Nazir 61

Science and Health

The final chapter of Tractate Nazir opens on today’s daf with a mishnah that teaches this:

Non-Jews do not have nazariteship.

The Gemara will inquire about the source of this rule, citing the fact that the chapter of the Book of Numbers outlining the laws of naziriteship opens with the phrase: “Speak to the children of Israel.” (Numbers 6:2). From this, the Gemara concludes that the laws that follow apply to Jews alone.  

The Gemara spends some time evaluating this answer, exploring other biblical passages that are also introduced by this phrase that don’t seem to rule out the inclusion of non-Jews. But the commentators are largely satisfied with this explanation and agree this is reason enough for the laws of naziriteship to apply only to Jews. 

We might now have a source, but we still don’t have a reason. After all, a nazirite vow is voluntary. So there’s nothing to stop a non-Jew from taking on its obligations — stop cutting their hair, refraining from grape products and keeping their distance from the dead. So why not let them make it official?

The Tosafot teach that the laws of naziriteship do not apply to a non-Jew because they would be unable to bring the sacrifices that conclude a period of naziriteship. But non-Jews in fact can bring sacrifices in the Temple — they are specifically allowed to bring free-will and other offerings that result from vows. So if they can’t bring concluding nazirite offerings, that’s a consequence of the rule barring them from naziriteship — not a reason for it. 

Maybe the rationale is similar to that employed by Shammai and Hillel (see Shabbat 31a) when approached by a non-Jew who wanted to be converted so they could serve as the high priest. Although Shammai shoos them away and Hillel invites them in, both deny the request since the high priest is a hereditary role and unavailable to all but members of a particular family. Is naziriteship comparable? Is it an exclusive form of service that only members of a particular family — i.e. the Jewish family — can perform? 

At times, Tractate Nazir does draw parallels between priests and nazirites. So it’s not far-fetched to see naziriteship as a way for Israelites to step closer to God, just as the priests enjoy a special relationship with God on account of their service. But does that mean non-Jews should be prevented from doing the same? Is the naziriteship as exclusive a ritual as eating from the Passover sacrifice (see Exodus 12:43) that no foreigner can take it on?

Or maybe becoming a nazirite is like the spice we learned about back on Shabbat 119a that makes Shabbat food taste so good — but only for those who observe Shabbat. Maybe it’s not that non-Jews are forbidden from becoming nazirites, it’s just that it won’t work for them. The purpose of the nazirite ritual (see Numbers 6:2) is to set oneself apart for God. And maybe non-Jews just don’t have access to the spiritual sauce that makes this possible.

Given that naziriteship ended as a practice with the destruction of the Temple, these questions are moot. Perhaps that is why we don’t have talmudic stories about non-Jews who wanted to be nazirites, or why the later legal literature mostly skips over the opening line of this chapter and focuses more on women, slaves and children, which is what the mishnah deals with next.

On the one hand, the Torah is a Jewish book. And like the Gemara says on today’s daf, it records the Jewish people’s memory of words that were spoken to and for Jews. But the Torah is not exclusive. On many occasions, it explicitly includes “the outsider who lives among you,” making space for non-Jews inside the Jewish community as participants in holiday celebrations (see Deuteronomy 16:14) and citizens protected by civil laws (Leviticus 19:34).

Jews are not in perfect agreement about what Jewish practices are exclusively for Jews and which ones are open to non-Jewish neighbors. But after reading today’s daf, I wondered: If a non-Jew knocked on my door and asked me to help them to become a nazirite, how would I respond?

Read all of Nazir 61 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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