A nazirite or nazarite (Hebrew: נזיר, nazir "separated") was a Jew set apart for, and especially consecrated to, God through vows of abstinence. Both men and women could take the nazirite vow; married women could take the vow with the consent of their husbands. The duration of naziriteship was voluntary, and ranged from thirty days to a lifetime. Despite the name "separated", nazirites did not lead a monastic existence apart from the community but were active participants in all familiar and communal affairs. What set them apart was their meticulous observance of the vow, which gave them a holy status similar to that of the High Priest.
Taking the vow
Expressing the desire to become a nazirite was seen as sufficient to assume the vow: if one said, "May I be a Nazirite," he became a Nazirite at once. The person could specify the length of the vow; if no length was specified, this was taken to mean 30 days. They could also vow to remain a nazirite for the rest of their life. Some biblical nazirites were preordained by God while still in the womb - e.g. Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. A father could also declare his son to be a nazirite, but the child himself, or other close family member, had the right to refuse to keep such a vow.
As with other vows in Judaism, a father has the ability to annul the nazirite vow of his unmarried daughter, and a husband has the ability to annul a vow by his wife, when they first hear about it.
The nazirite vow
Numbers 6:2-21 gives more detailed instructions, but simply stated, the vow imposed three restrictions upon the nazirite:
- the prohibition of wine, or anything made from grapes
- not to cut the hair of the head
- not to touch the dead, not even the body of their father or mother, and not to be near a place of burial
Many have observed that these restrictions are similar to those of the kohanim (priests) but, in fact, the nazirite's restrictions were even greater than the priest's. An ordinary priest is permitted contact with the dead of his immediate family. Only the High Priest shares the nazirite's absolute prohibition regarding contact with any dead. Furthermore, priests are prohibited from drinking intoxicants while "on duty," in the sanctuary, but they are not prohibited from doing so at other times, nor are they forbidden to consume nonalcoholic grape products. Finally, priests were not allowed to shave their heads but were required to trim their hair. So it appears that, for the period of the vow, the nazirite's sanctity surpassed even that of the High Priest.
George A. Barton and Ludwig Blau, writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia, explain further: "He is "holy unto the Lord" (Num. 6:8), and the regulations which apply to him actually agree with those for the high priest and for the priests during worship (Lev. 10:8 et seq., 21; Ezek. 44:21). In ancient times the priests were persons dedicated to God (Ezek. 44:20; 1 Sam. 1:11), and it follows from the juxtaposition of prophets and Nazarites (Amos 2:11-12) that the latter must have been regarded as in a sense priests. Young men especially, who found it difficult to abstain from wine on account of youthful desire for pleasure, took the vow. The most prominent outward mark of the Nazirite was long, flowing hair, which was cut at the expiration of the vow and offered as a sacrifice." (Num. 6:18; Jer.7:29).
After adhering to the vow for the designated period of time the nazirite would immerse themself in a Mikvah and make three offerings:
- a lamb as a burnt offering (olah)
- a ewe as a sin offering (hatat)
- a ram as a peace offering (shelamim)
After these sacrifices were offered by the priest, the Nazarite cut off his hair at the door and threw it into the fire under the peace-offering. The cost of the offerings was considered a charitable obligation by the wealthy, expressed in the phrase "to have [his head] shorn." King Agrippa, for example, had many Nazirites "shorn": "At the time of R. Simeon b. Sheṭaḥ 300 Nazarites came to Jerusalem. In the case of 150 he found a reason for annulling their vows, but in the case of the others he found none. He went to his brother-in-law King Jannai [103-76 B.C.] and said to him: 'There are 300 Nazarites who need 900 sacrificial animals; you give one-half and I will give the other half'; so the king sent 450 animals."
Types of nazirites
There were three different types of nazirite:
- nazirites vowed for a set time
- nazirites vowed for the remainder of their life
- preordained nazirites
The first type seem to be under the greatest prohibitions, for lifelong nazirites were permitted to have their hair cut once a year. The preordained, lifelong nazirites appeared also to be free of the restriction on being near the dead - Samson, for example, slew scores of Philistines without being considered to have broken the nazirite vow. Also, these preordained nazirites were rewarded by God - again Samson is a good example, being granted superhuman strength so long as he kept his head unshorn as an outward mark of his vow.
Modern Rastafarians take a nazirite vow, hence their "dreadlocks", the naturally occurring matted ropes of hair which form if it is allowed to grow naturally without the use of brushes, combs, razors or scissors for a long period of time. Samson's hair is also described in the Bible as dreadlocked, consisting of seven thick ropes (Judges 16:13).
- Nazarite 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia Accessed June 25, 2007
- Milgrom, Jacob The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers Jewish Publication Society of America (1990) ISBN 0-8276-0329-0
- Mishna tractate "Nazir" 1:1 quoted in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed June 25, 2007
- Mishneh Torah 2:14-15 at Mechon-Mamre.org Accessed June 25, 2007
- Numbers 30
- The avoidance of all produce of the vine was such that a Jewish proverb relates "Let the Nazirite go around the vineyard, but let him not approach it."
- As with the priesthood, however, a nazirite that finds an unburied corpse is obligated to bury it, even though he will become defiled in the process and have to begin his vow afresh.
- Nelson, David, The Nazirite - A Sacred Volunteer Weekly Torah Commentaries: Parashat Naso at MyJewishLearning.com Accessed June 25, 2007
- Nazarite 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia Accessed June 25, 2007
- "Nazarite" Bible Encyclopedia at ChristianAnswersNet Accessed June 25, 2007
- from Josephus, Antiquities; quoted in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia Accessed June 25, 2007
- 2 Samuel 14:26
- Eusebius of Cæsarea Historia Ecclesiastica Christian Classics Ethereal Library Accessed June 25, 2007
- Luke 1:15
- Acts 18:18; Acts 21:23-26
- Judges 13:4
- 1 Samuel 1:9-11