Nazir A Profile in Courage

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

In this week’s haftorah, the story of Shimshon’s birth is recounted, and as stories go, it is an extraordinary one. An anonymous woman, the wife of Manoach, is promised a child by a visiting messenger from God. The catch – she has to restrict herself from wine and other divrei tumah since her promised son was to be a nazir. The stress on his nezirus clearly explains why this story is told after reading Parsash Naso. However, as we shall see, the nezirus of Shimshon was of a different quality than that described in the Torah. 

The Torah (Bamidbar 6:2), when describing the nazir, emphasizes the personal choice--one “becomes” a nazir, entering into a temporary state. Yet we see a completely different type of nazir when studying Shimshon. He was a nazir from conception, his halachic state tied into his very existence. Shimshon, therefore, never “decided” on his unique status. How do we understand this expression of nazir with Shimshon? Why was it crucial that it emerge in this manner? We also see a subtle, yet critical, differentiation between the nezirus of Shimshon and the "standard" nezirus. The Torah delineates three restrictions for the nazir: no wine, no cutting of one’s hair, and no touching the dead. This last restriction did not exist with Shimshon. The simple, practical answer is that he was destined to be the leader of the people, which would involve fighting numerous battles against the Plishtim – to abstain from touching the dead would be an unworkable restriction. Yet the Rambam (Peirush Mishnayos Nazir 1:2) writes that the reason Shimshon had no restrictions when it came to tumaas hameis was tied directly to the fact that his nezirus was the result of the dictate of the malach, rather than the result of a neder to become a nazir. Why should this be the differentiating factor?

Let’s first expand on the concept of the “regular” nazir. The Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 6:2) writes that when the person decides to become a nazir, he is, in essence, separating himself from the normal behavior of the world, where people follow their instincts and desires. The Sforno (ibid) adds to this, explaining that the nazir becomes removed from the “normal behaviors” of society. No doubt, abstaining from wine and letting one's hair grow are deviations from the social norm – his long hair screams rebel, and the restriction of wine guarantees fewer invitations to parties. Yet there are many activities that could have been restricted and produced this same effect. Furthermore, the Torah already delineates, through the system of mitzvos, a way of life which ensures an individual is able to conquer his base instincts. Therefore, one must first conclude that for the individual, the purpose of avoiding wine and letting one’s hair grow was directly related to repairing some perceived defects. Growing one’s hair becomes a solution to a person’s distorted self-image, minimizing his ego. Not drinking wine is more than avoidance of instinctual gratification. The indulgence in wine, with subsequent loss of mental control, represents the ultimate victory of the world of the instinctual over the mind. The Ibn Ezra (along with the Rambam and others) points out that excessive wine use brings about countless calamities and tragedies. Clearly, to allow one’s instincts to guide him to the point of drunkenness is one of the most dangerous states in man. Thus, the restriction combats this other pronounced flaw in the person. 

This is all well and good with the standard case of nazir; yet by Shimshon, he never made the decision to become a nazir, leading to the reasonable deduction that he was not born with these flaws. This brings us to understanding the difference between the two types of nazir. With the individual’s decision to become a nazir, he is entering a state solely for the purpose of perfecting himself. It is his decision to make, and this very act of deciding to become a nazir lays the groundwork for the desired changes. With Shimshon, his designation as a nazir was for the perfection of Bnai Yisrael. God saw it as pivotal in the particular situation Bnai Yisrael was in--they had strayed from God and the Torah and were therefore placed in a state of servitude to the Plishtim--that their leader would be identified as a nazir. Shimshon, then, could never have made this decision. One cannot become a nazir to lead the nation, as the choice for nezirus only exists to correct a flaw (it also would have smack of egocentricisim). In a sense, this was a new type of nazir, one whose lifestyle would have a direct impact on how he would affect the nation. 

The Talmud (Sotah 10a) remarks that Shimshon’s dominant feature of physical strength was in fact based on the same middah of strength associated with God. One can assume this does not simply mean he was a physical specimen. We also see that he is described in many different sources as a gibor, the personification of courage. In other words, he had the makeup of someone willing to stand up and fight, motivated to defend the Torah and its derech hachayim at all costs, personifying milchemes Hashem. At this time in the history of Bnai Yisrael, under the servitude of the Plishtim, this type of personality would be ideal to unite the nation and return them to God. It could be that his life as a nazir played a pivotal role in his becoming a gibor. Standing up for this ideal, and against the norms, was something not easy to accomplish. As a nazir, his abstentions produced a unique effect, where he was naturally removed from the normal behaviors of society at the time, per the Sforno’s understanding.  Shimshon was, to a degree, detached from his surrounding society, aiding his ability to demonstrate the courage and strength to lead the nation. 

What we see from all this is a new type of nazir, a designation that could only be produced by God, as alluded to by the Rambam above. This new category might also shed light as to the reason Shimshon would not have the restriction of touching a dead body. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48,, among others) explains that the nazir is compared to the kohen gadol in this restriction of tumaas hameis.  This refers to the state of kedusha the nazir places himself into by adding these restrictions, similar to the kedusha of the kohen gadol. This designation of kedusah, however, emerges from the decision of the person to become a nazir. The tumaas hameis, therefore, is a by-product of this state. Yet in the case of Shimshon, there was no decision to become a nazir, and therefore no subsequent state of kedusha emerged.  Without this, one could see how there was no mechanism for a prohibition in tumaas hameis to emerge. This further served to demonstrate a clear qualitative differentiation between the two categories of nazir.

Looking at the system of nazir, we see the Torah as much more than a strict system of laws, so some tend to do. Instead, we see the Torah as our path to perfection, personified by nazir. We also see its infinite chachma, as God employs the system of nazir in a situation it seems not to fit into – the nezirus of Shimshon (and others). As we close in on Shavuos, and we reflect on the momentous event of Sinai, it is crucial we internalize this view, seeing both the chachmas Hashem and derech Hashem as the essence of the Torah.