Nazir 19

The nazirite queen.

We have already learned that a nazirite vow is completed in the land of Israel because a nazir had to offer their concluding sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. But does that mean they have to observe their naziritehood there, or at least some portion of it? Or can they come to Israel after their naziritehood is over, offer their sacrifices, and then peace out.  

According to the mishnah on today’s daf:

Beit Shammai say: A nazirite for 30 days. And Beit Hillel say: A nazirite from the beginning.

We usually associate Beit Shammai with more stringent opinions and Beit Hillel with more lenient ones, but the opposite is true here. Beit Shammai only obligates the nazirite to spend 30 days in Israel before offering their concluding sacrifices. It is Beit Hillel who obligates them to redo their entire naziritehood in Israel. Apparently, Beit Hillel doesn’t think that a nazirite vow can be even partially fulfilled in the diaspora.

The mishnah then offers us a fascinating illustration of how all this might work:

An incident occurred with regard to Queen Helene, whose son had gone to war, and she said: If my son will return from war safely, I will be a nazirite for seven years. And her son returned from the war, and she was a nazirite for seven years. 

We’ve already met Queen Helene back on Sukkah 2. As a refresher, she was the (originally non-Jewish) queen of the Persian vassal state of Adiabene (what today would be Kurdistan). After her husband died, she and her two sons converted to Judaism. Eventually, she moved to Jerusalem and was known for her enormous sukkah. 

But before that happens, she apparently makes a conditional vow of naziritehood dependent on her son’s safe return from battle. Here we gain insight into one reason someone might decide to become a nazir — as thanks for God’s protection in a specific situation. 

Wonderfully, Queen Helene’s son returns safely from battle, and so a nazirite she becomes.

And at the end of seven years, she ascended to Eretz Yisrael, and Beit Hillel instructed her that she should be a nazirite for an additional seven years. And at the end of seven years she became ritually impure. And she was found to be a nazirite for 21 years. 

Poor Queen Helene! She completes her first period of naziritehood, but outside the land of Israel. When she comes to the holy land to offer her sacrifices, she is told that she needs to observe the naziritehood all over again. And then, just as she was about to conclude her second nazirite period, she becomes ritually impure and the clock starts over yet again. 

Here we have a queen, one of the most powerful kinds of women in the ancient world, taking a vow that requires her to abstain from grape products as well as hair care. And through a series of misadventures, her seven-year nazirite vow becomes a 21-year commitment. 

Interestingly, Queen Helene isn’t the only Jewish queen known to have taken a nazirite vow during the days of the Second Temple. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, tells us that Queen Berenice, one of the rulers of the Jewish people in the last days of the Second Temple, also took one — though hers was only for 30 days. Berenice was actually in Jerusalem to complete her nazirite vow when she heard that the Roman governor Florus had started a violent action against the Jews. She ran to him, barefoot and with her head newly shaved, to plead that he call it off. 

These Jewish leaders, one a convert and the other a descendent of the Maccabees, were both committed to a heightened relationship with God and to protecting their loved ones — whatever the cost. 

Read all of Nazir 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 11th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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