This week’s Parshah introduces us to perhaps the most confounding character in the Torah: the nazir (“Nazirite”). The nazir is a person who takes a specific type of ascetic vow called nezirut (the “Nazirite vow”). Once he does so, all laws that pertain to nezirut apply to him; most notably, he is forbidden from cutting his hair, drinking alcohol and consuming grape products, or exposing himself to a corpse.
The concept of nezirut is difficult to understand for at least two reasons. (1) What value is there in encouraging someone to abstain from cutting his hair, drinking alcohol, or coming into contact with a corpse? (2) Why do we need a specific institution, the nezirut, to cover all three acts simultaneously? After all, a person who wishes to abstain from cutting his hair may take a vow to that effect; likewise for a person who wishes to abstain from alcohol, or from exposure to a corpse. Yet the nezirut vow bundles all three together—suggesting that they are related to each other in some essential way—and even confers formal legal status upon one who takes this unique vow.
Truth be told, we cannot comprehend the logic of nezirut if we analyze it as an independent institution; in isolation, it remains an enigma. Only when we recognize the context in which this institution was developed does its true meaning suddenly dawn upon us. That context is provided at the very end of the section of our Parshah which details the laws of nezirut: “And it was that on the day that Moses finished erecting the tabernacle he anointed it, sanctified it, and all its vessels, and the altar and all its vessels, and he anointed them and sanctified them…” (Num. 7:1). As this juxtaposition implies, the laws of nezirut may well have been taught to Bnei Yisrael on “the day that Moses finished erecting the tabernacle” (c.f. Gittin 60a; Rashi Num. 5:2, s.v. “command the children of Israel”).
This is invaluable information for us as we try to piece together the puzzle of nezirut. After all, while sefer Bamidbar (the “Book of Numbers”) may record the laws taught on the day of the mishkan’s (the “Tabernacle’s”) inauguration, we actually have another book of the Torah—sefer Vayikra (the “Book of Leviticus”)—which records the events that took place on that day. And it so happens that one of those “events” gives us all the background we need for demystifying the details of nezirut: the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu.
On the day of the mishkan’s inauguration, Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon, the kohen gadol (“high priest”), broke rank and offered a “strange fire” to Hashem (Lev. 10:1). They were consumed by a divine fire as a result, shocking the entire nation and turning a day of celebration into a day of calamity. Now, intuitively, none of us would probably associate this tragedy with the laws of nezirut. But that is precisely what Hashem did, by revealing the laws of nezirut on the day that Nadav and Avihu died—and if we think about it for even a moment, we will immediately realize that the two are in fact deeply connected.
Upon the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Hashem commands the surviving kohanim (“priests”): “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die” (Lev. 10:9). Some commentators explain the timing of this warning by suggesting that Nadav and Avihu had been intoxicated while offering their “strange fire” (see Rashi to Lev. 10:2, s.v. “and fire went forth”). Either way, this ban points directly to the nazir, who must also abstain from alcohol: “He shall abstain from new wine and aged wine; he shall not drink [even] vinegar made from new wine or aged wine…” (Num. 6:3).
Also following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Hashem orders their father and brothers not to mourn them through the traditional practice of leaving one’s hair uncut: “And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and to Ithamar, his sons, ‘Do not leave your heads unshorn [אל תפרעו]…’” (Lev. 10:6). Here too there is an obvious link to the prohibitions of nezirut—and the Torah further emphasizes it by employing the same key-term in both: “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 Lord, it shall be sacred, and he shall allow the growth of the hair of his head to grow unshorn [פרע]” (Num. 6:5).
Moreover, and as alluded to, the injunction against Aharon’s family letting their hair grow long constitutes just one of a series of measures aimed at curtailing the external rite of grief they displayed following the deaths Nadav and Avihu. Indeed, Aharon and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, were not even permitted to exit the Mishkan during this period: “The Children of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the Lord has burned, but from the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, you shall not exit” (Lev. 10:6-7). This measure was intended to limit their public bereavement, and particularly, their exposure to the dead, as is made plain from a later passage detailing the general mourning restrictions of the kohen gadol: “He shall not come in contact with any dead person… from the sanctuary he shall not exit, so as not to profane the sanctuary of his God, for a crown [נזר]—the oil of his God’s anointment—is upon him, I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 21:11-12). Yet again, the Torah’s language leads us back to the nazir: nazir [נזיר] means “crowned one,” and it is because Aharon dons the “crown” [נזר] of high priesthood that he must not contact corpses—just as the nazir must not: “All the days that he abstains for the Lord, he shall not come into contact with the dead… for the crown [נזר] of his God is upon his head” (Num. 6:6-7).
So the three main prohibitions incumbent upon the nazir all seem related to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. This relationship is further amplified through a series of subsidiary details shared by both. For instance, the Torah tells us that “if someone in [the nazir’s presence dies unexpectedly or suddenly” (Num. 6:9), causing his inadvertent exposure to a corpse, he must wait until the “eighth day” [יום השמיני] of his lapse before commencing his nezirut anew (Num. 6:10). This scenario cannot but hearken us back to Nadav and Avihu, whose own deaths were sudden and unexpected, and also connected with an “eighth day:” Nadav and Avihu died on the day of the mishkan’s inauguration, which was the “eighth day” [יום השמיני] of celebrations held in its honor (Lev. 9:1).
On the nazir’s eighth day, he was to station himself outside “the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 6:10)—precisely the boundary which Aharon, Elazar and Itamar were not to traverse upon the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:7)—and offer sacrifices there in order to reinstitute his nezirut. He returns to this site upon successful completion of his nezirut to offer another series of sacrifices, many of whose details overlap with those that Aharon’s family was responsible for ministering upon the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: both include a “sin offering,” “peace offering,” and “meal offering,” which involve “waving the breast,” “raising the thigh,” and “matzot” (Lev. 10:12-20; Num. 6:13-21). Intriguingly, these matzot, in the case of the nazir, are described as being “anointed in oil” [משחים בשמן] (Num. 6:15)—precisely the same description applied to the Aharon and his surviving sons: “the Lord’s anointing oil [שמן משחת] is upon you” (Lev. 10:7). We might also identify a parallel of sorts between the “(hairy)-goat” [שעיר] which the sons of Aharon burned (Lev. 10:16) upon the altar, and the “hair” [שער] which the nazir burns upon the altar at the completion of his term (Num. 6:18).
Finally, it is instructive to note the details which the Torah places at the conclusion of its section on the nazir:[i]
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them (Num. 6:22-27).
Prima facie, these details—the details of birkat kohanim (the “priestly blessing”)—do not at all seem to belong at the climax of the nezirut laws. In light of our analysis, however, their location could not be more apropos. After all, administering a “priestly blessing” was the very last thing Aharon had done before the deaths of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 9:22-23). If, then, the institution of nezirut constitutes some sort of reaction to those deaths, it is only fitting that its laws culminate with a return to, and restoration of, the priestly blessing.
Through their actions, Nadav and Avihu had marred the blessings associated with kehunah (“priesthood”). The mishkan [משכן] in which the kohanim minister is so-called because it represents the place wherein Hashem “dwells” [ש.כ.ן] among man: “And they shall make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell [ושכנתי] among them” (Exod. 25:8). But, in their moment of religious fervor, Nadav and Avihu sought to flip the script: they tried to come close to Hashem not by inviting Him into this world, but by extricating themselves from it; they yearned to overcome the confines of material life and meet Hashem in a state of other-worldly spiritual ecstasy. Consequently, they were indeed removed from this world—and those who survived them were given strict instructions to avoid any behavior that might encourage the sort of zealous escapism to which they succumbed. Human life is sacred, Hashem declared, upon the deaths of Nadav and Avihu—revere it, do not run from it. Avoid inebriation, and any other states of altered consciousness; avoid excessive mourning; avoid unnecessary contact with the deceased.[ii] I am the God of life, and you must serve Me by embracing life—not, as so many will be tempted to do, by worshiping death.
This lesson is addressed to the kohanim because, as ministers of the divine service, they are the ones for whom it is most directly relevant. Yet the kohen is not the only one who might be drawn by the allure of transcending his spiritual state. And while the instinct to go “above and beyond” the regular conditions of one’s religious lot is certainly praiseworthy, it is that very instinct which, taken to its extreme, led Nadav and Avihu terribly astray. Thus, to any non-kohen so disposed, the Torah offers a counterpart to the “crown of priesthood” (see Avot 4:14): the “crown” of nezirut. If ever there should arise a member of Bnei Yisrael whose zeal moves him to overcome the bounds of his physical existence—let him remember what happened when, like him, Nadav and Avihu insisted upon performing holy rites “that were not commanded” (Lev. 10:1). If he seeks to adopt volitional strictures, let him adopt the strictures incumbent upon the relatives of Nadav and Avihu—strictures meant to temper his very desire for these sorts of strictures. Let him express his piety through abstinence from death of any sort, mental or material. Let him swear off alcohol and contact with the dead. Let him not engage at all with his body’s own dead matter: his hair. Let it grow instead—let him witness the power of his own vitality as it literally pushes death out of his headspace—and then, upon the completion of his term, let him disconnect himself altogether from that symbol of death. Let him cut his hair, as the survivors of Nadav and Avihu were commanded to do, and let him burn it atop the altar, as a tribute not to death—but to life.
To be continued. Shabbat shalom!
[i] Note that both the chapter break and the aliyah (“communal reading”) break occur after birkat kohanim, thus suggesting that birkat kohanim should be read as an integral part of the passage that contains the laws of nezirut.
[ii] Tellingly, the Torah itself informs us that the purpose of these three forms of abstinence is to distance ourselves from “death:” “And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and to Ithamar, his sons, ‘Do not leave your heads unshorn, and… so that you shall not die…’” (Lev. 10:6); “And do not go out of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting [in order to treat a corpse—c.f. Lev. 21:11-12], lest you die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is upon you” (Lev. 10:7); “Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die” (Lev. 10:9).