The Nazirite–A Sacred Volunteer

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

Commentary on Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

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.

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

Discover More

Caring For Dead Loved Ones

Despite their focus on life, priests are permitted to attend to their closest relatives in death.

The Story of the Book of Ruth

An analysis of the book read on Shavuot.

Life, Death and Impurity

Ritual purity laws highlight the power of confronting mortality and the subsequent need to ritualize the reaffirmation of life.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

How Judaism regards the man Christians revere as the messiah.

Converting to Judaism: How to Get Started

How to find an introductory Judaism class.

Israel’s War of Independence

Establishing a new nation and defending it

Judaism and Pets: Questions and Answers

What Jewish tradition says about cats, dogs and other companion animals.