Naso (Take a census)

Numbers 4:21 to 7:89

The subject of the Nazarite is discussed in this week’s text. Only the laws regarding the Nazar are presented. A look at the customs and rituals of the Temple era explain why people turned to the Nazarite traditions.

The census referred to in this portion’s title is a continuation of the counting of the male members from the Levite tribes that began in the last parsha.

NasoWithin this week’s text is a brief section which presents the laws relating to a person who chooses to become a Nazarite. Although there are other references to Nazarites in Torah, this is the most detailed discussion. However, the Mishnah and Talmud devote much space to the subject. Based on the manner in which the subject is presented in this week’s parsha, the people at the time that the Torah was written were familiar with the concept of the Nazarite.

Torah tells us that any man or woman can take a Nazarite’s vow to “set themselves apart for the Eternal.” (Num. 6:1) Once the vow is taken, four requirements must be met:

1) “Abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout their term as Nazarite, they may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.” (Num. 6:3-4)

2) “No razor shall touch their head…. The hair of their head being left to grow untrimmed.” (Num. 6:5)

3) “They shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if their father or mother, or their brother or sister should die, they must not become defiled for any of them.” (Num. 6:6-7)

4) “The day that the term as Nazarite is completed, the person shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. As an offering to the Eternal the person shall present one male lamb in its first year without blemish for a burnt offering (given as an offering of gratitude); for purgation offering (given for atonement); one ram for an offering of well-being; a basket of unleavened cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, and unleavened wafers spread with oil; and the proper meal offerings and libations.” (Num. 6:11-15)

Questions have been raised about the need for an offering of purgation (atonement) when the entire action is to come closer to the Eternal. Answers include repentance for inadvertent lapses during the vow… Others say that the offering may be given because the vow is ending and that the special actions in the name of the Eternal are also ending.

These are the laws or rules for the Nazarite. But, I wondered, why would a person wish to become a Nazarite… and why these requirements. After some research I discovered some answers.

The root of the Hebrew word Nazar is “to separate”… So, in this case, the Nazar is separated from others in the community. During this separation they become consecrated and devoted to the Eternal. This raises two issues: separation and devotion.

First looking at the issue of devotion: During Biblical times (the time of the Temple) only the Kohanim and the Levites could demonstrate an active role in the worship process. The act of becoming a Nazarite allows any other person the opportunity to show an open devotion to the Eternal. In some cases this devotion resulted in leadership positions. Examples include Sampson, a military leader with great strength; and Amos, a prophet. (Wikipedia entry for Nazirite)

The process of separation was ritual, secular… and deeply personal. The abstinence from intoxicants and the complete lack of contact with the dead is similar to the prohibited acts of the priests. In these ways, the Nazar is striving to act like the priests. The vows also act to separate the Nazar from the community. In Canaan the grape vine stood for culture and civilization and was associated with the nature god. For this reason it was considered an honor by the zealots of Yahweh to turn away from any product from the vine. (Dictionary of the Bible, James Hasting–editor, p. 690)….. A possible reason for the regulations regarding hair can be found in the belief at the time of the Temple that hair was important as a factor in the physical life of a person. This is demonstrated in the story of Samson. So, long hair demonstrated strength and devotion. (ibid.) …. And lastly, the restrictions regarding contact with dead demonstrate a power over personal emotion. Even at a time of extreme personal loss, the Nazar remains true to his or her vows. In many cases this may even result in a separation from both community and family.

By following these laws, any person could show a deep personal involvement with the Eternal. This involvement was apparent to all as a result of the separation from the normal practices of the community.

The vows could be taken for a period of thirty days or more… up to a lifetime vow. This vow could be as simple as the words “me too” upon coming in contact with a practicing Nazarite. In time, the purpose and spirit of the practice changed and became a path for personal ends. The vow was taken for protection on a journey, deliverance from sickness, or a start of a new venture.

I found two major reasons for the decline of the practice of the Nazarite…. First, when the Temple was destroyed the offerings that ended the vow could not be made. As a result, the vows of the Nazarite became permanent. But in fact, the leaders at the time declared all Nazarite vows ended when the Temple offerings could not be made…. Second, mainstream Judaism held that the goals of the community were more important than personal separation. Seperation, or a “monk-like” existence is contrary to the teachings of Torah …. It was also felt that the pleasures of wine were God-given. Moderation was the ideal reaction to intoxicants. Excesses were not healthy and abstinence was depriving ones self of a God-given enjoyment. For these reasons the basic concepts of the Nazarite was against mainstream practice.

After looking for the “whys” of the Nazarite… and discovering this information … I have a deeper understanding of why the Nazar committed to the vows. I hope that you also have a deeper understanding of this puzzling practice.

Earl Sabes

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