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None for Me, Thanks

Nazir: sacred or a sinner? 聽Although the Torah devotes a lengthy chapter to the status of the Nazir and the Gemara gives the subject even more space, that does not mean that the asceticism of the Nazir is necessarily Torah mandated or even approved. In fact, the sage Rabbi Elazar haKappar, calls the Nazir a sinner, basing himself on the verse that calls for a Nazir to bring a sin offering:

And if this Nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining only from wine, is nevertheless called a sinner and requires atonement, then with regard to one who distresses himself by abstaining from each and every matter of food and drink when he fasts, all the more so should he be considered a sinner.鈥 (Nazir 19a)

Judaism has a complicated attitude about abstaining from material pleasures. While scholars are often quoted as saying that Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, opposes asceticism, there has always been a strain of it throughout Jewish history. The Nazir is one example, and in the Gemara of Taanit we have the exact opposite opinion to Rabbi Elazar haKappar:

鈥淩abbi Elazar says: One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred, as it is stated with regard to the Nazirite: 鈥淗e shall be sacred, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long鈥 (Numbers 6:5). And if this Nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining from only one matter, wine, is nevertheless called sacred, then with regard to one who distresses himself by abstaining from every matter, all the more so should he be considered sacred.鈥 (Taanit 11)

Normative Judaism seems to be against denying oneself (allowed) pleasures but there have always been Jewish groups who have gone the more severe route of abstention. In First Temple times we have the example of the Rechabites, who followed their ancestor Yonadab ben Rechab in not drinking wine and in not settling down in permanent homes:

鈥淭hey replied, 鈥淲e will not drink wine, for our ancestor, Jonadab son of Rechab, commanded us: 鈥榊ou shall never drink wine, either you or your children. Nor shall you build houses or sow fields or plant vineyards, nor shall you own such things; but you shall live in tents all your days, so that you may live long upon the land where you sojourn.鈥欌 (Jeremiah 35:6-7)

In late Second Temple times asceticism became the domain of various sectarian groups. The Essenes are the most well known, both from Josephus and from the Dead Sea Scrolls, presumably written by them. Although they did not abstain from wine, they lived an ascetic life in other respects. According to Josephus, they lived communally in the desert, eating only the portions given them, spending their days in work and prayer. They also remained celibate, not allowing women into their midst. This is a significant departure from other ascetics, but one that became a model for some Christian groups.

One of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered

Public Domain, Wikipedia

Some of the early Christians, also followed ascetic tendencies. John the Baptist, the harbinger of Jesus as the Messiah, is commanded to be a Nazir from birth and not to drink any wine. We hear about another group, the Theraputae, from the writings of Philo. They lived in Egypt, had men and women as members, and like the Essenes lived communally and did not marry. They also did not eat meat or drink wine.

With the rise of Christianity, asceticism became an ideal, at least for some Christians. In the fourth century CE, Christianity attained the ultimate legitimacy: the Roman emperor Constantine converted and brought the empire along with him. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. With legitimacy came building, pilgrims, bishops and a feeling of establishment.

Some Christians were uncomfortable with this idea. They preferred living on the edge, outcasts in society. Then they could lead a more spiritual life and not be tempted by money and power. Early Christian monks like Haritoun decided that they would head out to the desert and live a basic, holy life that consisted of prayer, meditation, eking out a living and maybe doing some good works. They lived alone, in caves, but soon others joined them. The solitary laura became a communal monastery, where the monks lived an ascetic life but also prayed together and hosted travelers and pilgrims.

St. George monastery in the Judean Desert

Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

As Christianity became more powerful and monks and nuns were more prominent, Jews sometimes had to struggle to show that they were just as, if not more holy, despite their family life and material pleasures. This conflict sometimes led some Jews to pursue an ascetic lifestyle as a way to come closer to God.

The rabbis often frowned upon ascetic tendencies but that only proves that they were practiced, at least by some people. Here is what Maimonides, the champion of the Golden Mean, has to say about asceticism:

鈥淎 person might say, “Since envy, desire, [the pursuit] of honor, and the like, are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate from them to a very great degree and move away from them to the opposite extreme.” For example, he will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor live in a pleasant home, nor wear fine clothing, but, rather, [wear] sackcloth and coarse wool and the like – just as the pagan priests do. This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner.鈥 (Maimonides, Hilchot Deot 3:1)

Can we give a definitive answer about how the Torah regards the ascetic, and specifically the Nazir? Perhaps the answer is not objective but rather lies with the person who choses to pursue this path. Is he or she becoming a Nazir because of legitimate fears about self control or addiction? Is it a way to escape the world or to better live in the world? Only the Nazir can answer these questions.

David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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