Nasso (Numbers 4, 21 – 7, 89) – the Biblical Nazarite and abstinence in the Jewish tradition

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In the Torah reading of Nasso, there are laws relating to a Nazarite (Numbers 6, 1-21). The Biblical Nazarite is one who takes a vow of abstinence in order to consecrate oneself to God (Numbers 6, 2) – abstinence from wine (Numbers 6, 3-4), from cutting one’s hair (Numbers 6, 5) and from coming in contact with a dead body (Numbers 6, 6). The Nazarite is described (Numbers 6, 8) as being holy unto God – “All the days of his consecration he is holy unto the Lord”.


The practice of taking a Nazarite vow for the most part disappeared following the Biblical period. There is a debate, though, in the Jewish tradition as to how the Nazarite and the Nazarite vow of abstinence are to be viewed. In the plain meaning of Scripture, the abstinence of the Nazarite appears to be seen, if not as a religious ideal, at least as an accepted practice – although, when the days of the consecration end, the Nazarite is to bring a sin offering (Numbers 6, 11 and 14). In the plain meaning of Scripture, it appears that the Nazarite is to be consecrated unto God for an extended period of time until coming into contact with a dead body (Numbers 6, 9-12). The sin offering appears to be as a result of coming into contact with a dead body marking the end of the consecration (Numbers 6, 11) – “And the priest shall prepare…a sin-offering…and make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the (dead) person” (and, in the context of the passage, Numbers 6, 6-11, it is implied that the word person here in verse 11 is a dead body that the Nazarite has come into contact with).


However, in traditional Judaism we as Jews, in the realm of law, live not by what is written in the Bible (termed the Written Torah in the Talmudic tradition) in a fundamentalist way but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (termed the Oral Torah in the Talmudic tradition) – the foundation of which is the Talmud. I will give an example from the realm of Jewish law to illustrate that we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition.


The Biblical verse “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23, 19) is understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition to prohibit the cooking and eating of milk and meat together. But, this is not the plain, simple meaning of the Biblical verse. The Biblical verse speaks only about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. For example, it is possible to roast a kid on an open fire, which would not constitute cooking according to the Jewish tradition, and to roast and eat the kid with milk from a cow that is not the mother of the kid, which would not violate what is written in the Biblical verse. Moreover, the Hebrew word (חלב) that is translated as milk may not actually mean milk, as the word can also mean fat. It is even highly likely that the original meaning of the Biblical verse was that it is forbidden to cook a kid in the fat of the mother (which may have been an ancient Canaanite practice), as in the Bible and in the Biblical world it was the meat and fat of animals that were sacrificed as a part of sacrificial worship.


The implications here are enormous – we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism, from a legal point of view, live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition – and, therefore, in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21, 24) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood not according to the plain meaning as requiring monetary compensation. In not being bound in the realm of law by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, the Jewish tradition is thus able to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.


If we return to the Biblical Nazarite, there is, as I previously mentioned, a debate as to how the Nazarite and the Nazarite vow of abstinence are to be viewed. The origins of the debate are in the Talmud (Ta’anit 11a):


Shmuel said: Whoever sits in a fast is called a sinner. He holds in accordance with the teacher who teaches: Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar the Great says, what does the verse teach “and make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the person” (Numbers 6:11)? But with what person did this (Nazirite) sin? Rather, it is by the pain he caused himself when he abstained from wine. And if this (Nazirite), who caused himself pain only from wine, is called a sinner, then one who causes himself pain by abstaining from all other things, all the more so (is a sinner). Rabbi Elazar says: He (a Nazarite) is called holy, as it is stated “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long” (Numbers 6:5). And, if this (Nazirite), who caused himself pain by abstaining from only one thing (wine) is called holy, then one who causes pain to himself by abstaining from all other things, all the more so, (is holy).


In the Talmudic debate, Shmuel follows Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar who focuses upon the requirement of the Nazarite to bring a sin offering when his consecration ends, and Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar interprets not according to the plain meaning of Scripture that this is because the Nazarite has sinned “by reason of the person” by causing himself pain in abstaining from wine – and, Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar infers from this that even more so is it a sin to abstain from other things. Rabbi Elazar focuses upon the description of the Nazarite by Scripture as holy even though he has abstained only from wine – and, Rabbi Elazar infers from this that even more so is one holy who abstains from other things. Rabbi Elazar ignores the requirement of the Nazarite to bring a sin offering when his consecration ends, but evidently he would interpret the phrase “by reason of the person” to mean as implied by the context that the sin of the Nazarite is for having come into contact with a person in the sense of a dead body.


This debate continues in the medieval period between two great thinkers of the Jewish tradition – Maimonides (who lived in the 12th century), the great rationalist of the Jewish tradition, and Nachmanides (who lived in the 13th century), a great mystic of the Jewish tradition. Maimonides follows the position of Shmuel and Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar in codifying in his law code (laws of character traits 3, 1):


A person might say, “Since envy, desire, the pursuit of honor, and the like, are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate from them to a very great degree”…he will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor live in a pleasant home, nor wear fine clothing…Whoever follows this path is called a sinner as it is said concerning a Nazarite – “and he (the priest) shall make an atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the person ” (Numbers 6, 11). Our sages declared that if the Nazarite who abstained only from wine requires atonement, how much more so does one who abstains from everything. Therefore, our Sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things…Thus, our Sages stated that it is not enough for you those things which the Torah has prohibited that you must forbid additional things to yourself.


Nachmanides rejects this position of Maimonides and argues that although the Nazarite in bringing a sin offering at the end of his consecration has sinned against himself, the sin is not by abstaining from wine. Rather, for Nachmanides, the sin of the Nazarite is that ideally the Nazarite should have lived a life of abstinence and holiness, of devotion to God, his entire life – and, the Nazarite brings a sin offering as he is now defiling himself with worldly concerns in ending his consecration.


I want to distinguish here between traditional Judaism and Christianity regarding abstinence especially in relation to marriage and sexual relations. I emphasize that the Christian notion of “original sin” is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition. The idea in classical Christianity that human nature is inherently sinful as the result of an original sin of Adam has no basis in the Hebrew Bible, and flows from a Gnostic dualism (also having no basis in the Bible) in which the universe is dichotomized – heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, soul and body. The Gnostic aspect of this dualism (an influence of Gnostic mystery cults upon early Christianity) is that the heavenly and spiritual are viewed as good and sacred while the earthly, physical and material are seen as evil and sinful. The ideal in classical Christianity (flowing from Gnostic dualism characteristic of Christianity) is asceticism (denial of physical, material and earthly pleasures) – the ascetic life of a monk of “celibacy, chastity and poverty”.


Traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible, is characterized by unity rather than dualism (God is one, and the universe is one with no dichotomy between spiritual and physical). A traditional Jew recites a blessing after going to the bathroom that speaks about the inner tubes and vessels of the human body, which, if one of them were to open up or be blocked off, we would not be able to survive. The blessing is clearly an attack upon the kind of Gnostic dualism that characterizes classical Christianity. The blessing is expressing the idea that even the grossest, ugliest parts of our body, that we use in relieving ourselves, are not sinful, but a gift of God for which we are thankful, and without which we would not be able to live.


In traditional Judaism, there is no ideal of asceticism and celibacy as in Christianity. Marriage is an ideal in traditional Judaism, and not a necessary evil (in the event that one cannot achieve the ideal of celibacy) as in Christianity. The rabbinic term for marriage (קדושים) means holiness or sanctification – clearly implying that marriage is a religious ideal, and part of a life of holiness. According to the Hebrew Bible marriage is viewed not only as an accepted custom but as an ideal – and not seen as a necessary evil as in Christianity. Sexual relations, in the Hebrew Bible, are for two reasons. First, sexual relations are a means of reproducing and continuing the human species – “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1, 28). Second, sexual relations are an expression of the companionship between a man and a woman – “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2, 18), and “a man should leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2, 24). Notice that marriage in this passage is seen not just as an accepted practice or custom but as an ideal. It may not be considered a spiritual ideal as part of a life of holiness, as according to the Jewish tradition. But, nevertheless, it is considered appropriate and good that a man should leave his parents and take a wife.


Similarly, in traditional Judaism sexual relations are not just for the sake of reproduction but also as an expression of companionship. The Talmudic rabbis derived from the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 21, 10) a commandment of conjugal relations (עונה), in which a woman has a right to experience sexual fulfillment in the marriage relationship apart from bearing children. The obligation rests upon the husband to fulfill his wife sexually, and asceticism and celibacy were never an ideal in the mainstream of the Jewish tradition.


Interestingly, there have been Jewish mystics, not part of the mainstream of the Jewish tradition, who were influenced by Gnostic dualistic ideas, and practiced forms of asceticism, and denial of physical and material pleasures, or who inflicted pain and suffering upon themselves. But, Gershom Shalom (20th century), the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, pointed out that one thing that Jewish mystics could not deny themselves as a matter of Jewish law was sexual relations as part of a marriage relationship (which would be to inflict pain and suffering not just upon themselves but upon their wives as well) – distinguishing Jewish mysticism from Christian mysticism.


Furthermore, there are laws in traditional Judaism regulating the marital life that serve to elevate sexual relations above that of an animal act in order that they are an expression of companionship and holiness. According to Jewish law, sexual relations and physical contact between a husband and a wife are prohibited for an almost two-week period of each month, corresponding to the menstrual cycle of the woman. At the end of the almost two-week period, the woman immerses in a ritual bath, and then she is permitted to her husband. The period of prohibition (aside from the self-discipline regarding the sexual drive) is not an expression of an ideal of asceticism (as in Christianity) but a means of creating non-physical companionship and reinvigorating the sexual relationship. During the period of prohibition, the husband and wife are actually not permitted to touch at all, which forces them to learn to relate to each other in non-physical ways, so that the marriage relationship is not reduced to a sexual or physical relationship, and companionship of a non-physical nature can be developed. The period of prohibition also serves to renew the sexual excitement that the husband and wife feel for each other, and to reinvigorate their relationship. There is a Talmudic teaching that says that when the husband and wife return to each other after the period of prohibition, it is as if they are bride and groom again. Reflected in this teaching is a profound understanding of human psychology, and awareness that one of the most basic problems of a marriage relationship is sexual boredom. Sexual excitement then is viewed in the Talmudic teaching as in no way evil or sinful, but as a necessary ingredient for a successful marriage.


Incidentally, there is even an opinion brought in the Shulchan Aruch, the law code of Rabbi Joseph Caro (a great legal scholar of the 16th century), allowing for sexual relations between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman outside the confines and framework of a formal, marriage relationship (Shulchan Aruch, “Even Ha’ezer” 26, laws of marriage). Rabbi Caro’s ruling, following a ruling of Maimonides, is that an unmarried man and an unmarried woman who engage in sexual relations outside the confines of formal marriage are to be separated. However, Rabbi Moses Isserles (a great legal scholar who also lived in the 16th century) added comments to the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Caro, and he cites an opposing opinion of Ravad (who lived in the 12 century) according to which an unmarried man and an unmarried woman are permitted to engage in sexual relations outside the confines of formal marriage – if the woman is willing, and not embarrassed, to go to the ritual bath as an unmarried woman as well as willing to observe the marital laws regarding sexual relations though not married, and if the woman has been designated to the man (evidently meaning that they have a serious relationship). Ravad’s opinion is based upon the Biblical notion of a mistress. It was an accepted custom in Biblical times even for a married man to take a mistress in addition to his wife, or wives, as in the case of Abraham taking Hagar as a mistress alongside Sarah his wife. Thus, there is a Biblical basis (reflected in the Biblical custom of taking a mistress) for sexual relations outside the confines of a formal, marriage relationship.


I want to point out two things here. First, the opinion of Ravad that permits sexual relations outside the formal framework of marriage is regarding a relationship in which the woman is designated to the man that evidently means that the woman is not currently involved with another man and also that the relationship is a serious one in which case the opinion of the Ravad would not be understood as giving sanction or legitimacy to casual sexual relations. Second, though the accepted law of the Jewish tradition historically has been the opinion of Rabbi Caro, following the earlier ruling of Maimonides, forbidding sexual relations outside the formal framework of marriage; nevertheless, the opinion of Ravad is cited by Rabbi Moses Isserles in the Shulchan Aruch, and from a strictly legal point of view constitutes a legitimate position in the Jewish tradition – even though in the orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox), such an opinion is widely covered up and not revealed by orthodox rabbis and teachers.

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Jeffrey Radon

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