Chanukah in June!

Image: The cycle of the Jewish Year, depicted as a wheel. The spring holidays are at the top, the fall months are at the bottom. (source, provenance uncertain.)

The Jewish year is not just a big circle that goes around and around. It is full of echoes and connections across the year, and this week’s Torah portion is an excellent example of those connections.

The Torah reading for Parashat Naso in the book of Numbers contains readings that we will read again during Chanukah. Why? This portion contains the description of the consecration of the Mishkan [tabernacle.] Chanukah is the holiday when we celebrate the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the victory of the Maccabees.

We don’t have a full description of the reconsecration of the Temple, but it was almost certainly echoed the consecration ritual outlined in Numbers 7.

The Wikipedia article Naso (parsha) lays it all out so succinctly that I’m just going to quote it here:

Numbers 7:1–17 is the Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–29 is the Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–35 is the Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–41 is the Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–47 is the Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the second Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:1–15 as its first reading; Numbers 7:48–59 is the Torah reading for the seventh day when it does not fall on Rosh Chodesh; and Numbers 7:48–53 is the second Torah reading for the seventh day when it does fall on Rosh Chodesh, in which case Numbers 28:1–15 is the first reading; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the Torah reading for the eighth day. When a day of Hanukkah falls on a Sabbath, however, the regular weekly Torah reading for that Sabbath is the first Torah reading for that day, and the following readings from Parashah Naso are the maftir Torah readings: Numbers 7:1–17 is the maftir Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–23 is the maftir Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–29 is the maftir Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–35 is the maftir Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–41 is the maftir Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the maftir Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:9–15 as its sixth aliyahNumbers 7:48–53 is the maftir Torah reading for the seventh day; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the maftir Torah reading for the eighth day.

Naso (parsha) Wikipedia

A word about Jewish Wikipedia: Some writer/editors have put a lot of work into the articles about Judaism in Wikipedia. I find them to be generally reliable, but that’s because I double-check anything I find there. Wikipedia is not a bad place to look for sources about Jewish topics – but the real meat is in the footnotes and references. I don’t recommend quoting it without checking the source. Mistakes happen, typos happen, and I have seen errors there from time to time. Some of the writers include all movements of Judaism in their articles, and some have “attitude” about whichever movement isn’t theirs.

To bend a familiar saying a bit, Caveat lector! Let the reader beware! Or if you prefer it in Hebrew:

!קורא, תיזהר

Shabbat Shalom! – Naso

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes the curious vow of the Nazirites, a solemn promise to eschew haircuts, wine, and contamination by a corpse. It also explains the procedure for release from that vow. It deals with the trial of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery. The portion concludes with one of the most famous texts in Numbers, the Priestly Blessing.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Naso:

With Gratitude for Converts by Rabbi Janet Marder

Community Camping by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Strange Ordeal of Bitter Water by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rituals, Spiritual Fidelity, and Turning Towards God by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Judaism and the Blessing of Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Nazirite Puzzle by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Naso Sermon by Rabbi Steven Moskovitz


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?