Nedarim 9

Narcissus redux.

There’s a famous story in Greek mythology of the hunter Narcissus, an extremely good-looking man who one day stopped to drink from a pool of water and became rooted to that spot. Transfixed by his own beautiful reflection, he eventually withered away and died. The story is the source of the term “narcissist,” meaning one who is detrimentally self-absorbed. 

There’s a fine line between self-love and self-absorption, between having a healthy appreciation for your talents and virtues and focusing so much on yourself that it leads to your destruction. Narcissus epitomizes the destructive side of that line. But on today’s daf, we get another version of the Narcissus story, with a very different conclusion.

In beraita (an earlier teaching) on today’s daf, Shimon HaTzaddik (Simeon the Righteous), who served as a priest when the Temple stood, tells the story of an encounter he had with a nazirite in the Temple. 

One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I said to him: My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?!

A nazirite must shave their head at the conclusion of their vow, which meant that the beautiful man would eventually lose his luscious locks. And, as Shimon HaTzaddik’s lament hints, he committed to this “uglification” on purpose.

He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection and my inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world.

I said to myself: “Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? In someone who will eventually be food for worms and maggots? I swear by the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.”

Here we have a strong parallel to the Narcissus story. (And, indeed, we know that the Greek story circulated in late antiquity, so the rabbis may have known a version of it.) A young man leans over a body of water and is entranced by his own beauty. But here, the young man recognizes the destructiveness of this kind of self-absorption and takes immediate action to conquer it, both reminding himself that his physical appearance is temporary (he, like everyone else, will, in the natural course of things, age, perish and ultimately decompose) and vowing to become a nazir, committing to a period of self-denial and sacrality that will culminate in shaving his gorgeous curls, thereby removing one of his most beautiful attributes. 

And how did Shimon HaTzaddik respond? 

I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among Israel. About you the verse states: When a man shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord. (Numbers 6:2).

The Greek myth doesn’t tell us whether Narcissus had the capacity to choose to walk away from his reflection — whether he languished because he couldn’t leave, or wouldn’t. But the rabbis are clear: Unlike Narcissus, this young shepherd consciously realized the danger of his own self-fascination. Instead of withering away beside a pond, he committed himself to a nazirite vow that would culminate in the removal of his hair, and was ultimately held up by Shimon HaTzaddik, the righteous priest, as a model. Rather than succumbing to narcissism, this man used his moment at the well to challenge himself to become a better version of himself. And in so doing, he truly became, as Shimon HaTzaddik tells us, “consecrated to the Lord.” 

Plus, he still had beautiful eyes. After all, you can take the modesty thing too far.

Read all of Nedarim 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 3rd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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