For the week ending 22 June 2024 / 16 Sivan 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - The Nazir

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: The Nazir

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

Mitzvos #368-377 (Bamidbar ch. 6)


A nazir is someone who vows to abstain from wine out of the concern that he may become intoxicated and engage in immoral behavior. Being the Creator of mankind and knowing their nature, Hashem understood that a nazir who avoids wine but eats grape products will eventually come to drink wine as well. He therefore said to Moshe: “Go tell the Jewish people the laws of the nazir.” In addition to the mitzvah to avoid all grape products, these laws include prohibitions against cutting hair and coming into contact with a corpse (Shemos Rabbah 16:2), which will be explained below.

The Torah’s insightful instructions to the nazir are a model for other areas of struggle against the evil inclination. In particular, the Sages see the instruction to avoid harmless grape products in order to avoid wine as an allusion to how one must distance himself from sexual immorality by avoiding even that which is essentially harmless and permitted if there is any chance that it may lead to sin (Shemos Rabbah ibid.). No being of flesh and blood cannot rely on himself to withstand temptation; he must keep far away.


The Midrash explains that the nazir cannot cut his hair because a haircut beautifies a person and allowing hair to grow wild makes a person feel disheveled and downcast. Hashem said: “Since this person has accepted upon himself to become a nazir in order to avoid immorality, let him also grow his hair to prevent his evil inclination from becoming aroused and leaping upon him” (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:10). In other words, having a good appearance makes a person attractive and inflates his pride, which encourages immorality. Hashem advises the nazir to counteract this by going to the other extreme and letting his hair grow wild.

This does not mean that a nazir actually feels disheveled and downcast. The Torah calls a nazir’s hair “the crown of his God.” A nazir replaces the pride of his body with the true pride of subjugating his body to Hashem’s kingship, so he wears Hashem’s crown. Ibn Ezra remarks: “Know that all people are slaves to earthly desires. The only true king, who has a majestic crown on his head, is someone who is free from the subjugation of earthly desires.” The Kabbalists speak at length about the holiness of a nazir’s hair and the reason why Shimshon’s nazirite hair gave him Divine strength. Thus, by growing his hair, the nazir humbles his body but elevates his soul.


The Torah calls the nazir “holy,” and the Sages add, “like an angel (Shemos Rabbah 16:2).” Every day the nazir keeps his vow, he becomes holier and holier (Alshich). By informing the nazir of his great holiness, the Torah elevates him and frees him from feeling any bitterness over his abstinence, which would otherwise cause him to succumb. A nazir is meant to be holy in all regards, distancing himself from the pulls of society and freeing himself to contemplate on Hashem. Since a nazir is a holy servant of Hashem, he may not sully their purity even in order to bury their closest relatives, just like a Kohen Gadol (Alshich and Rav Hirsch). The Torah refers to the nazir-vow as a peleh (wonder) because it is extraordinary for a person to curb his passions and be different from the rest of society (Rabbeinu Chaim Paltiel).

All Jews share the above qualities of the nazir to some extent. Each mitzvah restricts our bodies and guides our souls to connect with Hashem, thereby imbuing us with holiness that accumulates throughout our lifetimes. We therefore bless Hashem before the performance of a mitzvah, “Who made us holy through His commandments.”


The Torah commands the nazir to bring a sin-offering on the day he completes the period he set for himself in his nazir vow. Is being holy a sin? Sefer HaChinuch explains: A person is a soul that is housed in a body, and Hashem expects a person to take care of his “house” so that his soul can function at its best. Pulling toward holiness afflicts the body; pulling toward sensual drives afflicts the soul. Although the nazir deemed it necessary to afflict his body through abstinence, perhaps he went too far, and for this he must bring a sin-offering.

Alternatively,Ramban suggests that once a nazir has conducted himself with purity, it is considered sinful for him to descend back to the impurity of normal life. One might ask: What did the nazir gain by acting like an angel and then reverting to being exactly as he was before? We may explain based on the well-known idea that in order to correct a negative character trait, a person has to conduct himself in the opposite extreme for some time, and then he should conduct himself in a balanced manner (Rambam, De’os 2:2). So too here, by practicing abstinence, the nazir rectifies his character, and he is then capable of returning to regular conduct without fear of sin.

In total, the nazir must bring three offerings, an olah offering that is entirely incinerated on the altar, a chatas sin-offering, and a shelamim offering that is partly eaten by the owner, partly eaten by the Kohanim, and partly offered on the altar. We may suggest that these represent the three stages of the nazir’s process: Firstly, during the period of his vow, the nazir dedicates himself to Hashem entirely like the olah. Then he descends back to normal life, for which he must bring a sin-offering. Now that he has attained a perfect balance between his body and soul, he celebrates with a shelamim that is shared by the altar, the Kohanim, and the owners, which allude to his now balanced character.

The nazir shaves his sacred hair and adds it to the fire beneath the pot of shelamim. He does not cast away his hair since that would suggest that he is rejecting his abstinence (Sifsei Kohen, cited in Otzar HaMidrashim). Instead, he includes the sacred hair in the offering of celebration over his newfound holiness. By acting like an angel, he has revealed the angel within.

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