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Class Notes - Class #3

Mitzvot #368 – 377 govern someone who makes a vow to become a nazir. 

            Someone who takes a vow as a nazir is obligated to three things during the period of n’zirut: 1. avoid eating or drinking any grape products, 2. avoid cutting his or her hair, and 3. avoid becoming tamei by contact with a dead body.  The mitzvot define these prohibitions as well as what happens if the nazir fails to keep the vow and what the nazir does when the period of n’zirut is over.  After we have outlined rules for a nazir we will cover our author’s discussion of the shoresh of these mitzvot and then the other related topics our author discusses.

            Any Jew, male or female, can take a vow to be a nazir.  Even an eved c’na’ani can become a nazir although the eved’s master can nullify the eved’s vow.  N’zirut does not apply to non-Jews. If the person does not specify a fixed period, the vow is understood to last for 30 days but the person can specify that the vow extend for any fixed period longer than 30 days.  The nazir serves the period of n’zirut in Israel; if the nazir leaves Israel, the restrictions apply but the time outside of Israel does not count toward to vowed period of n’zirut.  Usually when someone takes a binding vow, the person has to describe the vow precisely.  Here, though, the person vowing to become a nazir may use any wording that conveys the idea.  Even slang or a mispronunciation will create a binding vow.  Similarly, someone who says “I will be” when a known nazir is passing by has vowed n’zirut.  Like other vows, the person who vows to become a nazir may be absolved of the vow under circumstances which we will define later in our study.

            But one cannot vow part but not all of n’zirut.    Someone who tries to take on n’zirut without all of the restrictions, but only with some of them, becomes a nazir and all of the restrictions apply. N’zirut is a package which someone signs on to in its entirety or not at all.

            Our author says that a father can make an underage child a nazir but a mother cannot.  That is surprising since both Biblical examples of children subject to the rules of n’zirut, Samuel and Samson, were obligated by their mothers.  Of course, neither of those cases exactly fit the rules of n’zirut as the halachah defines them.

            The Torah spells out several different grape products the nazir is not permitted to eat.  Although one might be tempted to read this as the Torah spelling out the details of one mitzvah, Rambam, based on a Mishnah, finds five different mitzvot each prohibiting the nazir from consuming one type of grape product: liquids derived from grapes, fresh grapes, raisins, grape pits and grape skins.

 The nazir may not consume any fruit products of a grape vine.  The nazir may not consume wine, grape juice, verjus, wine vinegar, water in which grapes have been steeped, wine that has soured, liquor distilled from wine, or any drink which include a substantial grape juice component.  This is not a restriction on alcohol.  The nazir may drink alcoholic beverages that are not grape products.  The nazir may not eat ripe grapes, unripe grapes, raisins, grape skins or grape pits.  But the nazir may consume parts of a grape vine that are not food, for example stems, leaves, and buds.  (I do not know if a nazir would be permitted to eat stuffed grape leaves as are now served in some Mediterranean cuisines.)        

            Like other prohibitions on eating, a nazir is punishable for eating a k’zayit of a grape product.  A nazir who drinks a ¼ log of wine and ¼ log of vinegar is punishable once because wine and vinegar are prohibited by the same mitzvah. A nazir who eats a k’zayit of raisins and a k’zayit of grapes is punishable twice. Oddly, though, the nazir who eats a k’zayit that was made up of a combination of raisins and grapes is punishable even though raisins and grapes are each prohibited by a different mitzvah. 

            A nazir is also prohibited from cutting his or her hair during the period of n’zirut.  Mitzvah #373 is a prohibition on the nazir cutting his or her hair, and mitzvah #374 is a positive requirement for the nazir to let his or her hair grow.

            The essential prohibition here is on cutting each individual hair.  Therefore, if the nazir cut many hairs but only got one warning the nazir is punishable with one set of lashes.  But if the nazir was warned not to cut each individual hair the nazir would be punishable with one set of lashes for each hair.  The source verse, Num. 6:5, prohibits the nazir cutting his or her hair with a razor.  This is understood to mean detaching a hair at its base by any method, including shaving, plucking, or cutting with a scissor.  But the act of cutting is only punishable if the hair is cut so short that it can no longer be bent over.  Use of a depilatory is prohibited but not punishable.  The rabbis also prohibited the nazir from using a comb lest the comb pull hair out.  The nazir may wash his or her hair and fashion it with his or her hands. 

            The nazir also must avoid becoming tamei through contact with or being under the same roof as a corpse.  Mitzvah #376 prohibits the nazir from coming in contact with a corpse and mitzvah #375 prohibits the nazir from entering under the same roof as a corpse.  The nazir does not violate mitzvah #375 until the nazir enters the tent completely, but the nazir would violate mitzvah #376 by entering the tent partway because that would make the nazir tamei.  If the nazir inadvertently enters a cemetery or comes under the same roof with a corpse, the nazir must leave immediately on discovering the situation.  The nazir is punishable if he or she delays longer than it takes someone to prostrate in prayer.  The nazir need not avoid contact with other sources of tumah.

            Although the nazir is prohibited from becoming tamei through tumah engendered by a corpse, some contact with a corpse that makes the nazir tamei voids the period of n’zirut and forces the nazir to start over.  Other contact with a corpse that makes the nazir tamei does not; in those cases, the days during which the nazir is tamei do not count toward the period of n’zirut but the days the nazir already served still count and the count continues once the nazir becomes tahor.  Our author goes into some detail in mitzvah #376 distinguishing one category from the other.  We will not summarize those details.  Perhaps those details were aimed at the tastes of teenage boys.  Perhaps the author just wants to expand on what we know about tumat meit.  We will see that the categories of when tumat meit voids the period of n’zirut and when not are relevant for other issues aside from n’zirut.

            Like the cohen gadol, the nazir may not become tamei to bury a close relative.  The rules for the nazir are stricter than for an ordinary cohen.  An ordinary cohen had no choice so the Torah does not want to make things too hard for him.  But the nazir took this obligation on him or herself.  The ordinary cohen mostly has ordinary social relationships.  Except when working in the Temple, the ordinary cohen is pretty much like everyone else.  But the nazir is in a special state where his concentration on God should impact the nazir’s social relations.  The nazir’s exalted position is more like the cohen gadol, who has no personal life and whose every action is focused on the holy.  We will return to the shoresh of n’zirut shortly.

            If a nazir successfully completes the period of n’zirut, the nazir undergoes a unique sacrificial ceremony in the Temple.  The prohibitions on the nazir continue until the ceremony even if the ceremony occurs well after the end of the period of n’zirut.  Therefore, is someone takes a vow of n’zirut when the Temple is not functioning, the n’zirut continues indefinitely.  Note, though, that there is no rabbinic prohibition on someone taking such a vow.

            The nazir comes to the Temple and shaves all of his or her hair with a razor, leaving at most one hair.  (Recall the special room in the Temple designated for the n’zirim.)  The cut hair is burned on the fire that is used for cooking the shlamim sacrifices.  If the nazir cut his or her hair somewhere else, the author says the nazir brings the hair to that fire and burns it there. A bald nazir or a nazir without hands need not shave and proceeds to the required sacrifices.

The nazir then brings three sacrifices: a male lamb as an olah, a female lamb as a hattat, and a ram as a shlamim.  The shlamim is unique.  Among the unusual aspects are that it is accompanied by two types of baked breads, reminiscent of a todah. For a regular shlamim the breast and right hind thigh are waved by the owner and the cohen, but for the nazir’s shlamim there are some differences in which parts of the animal are waved and the waving does not happen until the entire ram has been cooked.  The cohen gets the parts of the shlamim that were waved and the nazir and his or her guests get to eat the rest.

The hattat is especially surprising since one brings a hattat when one has done something wrong without having full intent.  There are two strains in explaining why the nazir brings a hattat.  Maybe the nazir erred by becoming a nazir, refraining from enjoying the life pleasures provided for people by God. Or maybe the nazir erred by ending the vow of n’zirut.  Our author cites this opinion to Ramban.  Our author has another interpretation which we will see when we discuss the shoresh shortly.

This is a complex process with many steps so we should not be surprised that our author gives us some information about what happens if the nazir completes some steps but not others.  This also gives the author a chance to revisit the concept of m’akev so that we are forced to review it. According to the author the crucial step in this process is when the blood of one of the nazir’s sacrifices is sprinkled on the altar.  At that point the nazir’s vow ends.  A nazir who brings the required sacrifices but fails to shave ends his or her vow but the nazir is still is required to cut his or her hair at some future time.  A nazir who fails to participate in waving the required part of the shlamim is still released from the vow.  If the nazir shaved and brought the shlamim and the shlamim turned out to be disqualified the nazir must bring another shlamim and shave again.  If the nazir shaved and brought all three sacrifices, if even one of them was qualified the nazir need not shave again although the nazir is required to bring replacements for the invalid sacrifices. Our author’s discussion here is not a full list of the possible steps a nazir might skip, it is just a small selection, not enough to give us a complete picture. 

            A nazir who does not succeed in complying with all the restrictions for the full period of the vow falls into one of three categories.

1.  If a nazir consumes grape products, that has no impact on the rest of the process.

2. If a nazir shaves the majority of his or her head, even under coercion, or if the nazir becomes tamei through certain types of contact with a corpse, the n’zirut is voided.  For example, a nazir who touches a corpse voids the period of n’zirut. The nazir must become tahor. The nazir shaves his or her hair and brings three sacrifices: a bird for an olah, a bird for a hattat, and a male lamb as an asham. Then the nazir starts the period of n’zirut from the beginning. 

3. A nazir who becomes tamei through other types of exposure to a corpse becomes tamei but the n’zirut is not void.  Rather, the time that elapses while the nazir is tamei does not count toward the time of the vow.  Once the nazir becomes tahor, through the same process that would apply to anyone else similarly tamei, the period of n’zirut resumes.

When the nazir becomes tamei purposefully, the nazir is potentially punishable with lashes.  Rambam holds that nazir is punishable by four sets of lashes for violating four different mitzvot, the two prohibitions in this series having to do with contact with a corpse and two other mitzvot we have not yet studied.  Someone else who purposely makes a nazir tamei is also punishable with lashes for violating the prohibition on putting a stumbling block before a blind person.  Lev. 19:14.  If the nazir was a willing participant the nazir is also punishable.  But if the nazir was not a willing participant, neither is punishable.

            The condition of n’zirut is complex.  It has echoes of several other halachic institutions.  Like the cohen gadol, a nazir does not become tamei for the funeral of a close relative.  Like a m’tzorah, a nazir shaves his or her hair.  Like a mourner, the nazir does not cut his or her hair.  But nazir does not line up with those institutions in other ways. 

            N’zirut is a form of asceticism, a condition where someone chooses to give up permissible pleasures.  Our author articulates his understanding of the shoresh in mitzvah/essay #374.  N’zirut is an asceticism of a very special form structured around his understanding of the relationship between body and soul.  This issue, and the concept of “seichel,” “intelligence,” are major concerns of medieval philosophy, a topic I do not know enough about to add much context to what our author says.  Recognizing that we don’t really have the background to understand what the author is saying, we can nevertheless summarize.

            People are created with physical, animal bodies.  Our bodies have natural cravings and needs that lead us to focus on the physical world and sometimes lead us to misbehave.  But people also are created with seichel, the intelligence that is a connection between people and God.  People have the obligation to develop that seichel, which enhances the connection between people and God.  If not for the limitations of the body, the seichel in each of us would be drawn to God, and we would be like the angels.  But the limitations of the body force us to be concerned with material needs and that limits our seichel.  That is not morally bad, it is just necessity.

            Someone who can lessen his or her concern with the physical body can help enhance his or her seichel.  It is crucial for that person to set a balance, since too much neglect of the body’s needs will ultimately lessen seichel rather than increasing it.  The institution of nazir exemplifies that balance as the nazir refrains from some things the nazir would like to do without doing things that would be harmful.  The nazir avoids consuming grape products, food that might be delightful but is not necessary.  The nazir who avoids drinking wine lessens the possibility that the nazir will participate in parties and other social activities.  That allows the nazir to keep focused on the sacred.  The nazir avoids the vanity of grooming by first letting his or her hair grow and then shaving it all off.  The nazir avoids certain types of tumah, something our author says is at odds with sanctity.  That frees up the nazir to concentrate on developing seichel, a concentration that might carry over after the period of n’zirut ends.

            In that context, our author explores the hattat sacrifice the nazir brings.  The hattat may be because the nazir has given up this limited ascetic practice which encouraged the higher callings the ascetic practice was designed to enhance. Or perhaps the hattat is because of the possibility the nazir took the ascetic tendency too far, doing things that might ultimately be harmful.

            Asceticism is not very popular in our current culture.  Our author understands n’zirut as setting a model of asceticism that encourages spirituality without being so severe that the asceticism might cause physical harm.  Although n’zirut is very rare now, and although the status of nazir now would continue throughout the nazir’s lifetime, the model of n’zirut is relevant to how we individually balance the benefits of not indulging in every possible physical pleasure against such severe deprivation that the person does harm to him or herself.

            Our author digresses into three other topics in his discussion of these mitzvot.  These topics may require us to review concepts we studied earlier.  In part, that is probably why the author chooses to discuss them.

            The author reviews a discussion he first mentioned in mitzvah/essay #174.  He cites Rambam for the opinion that there is only one mitzvah that defines the procedure for how a period of n’zirut ends and that mitzvah covers both the nazir shaving and the nazir bringing the required sacrifices.  But for a healed m’tzora Rambam counts two separate mitzvot, one for the m’tzora shaving his or her hair and another for the m’tzora bringing the required sacrifices.  The author suggests looking back to mitzvah #174 for a further discussion.

Second, our author discusses eating mixtures of forbidden and permitted food or two types of forbidden food.  Typically, when someone eats forbidden food, the person is punishable if the person ate a k’zayit of food forbidden by one specific mitzvah.  Even if there are different kinds of food, they add together only if they are forbidden by the same mitzvah.  Thus, someone who eats a k’zayit made up half of treifah beef and half of treifah veal is punishable.  But a nazir who eats a k’zayit made up of different types of solid grape products is punishable even though each type of grape product is prohibited to the nazir based on a different mitzvah and the nazir has not consumed a k’zayit that violates any one mitzvah.  Several other mitzvot have that same feature: piggul and notar, n’veilah and t’reifah, and the different components of a todah sacrifice (meat, fat, flour, oil, wine and bread) which for whatever reason the owner is not permitted to eat.  If there is some permitted food mixed into what the person eats, that permitted food does not count toward the k’zayit even when different types of forbidden foods count in together. 

Third, the author discusses a situation where food has the flavor of forbidden food although the forbidden food itself is not a component.  For example, let’s say some food is cooked in a pot that was previously used for cooking prohibited food and the flavor of the prohibited food is discernible in the new food although there has never been any prohibited food actually part of the new food. 

Now recall the principles of bittul we have seen earlier.  In general, d’oraita if the majority of a mixture of permitted and prohibited food is the permitted food, the prohibited food is batel and the mixture is all considered permitted. Cases of bittul fall into two categories: 1. “min b’mino,” where the forbidden food is mixed into the same type of permitted food.  For example, prohibited hot dogs get mixed into a pot with permitted hot dogs that taste the same.  2. “min she’b’aino mino,” where the forbidden food is mixed into a different type of permitted food.  For example, a prohibited hot dog falls into a pot of permitted chicken stew.  The problem of the status of food that has the flavor of prohibited food but where there is actually no discernable prohibited food only applies to the min she’b’aino mino case, not to the min b’mino case, since where the mixture is min b’mino everything in it tastes the same.

            From the rules we already know we would think that food which includes no forbidden food but which has the flavor of forbidden food would be permissible since there is way more than a majority of permitted food.  But the rule in that case is derived from a drashah based on the case of nazir so our author includes it here.  The rule is “ta’am k’ikar,” the flavor of prohibited food is equivalent to the food itself.  We are forbidden to eat otherwise permitted food that has discernible flavor of prohibited food. 

            As we said earlier, someone who eats forbidden food is punishable for eating a k’zayit of the forbidden food in the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread.  Can someone eating food with the flavor of forbidden food but no actual forbidden food be punished?  That person will never eat a k’zayit of forbidden food since no forbidden food is present.  Our author explains two opinions about punishing that person.  First, Rambam holds that since the person did not eat a k’zayit of forbidden food in the requisite time the person is not punishable.  The principle of ta’am k’ikar teaches us what we may or may not eat, but is not a basis for changing rules about punishments. Second, some authorities hold that we act as if the flavor of the forbidden food was coming from actual forbidden food mixed in.  Then, if the flavor is strong enough, a person could eat enough in the requisite time such that the flavor of forbidden food would be the equivalent to the flavor produced by a k’zayit of actual forbidden food.  In that case the person would be punishable.

            Although the rule for bittul d’oraita is whether the permitted food is the majority, the rabbis preferred to be more cautious.  The rabbis instructed us to treat food as forbidden if the forbidden food is one part in sixty.  Part of the reason for that rabbinic rule is to prevent us from eating food with the taste of forbidden food.