Welcome to Tractate Nazir, which describes the practices of naziriteship, a kind of pseudo-priesthood that a person could enter, ideally for the purposes of experiencing heightened holiness. As per Numbers 6, people who take this vow are required to abstain from three things for a set — or, in some cases, indefinite — period of time: (1) ingesting intoxicants and all grape derivatives, (2) cutting their hair, and (3) contracting corpse impurity.
Why these three? The Hebrew Bible is not explicit, but because both drunkenness and corpse impurity disqualified someone from entering the Temple courtyard, avoiding both ensured nazirites were constantly fit to enter God’s house. The hair they grew during this period created a nezer, or crown, that marked their special status.
The nazir has always been a complicated figure. The two most famous nazirites in the Hebrew Bible were Samson and Samuel, both of whom were born to barren mothers and had the roll thrust upon them for life. Both received extraordinary gifts as a result of their naziriteship, though neither their special holiness nor their extraordinary talents inoculated them from tragedy or sin. For the rabbis, naziriteship is likewise complicated, generally laudable but potentially complex.
On today’s page, the Gemara begins its discussion with a meta-question: Why is this material on the nazir found here in Nashim, an order of the Talmud that concerns women? True, both men and women can become nazirites, but it’s not a subject particularly pertinent to women.
What then is the reason that the tanna of the mishnah teaches the laws of the nazirite here? The tanna is engaged in the study of the verse: Then it comes to pass, if she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly matter about her. (Deuteronomy 24:1)
And this is what he is saying: What caused the woman to commit the transgression? It was wine. And the tanna is saying: Anyone who sees a sotah in her disgrace should abstain from wine.
Why are we studying the nazir here in Nashim? The answer is wine. Through wine and its potentially harmful effects, Tractate Nazir shares a resonance with Tractate Gittin, another tractate in Nashim concerning the laws of divorce. Nazir finds itself in even closer proximity to Tractate Sotah, which concerns the singular method of trying a suspected adulteress, perhaps because, as the Gemara tells us, those who witness the sotah ritual ought to be sober. (Discussions of sotah and nazir are found in adjacent chapters of Numbers, which may also have some bearing on the placement of the tractate.)
The Torah is clear about the basic obligations of the nazir, as well as the method of ending the period of naziriteship (through a series of sacrifices), but the Talmud addresses many specific situational questions that will be familiar to those who have studied Tractate Nedarim, which concerns vows in general: Who can become a nazir? What language will enact a nazirite vow? How long does a nazirite vow of unspecified length last? What happens if a nazir accidentally becomes impure? What happens to an animal that is designated for sacrifice at the end of a period of naziriteship but then is never offered? How much hair does a nazirite shave at the end of their period of naziriteship? And more. Let’s jump into the opening mishnah:
All substitutes for the language of nazirite vows are like nazirite vows and are binding.
One who says: “I will be,” — he is a nazirite, “I will be beautiful,” — he is a nazirite. “Nazik,” “nazi’ah,” “pazi’ah,” — he is a nazirite. “I am hereby like this,” “I am hereby a hair curler,” “I am hereby growing my hair,” or “It is incumbent upon me to grow long hair,” — he is a nazirite.
There are many ways one can enact a nazirite vow. One can say properly, “I declare myself a nazir,” or one can use a substitute term like nazik, nazi’ah or pazi’ah. Even intimating the vow without explicitly saying “nazir” (or some variant of that term), but saying something as simple as “I will be,” can do the trick, provided the intention is to make the nazirite vow. But can such vaguer intimations like “I will be beautiful” really effect a nazirite vow?
Perhaps he meant: I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot? As it is taught: This is my God and I will glorify Him. (Exodus 15:2) — meaning I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot: I will make Him a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, beautiful tzitzit. I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll, and I will wrap it in beautiful silk cloths.
The word in the verse from Exodus that is here translated as “glorify” is similar to the word for “beautiful,” inviting the rabbis to midrashically suggest that the verse calls on us to beautify ourselves for God through the mitzvot. But curiously, the rabbis don’t count naziriteship as one of the ways we can beautify ourselves before God. In fact, our page ends with the following observation:
Since naziriteship is a matter of transgression, can we even say about a nazirite that he is beautiful?
It didn’t take us long to encounter the complicated feelings the rabbis have about the nazir. This is helpful to bear in mind as we dive in.
Read all of Nazir 2 on Sefaria.