Naso: Distanced by Hair

May 31, 2017 at 11:43 am | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment
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A man suspects his wife of adultery, and takes her to the temple to test her with a magic ritual.

A man or woman takes a vow to live as a holy ascetic and avoid wine.

What do the instructions for the sotah1 (the wife suspected of adultery) have in common with the instructions for the nazir (the holy ascetic)—besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”)? One answer is:  unbound hair.

The ordeal to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the woman’s hair.

And the priest shall make the woman stand before God, and para the head of the woman. Then he shall place upon her palms the grain-offering of the reminding: it is the grain-offering of jealousies. And the water of the bitterness of the cursings shall be in the hand of the priest. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:18)

para (פָּרַע) = let loose, remove from restraint, let go wild and uncontrolled. (For a head of hair, para = unbind, unbraid.)

The ordeal turns on what happens when wife drinks the magic water in the priest’s hand. (See my post Naso: Ordeal of Trust.) But the first step is to unbind the suspected woman’s hair. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. Either way, a wife was probably shamed if her hair came down in public.2

Loose hair marks the suspected wife as outside normal society, at least for the duration of the ordeal. In normal situations both men and women in the Torah restrain their hair in public. The only people who appear in public with unbound or uncovered hair are the mourner3, the metzora (someone afflicted with a certain disease) 4, the sotah, and the nazir.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man or woman who vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God: From wine or alcohol yazir … (Numbers 6:2-3)

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone dedicated for a period of time to devotion to God through abstaining from the usual norms for hair, wine, and mourning. (Plural nezirim, נְזִרִים. From the root nazar, נזר = separated, consecrated.)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to separate oneself through abstention; to live as a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he shall abstain. (From the root nazar.)

Nezerim must abstain not only from drinking any form of alcohol, but also from consuming any grape products. They must avoid all contact with any corpses—even if a family member dies. But even as they restrain themselves from drinking or mourning, they must let their hair grow unrestrained.

All the days of his vow of nizro, no blade shall pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir to God,  his big, pera head of hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his dedication to undertaking the abstentions of a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

pera (פֶּּרַע) = unbound, loose, unrestrained, wild and out of control. (From the verb para; see above.)

Nezirim choose to set themselves apart from normal society for a period of time, like ascetics in other cultures. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) Israelite ascetics, unlike those in most cultures, do not leave their community or their family; but they do follow different rules regarding hair, wine, and corpses.

The unconventional hair of nezirim is a visible sign that they must be treated differently in society—perhaps with extra consideration for the thoughts that absorb them, as the Israelites in the Torah, and Jews today, treat people who are visibly mourning. Similarly, they are distanced from the rest of society by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when their friends are drinking).  This social distance marks nezirim as holy, separated and dedicated to God.

When the period of their vow ends, nezirim shave their heads and put their hair on the altar fire, under the wholeness-offering, thus making their wild manes offerings to God.5

Israelite captives with tidy hair in Assyrian relief, 8th Century BCE

Hair is an indicator of a person’s relationship to the rest of society—in the Torah, and today. When I am getting ready to leave the house, I always “fix” my hair. Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style).  When someone appears in public with unkempt hair, it means that the person does not belong in normal society, for good reasons or bad.

In the Torah, the pera hair of mourners signals that their thoughts and feelings are so overwhelmed by the death in the family that they should not be expected to engage in normal social intercourse.

The pera hair of metzora-im signals that they are both ritually impure (and so excluded from communal worship) and socially impure (and so excluded from communal life).

The pera hair of the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is a sign of shame. Since she has behaved in a socially unacceptable way by being alone with a man other than her husband for even a short time, she is shamed even if it turns out she is not guilty of adultery. (There is no equivalent ordeal for a husband suspected of adultery, since in the Torah marital fidelity is not required of men.)

The pera hair of nezerim signals that their attention is on spiritual communion with God, rather than on social intercourse.

On the streets of my city, people whose hair is greasy and pera are often homeless and/or mentally ill.  Not wanting to be identified with these categories, I make sure my hair is clean and pulled back in a barrette when I go out.

But I have had times of mourning, and times when I am absorbed in questions about the meaning of my life and God.  At those times, when I go out in public for necessary errands, I wish I had a visible signal that would separate me from normal chatter and frivolity, while granting me the respect the Israelites granted to mourners and nezirim.

(An earlier version of this blog was published in May 2010.)

1  The noun sotah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, though in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the verb satah is used three times to describe an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:19, 5:20, 5:29)  The passage concludes: This is the teaching of the kena-ot, when tisteh, a wife, from under her husband, and she becomes impure. (Numbers 5:29)

tisteh (תִּשְׁטֶה) = she goes aside, goes astray. (Satah (שָׁטָה) = he went aside, went astray.)

2  The Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 22a, states that when a woman goes out with an uncovered head, she transgresses Jewish practice, and cites Numbers 5:18 as a proof text.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained: “…the uncovering of the woman’s hair is intended to expose the woman as immodest. The head covering that hides the woman’s hair is an external symbol of her marital fidelity.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 83.)

3  Mourners in the Torah let their hair hang loose and tear their clothing.  In Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 and 21:10, priests are instructed to refrain from mourning by not doing those two things.  It is still customary for Jews to make a small tear in a shirt or a symbolic ribbon at the funeral of a family member, and then refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for 30 days.

4  A metzora is someone with the skin disease called tzara-at in the Torah. Until a priest declares them cured, metzora-im must be thoroughly segregated from the community, and therefore they must tear their clothing, para their hair, cover their upper lips, call out “Impure! Impure!” when they pass others, and live outside the town or camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

5  Numbers 6:18.  According to 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of living for a time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 116.)

 

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Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer

June 15, 2016 at 10:59 am | Posted in Amos, Judges, Naso | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) and the haftarah is Judges13:2-13:25.

Every religion has members who go beyond what is required of the whole community. In ancient Israel, there were priests, prophets, and nezirim.

drunk womanAnd I raised up some of your sons for prophets

And some of your young men for nezirim.

Is there nothing in this, Children of Israel?

—declares God.

But you made the nezirim drink wine

And you ordered the prophets not to prophesy!  (Amos 2:11-12)

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = “nazirites”: men and women who are dedicated and separated from the rest of the community as holy because they abstain from grooming their hair and drinking alcohol. Nezirim is the plural of nazir (נָזִיר), from the root verb נזר = separate, dedicate, restrain, abstain.

Samson, whose story begins in this week’s haftarah, is a nazir from the womb to the grave, but he fails to make his life holy. Perhaps that is why this week’s Torah portion lays out strict rules and term limits for living as a nazir.

Although the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is set at an earlier time in history than Samson’s story in the book of Judges, modern scholars agree that Judges was written long before the Torah portion Naso in Numbers.  Judges is a collection of old stories of heroes from the 11th century B.C.E. and earlier, stories which were probably compiled and rewritten in the 8th century B.C.E. Large parts of the book of Numbers, however, including the instructions for the nazir, were written after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C.E., when priests were writing religious instructions for the time of the second temple.

Samson’s story begins in this week’s haftarah when an angel appears to the wife of a Danite named Manoach and announces that she will give birth to a nazir.

A messenger of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because you are about to conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and a razor will not go upon his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson's Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s Fight with the Lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525

Samson’s first act (after the haftarah’s opening scene) is to ask his parents to marry him to a Philistine woman he finds attractive. They protest feebly that he should marry one of his own people, but they follow him to the Philistine village of Timnah to arrange the marriage. Samson discovers his superhuman strength on the way, when “a strong spirit of God came over him” and he rips apart a lion with his bare hands. (Judges 14:6)  For the wedding a year later, Samson hosts a seven-day drinking-party where he makes a wager and ends up killing 30 strangers in order to pay his gambling debt with their clothing.

As Samson’s adventures continue, the only thing he abstains from is cutting his hair.  His main interests are sex, and inventing spectacular ways of killing people.  He only prays to God at the end of his life, when Delilah has shaved his head and her co-conspirators have blinded and imprisoned him.  Then Samson asks God to return his super-human strength so he can bring down the temple of Dagon and all the Philistines in it—not for the sake of Israel or God, but for his own personal vengeance.

Samson does succeed in killing thousands of Philistines, but he is hardly the holy man that Manoach and his wife expected when the angel said their son would be a nazir.

The book of Numbers makes it clear that a nazir along the lines of Samson is unacceptable. For one thing, this week’s Torah portion says nobody is allowed to be a nazir from birth; only an adult man or woman can vow to live as a nazir, and the person making the vow sets a finite period of time for his or her dedication.  The instructions begin:

If a man or a woman vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God… (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:2)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to restrain oneself, to abstain.  (From the root נזר.)

After describing what a nazir must abstain from, the Torah portion continues:

And this is the teaching of the nazir: On the day completing the days of nizro, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:13)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his life as a nazir, the term of his vow dedicating him to separateness; his crown. (Also from the root נזר.).

At the Tent of Meeting the nazir makes offerings, shaves his or her head, and returns to ordinary life.  Thus all nezirim consciously dedicate themselves to restraint for a fixed period of time for the sake of God.

Their restraint consists of three kinds of abstention. The first category is alcohol and all grape products.

wine and grapesFrom wine and other alcohol yazir; nor shall he drink wine vinegar or vinegar from other alcohol, nor any grape juice; nor shall he eat grapes, wet or dried.  All the days of nizro he must not eat anything that is made from grapevines, from seeds to skin.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:3-4)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he will abstain.  (Also from the root נזר.)

Abstaining from alcohol would not only improve the nazir’s ability to focus on being holy to God, but would also emphasis the nazir’s separation from the rest of society.

nazir hairThe second thing nezirim must abstain from is cutting, binding, or even combing their hair.

All the days of the vow of nizro, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

In the Bible, the only other people who let their hair grow untrimmed and unbound are mourners. Mourners are expected to disregard the social norms while grief commands all of their attention. Nezirim must let their hair grow wild while God commands all of their attention.  (See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.)

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The third thing a nazir must avoid is contact with the dead. (See my post Emor: The God of Life.)

All the days of hazayro to God, he must not come upon a dead body. For his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, he will not make himself ritually impure for them in their death, because the neizer of his god is on his head. All the days of nizro he is holy to God. (Numbers 6:6-8)

haziro (הַזִּירוֹ) = his time as a nazir(Also from the root נזר.)

neizer (נֵזֶר) = consecration; crown.  (Also from the root נזר.)

In the book of Numbers ordinary people who touch or come near a dead body are ritually impure for seven days; then a ritual sprinkling restores them to purity and they rejoin the religious community. But for a nazir, the rules are as strict as for the high priest, who must avoid all corpses, even those of his own parents. If a nazir touches or comes close to any corpse, the term of his or her vow ends prematurely. Then after seven days, the would-be nazir must shave his or her head, make offerings, and start all over again. Once again, nezerim must pay attention—and, perhaps, emulate the high priest.

According to these rules, parents cannot say an angel told them their child would be a lifelong nazir, or treat him as especially privileged.  No nezirim can expect God to give them superpowers from time to time.  Staying sober, they have no excuse for wild behavior like Samson’s at the end of his drinking-party.

And since nezirim must avoid being near dead bodies, they cannot kill people.  Although all of the people Samson killed were Philistines, none of them were actual soldiers engaged in war against Israelites. Impulsive murder was no longer acceptable by the time of the second temple.

*

I have known individuals who were overwhelmed by spiritual impulses that cannot be integrated into normal life in modern western society. We have roles for spiritual leaders and teachers, but few outlets for people who would have been prophets or nezirim in ancient Israel.

When prophets in the Bible are overcome by the spirit of God they can at least speak, turning the divine message into human language.  But nezirim have no words.  When Samson feels the divine spirit, he is filled with physical strength that he uses for killing.

In the book of Numbers, nezirim can still be identified by big, unbound, bristling hair, but they are also required to follow extra rules.  Perhaps these rules and abstentions satisfy the spiritual impulse of the nezirim enough so that when the spirit of God comes over them, they can rejoice in their self-discipline—as well as in their neizer, their visible crown of consecration.

I wonder if an equivalent discipline would work today to provide an outlet for those with the spirit of a nazir?

 

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