"Samson Puts Down the Pillars" by James Tissot, ca. 1900. The biblical character of Samson is the best known Nazirite.
"Samson Puts Down the Pillars" by James Tissot, ca. 1900. The biblical character of Samson is the best known Nazirite.

Judaism does not preach self-denial as the ideal way of life, but there’s something to be said for holy vows

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Numbers 4:21-7:89
Judges 13:2-25

“She broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!”Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

Although he is not named explicitly, the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s beloved anthem is assumed to reference Samson, the most famous Nazirite in Jewish history. His miraculous conception and birth are recorded in this week’s haftarah, the reading from the prophetic books of the Bible that correlates to the Torah portion.

Samson was declared a lifelong Nazirite before his birth, meaning he would abstain from all grape-related products, never come in contact with a human corpse and never cut his hair. Notably, his mother was instructed to eat well but to drink no alcohol during her pregnancy, an early awareness of the connection between the health of an expectant mother and her baby.

But after a life of legendary drama and great (mis)adventure, it was Samson’s intoxication with the treacherous Delilah that led to his downfall. When she finally tricked him into disclosing the source of his renowned Herculean strength — in Samson’s case, his uncut hair — she sheared his lush tresses while he slept. He was then cruelly blinded and taken prisoner.

With a last burst of divinely given energy as his hair began to grow back, Samson praised the Eternal, toppled the pillars and brought down the walls of the great hall upon himself and thousands of Philistines who were wildly celebrating his capture (Judges 16).

Samson is a fascinating, wonderfully flawed Biblical superhero, whose Nazirite identity was chosen for him. But our Torah portion indicates that both men and women could, for a period of time, elect to take the Nazirite vows on their own accord. For the duration of their vow, they would consume nothing derived from grapes, let their hair grow free and have no contact with the dead, even if they were close family members.

In this last prohibition, Nazirites raised themselves temporarily to the level of the high priest, who was the only Kohen forbidden from proximity to the corpses of their nearest kin. Priesthood could never be chosen or applied for. It was determined only and always by birth, and this way to experience even a brief passage into the priestly life is curious and compelling.

What could have motivated a person to take the Nazirite vow? Was it a good choice? The fact that women could make the vow is really remarkable. Certainly women could not be priests, and yet they could participate equally in this option.

Taking a Nazirite vow apparently satisfied a deep need for some in the ancient world who sought a different connection with God and to live for a while as a member of God’s innermost circle. Some sages described the Nazirites as akin to prophets, though we have no evidence of them hearing the call of God like the prophets of old.

The prevailing thought is that the Nazirite vow lasted generally about 30 days and, at first glance, the vow presents as positive: a sincere and pious offering of oneself to a time of mindful discipline and abstinence.

But the sages are divided, sometimes even within themselves, about how to feel toward this rather opaque enterprise.

“Throughout his term as a Nazirite, he is holy unto God.” (Numbers 6:8) That seems positive enough. But at the conclusion of the vow, the soon-to-be-former Nazirite would approach the Temple and bring “a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering … and one ram without blemish for an offering of wellbeing.” (Numbers 6:14)

The primary controversy in the Torah verses surrounds the “sin offering.” Was it required because the Nazirite was now renouncing the life of more-extreme abstinence and piety and as such was considered sinful? Or was it the opposite, that a “sin offering” was required because the un-commanded vow of more-extreme abstinence and piety was made in the first place? There is not, as might be expected, universal agreement.

We might revere people who take on greater stringencies than the traditional demands of an upright and moral life. We often call them holy. But Judaism has never preached asceticism and self-denial as its ideal way of life. We are to be in the world, not separate from it, practicing moderation and striving to live joyously, richly and in balance — not hedonistically, wastefully and in extremes. A hefty task indeed.  

For those struggling with destructive aspects of our yetzer hara, our potentially harmful urges, a time-bound period of abstinence and retreat from the world and its temptations can be a powerful tonic.

The individual journey of the Nazirite likely spoke to a very personal and private need that, though impossible to observe fully since the fall of the Temple almost 2,000 years ago, still may have deep resonance in our time.

By example, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow writes movingly about a woman who, inspired by the Nazirites, took a vow of permanent abstinence from alcohol as a central part of her journey to sobriety. Adding an additional promise to not cut her hair for a year was a way to increase humility during part of her recovery. By claiming her place in the history of Nazirites, she affirmed that she was doing so to be closer to the Holy Presence and to be the best version of herself that she could be.

Maybe there is something each of us could consider refraining from for a time to uncouple from harmful behaviors and the temptations that ensnare us? The specifics will vary and the circumstances will differ, but perhaps the intention of the Nazirite vows — to experience a self-imposed time of intensified discipline and attention to “sober living” — could be greatly impactful for us all.

We needn’t be Samsons to live mighty lives. But with small, careful changes, we may yet build monuments to greatness and pathways to inner peace.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].