A Nazir’s Hair: The Positive Side

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the presentation of nazir in the Torah seems to focus on the prohibitions on grape-related products and on becoming ritually impure by contact with a person who has passed away.  More verses are devoted to those two than to growing hair, and the balance of presentation could logically lead to a focus on wine as central to the status of being a nazir (while the Torah spends more time on the ritual impurity aspect, that seems less nazir specific, since every priest is required to avoid that impurity, as does any Jew who wants to enter the Temple in the next week). 

The focus on wine could explain the common view of nezirut as being a matter of training oneself to be less focused on the physical world.  For example, Sefer haChinuch (Mitsvah 374) sees the nazir as a person dedicated to giving his or her body only its minimal sustenance.  He roots this in the notion of the human being as an intellect (or soul) that God housed in a physical body.  We would all, properly, give that body only its essential needs and focus on the soul, whereas most of us overindulge the physical; the nazir is kadosh because he or she dedicates him or herself to giving the minimum to the physical.

Similarly, Sforno sees the haircutting prohibition as teaching the nazir to disregard all thoughts of beauty and/or haircare, and R. Moshe Alshich, the 16th century Tanach commentator, sees the hair-growing as a way to avoid arrogance or conceit. He is so sure of this reading that he posits that the nazir is actually supposed to avoid all forms of self-decoration, that hair is simply an instance of a broader desire of the Torah’s. (As we will see next week, the Gemara assumes that women nezirot wore makeup; perhaps R. Alshich would have said they were following the letter but not the spirit of the law).

The Evidence for a Positive Side to Nezirut

Where those views seem to miss part of the role of hair in nezirut is that it also has a positive value. First, as we’ll discuss next week, the hair of a nazir is offered up to God, as a sort of sacrifice or offering. In addition, halachah understands the word kadosh (Bamidbar 6;7) to refer to the hair the nazir grows (see Rashi there, for example). That has ramifications; the nazir cannot benefit from that hair (since it is kadosh, meaning it belongs to God, not humans), such as by using it to betroth a woman. We today use a plain ring for that ceremony, but in the Gemara’s time men entered the first stage of marriage with all sorts of gifts. A nazir’s hair (which had value for wigmaking, for example) cannot be used, since it does not belong to the man, it is kadosh.

My sense that kedushah refers to something positive is bolstered by the fact that the Torah legislates an aseh and a lo ta’aseh, a commandment and a prohibition. When the nazir refrains from wine, the only positive commandment he or she is fulfilling is the requirement to fulfill your vows.  In contrast, growing his or her hair garners the nazir credit for observing a separate positive commandment, growing the wildness of his or her hair.

This becomes significant in the discussion of the halachic principle of aseh docheh lo ta’aseh, that obligations can in some cases push aside prohibitions (so, for example, the obligation to wear tsitsit pushes aside the prohibition of shatnez).  Usually, an obligation cannot push aside a rule that includes an obligation and a prohibition.  That should have meant that a nazir metsora, a nazir stricken with what we loosely (and incorrectly) call leprosy, should not have been able to shave his or her head when healed, since the obligation for a nazir to grow his or her hair has both an obligation and a prohibition.

Several answers have been given to that question, and would take us too far afield to discuss. What it does reinforce is that the hair element of nezirut seems, by Torah law, to have a positive element. I should pause here to note that my reading of positive commandments as indicative of positive value (as opposed to the “merely” protective value of prohibitions, keeping us from acting negatively) may be my own. I say may be because I haven’t seen it explicitly anywhere else, although it seems to me that it would explain why the Rambam always counts them as two separate mitsvot (Ramban disagrees, see his comments on the 6th of the introductory principles to the Sefer haMitsvot).

Striving for a Certain Growth of Hair                         

Another support for the idea that there is something more than avoiding haircuts at work is that we seem to be building towards something—as one of the attendees at the shiur, Jeffrey Kronisch, put it.  We can demonstrate this with three halachot. First, the Gemara assumes that a stam nezirut, a nezirut in which the person taking the oath did not specify a length of time, lasts for thirty days.

How we derive that number, though, is less than fully clear.  Leaving aside the several derivations that do not help my point, I turn to another halachah related to the thirty day period that seems to push the conversation in a direction more focused on the need to achieve a certain kind of hair growth. The Yerushalmi in Nazir 6;3 notes that if a nazir shaves his head before the end of his time as a nazir, that knocks thirty days off the time he’s observed. For the example that Rambam gives in his Laws of Nazir 6;2, if a person promised to be a nazir for 100 days, and then shaved his head after twenty days, he must wait a full thirty days until he can start counting again.  That suggests that cultivating at least a 30 day growth of hair is important to being a nazir, not just avoiding haircuts.

It is also, I note, only the positive commandment to grow hair that rules out what we generally call haircuts. While shaving off even one hair is a flogging-worthy act for a nazir, that is only if the hair is cut to a length less than being able to bend one hair and have it reach the root of the other.  For most modern haircuts, that would not be a problem. Meaning that, as far as that prohibition is concerned, most nezirim could have their regular hair style. It is only because the Torah also says to grow a nazir’s hair that we know he or she cannot cut it at all.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Suggestion

R. Hirsch’s idea of the nazir’s hair takes account of all this.  He thinks hair symbolizes shutting oneself off from society (which is why, he suggests, a metsora shaves all his or her hair when the tsara’at is gone—to re-enter society).  If so, the nazir is someone who is withdrawing from society for a time, to teach him or herself lessons about the proper way to act and behave (and when the time comes to return to society, with the conclusion of the nezirut, will shave that hair).

The suggestion sees the growing of the hair as a positive, constructive aspect of nezirut, as I’ve tried to argue here. Where I have doubts is that it is deeply dependent on R. Hirsch’s assertion of the symbolism of hair. As I find on other occasions, R. Hirsch’s idea is clever and creative, but I am not convinced that he has enough evidence that hair symbolizes removing oneself from society.

Next week, God willing, we’ll review the ceremony for burning this hair once the nezirut is done, and I hope that will let us draw some conclusion about hair’s role in a nazir’s life, the second piece in our search for a general experience of hair in halachah. Shabbat Shalom.

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Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has semicha from YU (RIETS) and a PhD from Harvard. He has worked in shul rabbinate, high school and adult education. He is the author of both fiction and non-fiction, most recently "As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience". He lives in Riverdale, NY.

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