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The Nazirite Puzzle

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes procedures for exiting a mysterious state: the vow of the Nazirite. (It is sometimes spelled Nazarite.)

First of all, if you are thinking, well, Nazirite and Nazareth sound similar, sorry to disappoint. They are not related.

In Numbers 6, we read about the Nazirite vow. A person taking the vow promises to abstain from certain pleasures for a named period of time. They vow not to drink wine, grapes, grape products, and any fermented drink, including vinegar. They vow not to cut their hair, and they vow not to come in contact with, or even come near a dead body, even a close relative. The only reason given in Numbers 6 for taking these vows is “to set themselves apart for the Eternal.” The Nazirite vow is a Jewish practice so far out of use that it is largely a puzzle to us.

This week’s Haftarah (prophetic reading) gives us one of the two examples of a Nazirite in Tanakh, Samson. You can read his story in the book of Judges, chapters 13 – 16. The other Nazirite in Tanakh was the prophet Samuel. In both of those cases, the Nazirite himself didn’t make the vow; it was made on his behalf before his birth by his mother. Nor did either man seek release from the vow; Samson was clearly not happy with the vow, but he seems unaware of any exit from it. The fact that the two “case studies” we have seem divergent from the description of it in Torah contributes to the puzzles around the vow.

Today it is still theoretically possible to make such a vow, but there are some difficulties. The main issue is that since the Nazirite requires a Temple rite to reunite with the people and conclude the vow, any Nazirite vow taken today is permanent.  The other issue is the seriousness of taking vows. A vow, or neder, is a very serious matter in Jewish tradition. There is a large body of Jewish law concerning vows. However, the short version is very simple: Jewish tradition discourages us from making vows.

It is now extremely rare in modern Jewish practice for anyone to make a vow, because it is understood to be a binding step. You may hear someone make a statement about something he or she will do in the future, but they will hedge that statement with “blee neder” – “without a vow” – so that should something fall through, they do not incur the penalties of breaking a vow.

How hard do you think it would be to keep the Nazirite vow? Can you imagine reasons anyone might take it today?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

9 thoughts on “The Nazirite Puzzle”

  1. Rabbi, what about Kol Nidre when we are supposedly released from our vows? How is that possible if we don’t make vows?


    1. The two ideas are closely related. We take vows only on the most solemn occasions, and avoid taking them at all if possible. However, sometimes we might take a vow when we do not have our full free will. One example of that is during times of persecution. To save the life of a child, or even my own, I might agree to “convert” as the conversos did in Spain in 1492. But it would not be a real vow, since it was forced. Still, I need to be released from it.

      Another example is the fast of Yom Kippur. Over the course of the long day, I might get excited and make a vow I could not possibly keep. Someone might vow, for instance, that she will stop smoking tomorrow, and never smoke again!” That is a good thing to do, but an almost impossible vow for someone addicted to nicotiene. So at the beginning of Yom Kippur, we say the Kol Nidre formula to remind ourselves and God that if we get crazy with hunger or spiritual feelings and promise something rasb, we must make our best effort, but we ask God not to hold us to it if it proved to be impossible.


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