The Nazirite–A Sacred Volunteer

The nazirite exemplifies actively choosing a sacred status with a higher level of responsibility.


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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Numbers, chapter 6, presents the laws of the nazirite, an individual who has, by a vow, taken on a special sacred status. For the period of the vow, the nazirite may not have contact with any dead body, or consume any grape products (be they intoxicants or not), or cut his/her hair.

Many have observed that these restrictions are similar to those of the kohanim, the priests. But, in fact, the nazirite’s restrictions are 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.

Often we think of the early period of Israel’s covenant life as one in which God dealt out sanctity and special status on a rather arbitrary basis. The Israelites were chosen from among all peoples; they had no choice. The priests inherited their priesthood; they had no option. Even the prophets felt compelled to speak in God’s name.

But in the nazirite, we have a model of sacred status–with increased responsibility–entered into voluntarily, by any man or woman willing to accept the terms of the challenge. Such voluntarism in accepting responsibility for kedushah, holiness, is a valuable model for our age, when all coercive elements have faded from our Judaism and our participation and commitment are strictly a matter of choice.

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Rabbi David Nelson's rabbinic experience includes five years in a small congregation, fifteen years at CLAL, a think-tank and center for leadership education, five years in a community center, and three years as the primary writer and teacher for the Reform Movement's Israel organization. He is now the campus rabbi and faculty member in Religion at Bard College in upstate New York.

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