Shimon Ha-Tzadik is advancing the agenda that the telos of Nazirite vows is not ascetic, but transformative. The Nazir’s ascetic practices are not the goal, but the medium to achieve religious transformation. This specific Nazir did exactly that – he took his shaved hair and offered it as a sacrifice to the eternal realm. The telos of the Nazir’s vows, according to Shimon Ha-Tzadik, is of priestly quality. Just as the priest delves into the fleshy, bloody corpse of an animal and raises it to a spiritual level, so too this Nazir gave his physical beauty for God. The Nazir is but the internal reflection of the priest’s divine service – the immanent individual, not external animal, undergoes a religious transformation. In fact, the Nazir’s father may be symbolic, referring not to his physical father but to mundane life – the Nazir is driven from the banality of neutral life, ro’eh…le-abba be-iri, to one infused with religious value, sub specie aeternitatis.

Just as the identity of his father is irrelevant and serves the literary function of contributing to the familial theme, so too the lack of the Nazir’s name is telling. He is described many ways – a man, a Nazir, a shepherd, “my son,” from the south, has beautiful hair, a nice appearance, pretty eyes – but he does not have a name. Names denote specificity, and the lack of a name expresses universality.[11] This story didn’t happen – it can always happen. The lesson of this Talmudic passage is that the religious transformation that occurs when one sublimates ephemeral desires towards atemporal existence is a priestly endeavor that can be attained anywhere. In this sense, anyone who achieves such a religious enlightenment can be this Nazir: anyone from the “south,” the world,[12] who has a broken relationship with their “father,” stunted spiritual habituation, using their own “beautiful hair,” whatever it may be, can do “temple service” outside the temple. For non-priests, the world is a potential temple. This Nazir realizes this and actualizes his potential.[13]

Reading quickly through this Talmudic passage can benefit the reader with a simple message – don’t be a Jewish equivalent of Narcissus. However, a close textual reading of the literary aspects of the text yields a much deeper and more profound message. Religious sublimation, the telos of the Nazirite paradigm, conferring honorary priestly status to a non-priest – these are the messages that emerge after dissecting the form of the story, greatly enhancing, and adding to, the content. Perhaps using the tools used in this paper to understand the Talmudic text may yet inspire the reader to make a Nazirite pledge, if only metaphorical.[14]

[1] Taanit 11a.

[2] See two examples in Beitzah 15b.

[3] The other instance is in Sotah 20a.

[4] There are many parallels to this Talmudic passage from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus preserved in Ovid’s writings. Both are beautiful men who look at their respective reflections and are tempted by their lustful passions. This has been noted by scholars and religious figures alike. For example, see Amram Tropper, “The Narrative of the Narcissistic Nazirite,” (October 28, 2015), and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017), 91.

[5] For example, see Bava Kamma 82a.

[6] The New JPS translation renders pahaz as a noun (as per Rashi and Rashbam) – “unstable” – but this misses the action orientation. I replaced it with “hurried” as per Ibn Ezra, ad. loc.: “because you hurried (pahazta) like water.”

[7] See Deuteronomy 30:19 and Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 138.

[8] Freud might interrupt this discussion and quip that this is an example of the link between the Thanatos and Eros instincts.

[9] For example, see Bava Metzia 5b: “Stam ro-eh pasul,” that a shepherd is deemed unfit to be a witness by default.

[10] This is, in fact, not completely a novelty. There is a biblical juxtaposition of the Nazir passage (Numbers 6:1-21) and the priestly benediction (ibid. 6:22-27). Furthermore, the three main prohibitions of the Nazir, wine consumption (ibid. 6:3-4), cutting hair (ibid. 6:5), and touching corpses (ibid. 6:6) parallel the priest’s prohibitions of drinking wine upon entering the temple (Leviticus 10:9), cutting hair as a form of mourning (ibid. 21:5), and touching non-relative corpses (ibid. 21:1-4). On the biblical link between the priest and the Nazir, see Israel Knohl, “The Concept of Kedusha (Sanctity),” (April 23, 2014).

[11] The parallel tradition preserved in the Talmud Yerushalmi makes minimal mention of his Nazirite status, and Shimon Ha-Tzadik commends him, not for being the ideal Nazir, but generally for fulfilling God’s will. This in fact emphasizes the universality of the Bavli’s version.

[12] Shimon Ha-Tzadik is not told that he is from the south – it must be a literary flourish intended as an allegory.

[13] It is possible to argue that the Nazir represents the rectification of Reuven. The firstborn status in the ancient world was of prime importance – the firstborns were generally the priests who served in a given temple. By birthright Reuven should have been the patriarch of the priestly tribe, but his status was stripped from him as a result of the sexual encounter with his father’s concubine, and the status was conferred (ultimately) to the Levites. Yaakov departs the world still with a broken relationship with Reuven, as seen from his dying words to Reuven. The shepherd, like Reuven, has a broken relationship with his father, but that is not the end of the story. The shepherd becomes a Nazir, thus assuming a semi-priestly status. The Nazir, in this sense, revitalizes the lost priestly status and forms a new, healthy metaphorical father-son relationship.

[14] For a similar reading, albeit not heavily rooted in textual analysis, see Halakhic Morality, 90-92. For a different reading, that the key to understanding the Nazir’s transformation is the concept of dialogue, see Tzvi Sinensky, “Narcissus and the Nazir,” The Lehrhaus, (September 14, 2017). For a historical explanation of the development of this Talmudic text, see Amram Tropper, Simeon the Righteous in Rabbinic Literature: A Legend Reinvented (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2013), 83-95.

Yoni Nouriel was born and raised in Boston, MA and went to Maimonides school. After graduating he made aliya and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion. During his years in yeshiva, he served in the IDF’s Field Intelligence unit and earned his B.Ed from Herzog College. Yoni is currently completing his Master’s thesis on religious coeducation in Israel as a fellow in the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University. He teaches at Yeshivat Chorev and Yeshivat Orayta. He lives with his wife Avigayil Unterberg in Jerusalem, and they are raising their first Sabra, Elan Yehoshua.