In the Bible, a nazirite or nazarite ( from Nazir in Hebrew: נזיר) 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.
According to the old liturgy (before the Temple’s destruction) 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.
In Modern Hebrew the word “nazir” is commonly used for monks, both Christian and Buddhist – this meaning having largely displaced the original Biblical meaning.
Laws of the nazirite
Halakha (the 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.
The Vow in Talmud
Nazir (Hebrew: נזיר) is a treatise of the Mishnah and the Tosefta and in both Talmuds, devoted chiefly to a discussion of the laws of the Nazirite laid down in Numbers 6:1-21. In the Tosefta its title is Nezirut (“Nazariteness”). In most of the editions of the Mishnah this treatise is the fourth in the order Nashim, and it is divided into 9 chapters, containing 48 paragraphs in all.
Summary of the Mishnayot
The different kinds of vows
Chapter 1: The different kinds of vows which involve compulsory Nazariteship (§§ 1-2); Nazariteship for life, Samson’s Nazariteship (compare Judges 12:4 et seq.), and the difference between these two kinds (§ 2); Nazariteship is calculated by days only, not by hours, and generally lasts thirty days if no definite period is given (§ 3); different expressions which make a sort of lifelong Nazariteship compulsory, although the hair may be cut once in thirty days (§ 4); peculiar indefinite expressions used in connection with the vow (§§ 5-7).
Chapter 2: Whether vows which are expressed in a peculiar, incorrect manner are binding (§§ 1-2); cases in which a clearly expressed vow of Nazariteship is not binding (§ 3); vows made under conditions incompatible with Nazariteship (§ 4); combination of two Nazariteships, or of one with the vow to bring an additional sacrifice for a Nazarite; conditional vows (§§ 5-9).
Chapter 3: When a Nazarite may cut his hair in case he has vowed only one term of Nazariteship, or when he has vowed two successive terms (§§ 1-2); whether a Nazarite who has become unclean on the last day of his term must recommence his Nazariteship, and the cases in which he must do so (§§ 3-4); the case of one who vows Nazariteship while in a burial-place (§ 5); Nazariteship may be observed only in the Holy Land; Helena, Queen of Adiabene, once vowed Nazariteship for seven years, and fulfilled her vow; but when she went to the land of Israel at the end of the seventh year, the Bet Hillel decided that she must observe her vow for another period of seven years, since the time which she had spent outside of the land of Israel could not be taken into account (§ 6).
Wards and minors
Chapter 4: Cases in which a person utters a vow of Nazariteship and those present say, “We too”; dispensation from such vows; concerning the nullification of a wife’s vows of Nazariteship by her husband (§§ 1-5); the father may make a vow of Nazariteship for his minor son, but not the mother; and in like manner the son, but not the daughter, may, in certain cases and in certain respects, succeed to the father’s term of Nazariteship (§§ 6-7).
Chapter 5: Cases in which a person dedicates or vows something by mistake; Nazarites who had made their vows before the destruction of the Temple, and, on coming to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices, had learned that the Temple had been destroyed (§ 4); conditional Nazaritic vows (§§ 5-7).
Sacrifices of Nazarites
Chapter 6: Things forbidden to the Nazarite; enumeration of the different things coming from the vine; cases in which a Nazarite is guilty of trespassing against the interdiction prohibiting the drinking of wine (§§ 1-2); cases in which he is guilty of trespassing against that concerning the cutting of his hair (§ 3); in what respects the interdiction against defilement by a corpse is more rigorous than those against drinking wine and cutting the hair, and in what respects the last two interdictions are more rigorous than the first (§ 5); sacrifices and cutting of the hair if the Nazarite has become unclean (§ 6); sacrifices and cutting of the hair when the Nazariteship is fulfilled; burning of the cut hair under the pot in which the flesh of the sacrifice is cooked; other regulations regarding the sacrifices by Nazarites (§§ 7-11).
Chapter 7: The Nazarite and the Kohen Gadol may not defile themselves through contact with corpses even in the case of the death of a near relative; discussion of the question whether the Nazarite or the high priest defiles himself if both together find a corpse which must be buried and no one else is there to do it (§ 1); things which defile the Nazarite, and other regulations regarding the uncleanness of a person entering the Temple (§§ 2-3).
Chapter 8: Regulations in cases where it is doubtful whether the Nazarite has become unclean.
Chapter 9: Unlike slaves and women, “Kutim” may not make a Nazaritic vow; in what respects Nazaritic vows of women are more rigorous than those of slaves, and vice versa (§ 1); further details regarding the defilement of a Nazarite; the examination of burial-places, and, in connection therewith, rules for the examination of a person suffering from discharges or tzaraath (§§ 2-4); discussion of the question whether Samuel was a Nazarite (§ 5).
The Tosefta to this treatise is divided into six chapters. Noteworthy is the story it narrates of the high priest Simon the Just, who never partook of the sacrifice offered by a Nazarite, with the exception of that offered by a handsome youth from the south, since in this case he could assume that the young man had made his vow with the best intentions and acceptably to GOD. When Simon asked why he had decided to clip his hair, the youth replied that on beholding his image in a pool he had become vain of his own beauty, and had therefore taken the Nazaritic vow to avoid all temptations (4:7).
The Babylonian Gemara, whose introductory passage explains, by a reference to the Bible (Deuteronomy 24:1; comp. Rashi ad loc., and Sotah2a), why the treatise Nazir belongs to the order Nashim, contains also many interesting sentences, a few of which may be quoted here: “The forty years (Samuel II 15:7) are reckoned from the time when the Israelites first asked for a king” (5a). “The Nazarite has sinned (Numbers 6:11) by denying himself wine; and if one who denies himself wine, which is not absolutely necessary, is deemed a sinner, one who denies himself other things which are needful for the sustenance of life is a much greater sinner” (19a). “An infringement of the Law with good intentions is better than its fulfilment without good intentions. Still one must study the Torah and observe its commandments, even though he is not in the proper mood, since he will gradually acquire thereby a sympathetic frame of mind” (23b).
There are two types of nazirites mentioned:
- A nazirite for a set time
- A permanent nazirite
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.
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.
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 that recovers from Tzaraath, a skin disease described in Leviticus 14, is obligated to cut his hair despite being a nazirite.
The nazirite 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 nazir 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.
Many later opinions compromise between these views and explain that a nazirite is both good and bad.
Nazirites in history
Nazirite vows in the 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 Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, and 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 Gamalielrecords 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). The Gospel of Matthew 11:18–19 and the Gospel of Luke 7:33–35 attributed to Jesus makes it doubtful that he, reported to be “a winebibber”, was a permanent nazirite during his ministry. Also the verse ends with the 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 Spirit of GOD, 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 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 21:23-24 we learn that the early Jewish Christians occasionally took the temporary Nazarite vow, and it is probable that the vow of 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”.
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.