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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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One who lives apart; one who has made a vow of abstinence; in the former sense used as early as Sifra, Emor, 4:3; Sifre, Num. 23.

Nazarite Laws.

—Biblical Data:

Three restrictions are imposed upon the Nazarite, according to Numbers 6: he may not take wine, or anything made from grapes; he may not cut the hair of his head; he may not touch the dead, not even the body of his father or mother. If a Nazarite has become unclean by accident, he must offer a sacrifice and begin the period of his vow anew. He is "holy unto the Lord" (Numbers 6:8), and the regulations which apply to him actually agree with those for the high priest and for the priests during worship (Leviticus 10:8 et seq.,; Ezekiel 44:21). In ancient times the priests were persons dedicated to God (Ezekiel 44:20; 1 Samuel 1:11), and it follows from the juxtaposition of prophets and Nazarites (Amos 2:11-12) that the latter must have been regarded as in a sense priests. Young men especially, who found it difficult to abstain from wine on account of youthful desire for pleasure, took the vow. The most prominent outward mark of the Nazarite was long, flowing hair, which was cut at the expiration of the vow and offered as a sacrifice (Num. c.; Jeremiah 7:29).

In Ancient Israel.

The history of Nazariteship in ancient Israel is obscure. Samson was a Nazarite, whose mother abstained from wine during her pregnancy. His superhuman strength lay in his long, unshorn locks (Judges 13 et seq.). Samuel's mother promised to dedicate him to God during his whole life, saying, "There shall no razor come upon his head" (1 Samuel 1:11); the Septuagint concludes from the latter promise (to which it adds "he shall drink no wine") that Samuel was a Nazarite. Neither the nomadic Rechabites nor their wives or children drank wine (Jeremiah 35; 2 Kings 10:15 et seq.).

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—In Rabbinical Literature:

The Nazarite law was minutely developed in post-Biblical times and became authoritative, while the popularity of Nazariteship and the influence it exercised on men's minds appear from its numerous regulations, which form a voluminous treatise of the Mishnah, and from the many expressions and phrases accompanying the taking of the vow. If one said, "May I be a Nazarite," he became a Nazarite at once (Naz. 1:1). As a consequence of the universal custom, peculiar words and phrases, some of which are now unintelligible, were formulated for the taking of the vow (Naz. 1:1, 2:1; p. 10a; Ned. 10a, b, et passim). "'Let my hand, my foot be nazir,' is not valid; 'Let my liver [or some other vital part] be nazir,' is valid" (Naz. 21b; Tos. to Naz. 3:3). When the sanctuary was defiled at the time of the wars of the Maccabees the people assembled all the Nazarites before God as persons who could not be released from their vows (I Macc. 3:49); yet when Nazarites returned from the Diaspora and found the sanctuary destroyed they were absolved from their vows (Naz. 5:4), although at the same time others took it (ib. , end).

The expenses of the offerings of poor Nazarites were borne by the wealthy, this charitable obligation being expressed by the phrase "to have [his head] shorn"; and King Agrippa had many Nazarites "shorn" (Josephus, "Ant." 19:6, § 1; Naz. 2:5,6; Acts 18:18; 21:23,24 [Nazariteship ofPaul]). "At the time of R. Simeon b. Sheṭaḥ 300 Nazarites came to Jerusalem. In the case of 150 he found a reason for annulling their vows, but in the case of the others he found none. He went to his brother-in-law King Jannai [103-76 B.C.] and said to him: 'There are 300 Nazarites who need 900 sacrificial animals; you give one-half and I will give the other half'; so the king sent 450 animals" (Yer. Ber. 11b and parallels). Noble persons also, both men and women, took Nazarite vows. Queen Helena was a Nazarite for fourteen (or twenty-one) years (Naz. 3:6; see Jew. Encyc. 6:334, s. HELENA), and Agrippa's sister Berenice was at Jerusalem on account of a Nazarite vow taken before the outbreak of the great war against the Romans (Josephus, "B. J." 2:15, § 1).

Reasons for the Vow.

There were different reasons for taking the Nazarite vow. "It is usual with those that had been afflicted either with a distemper, or with any other distress, to make vows; and for thirty days before they are to offer their sacrifices, to abstain from wine, and to shave the hair of their heads" (Josephus, c.). The vow was taken also for the fulfilment of a wish, such as for the birth of a child (Naz. 1:7; comp. 9 and 10). "The pious in ancient times took such a vow, that they might have an opportunity to make a sin-offering" (Ned. 10b). "If one sees a woman suspected of adultery and convicted by the water of jealousy [Numbers 5] let him become a Nazarite, since the law of Nazariteship follows immediately in Numbers 6" (Ber. 63a). Some said: "I shall not die before I have become a Nazarite" (Ned. 3b), or, "Let me be a Nazarite on the day when the son of David [the Messiah] shall come." Such a Nazarite was allowed to drink wine only on the Sabbath and on feast-days, since the Messiah will not appear on these days ('Er. 43a). A shepherd who saw a lock of his own beautiful hair reflected in the water, and was tempted thereby to sin, took a Nazarite vow (Tosef., Naz. 4:7; Ned. 9b). Although Nazariteship was marked by asceticism, many abstained from wine and meat even without taking the vow (B. B. 60b; Shab. 139a). Because of this some prominent rabbis who were opposed to asceticism regarded as sinners those who fasted or became Nazarites or took any vow whatsoever, and held that the person in question was an evil-doer, even if the vow was fulfilled (Ned. 9a, b, 20a, 77b; Naz. 4a; Ta'an. 11a).

Persons and Duration.

Women and slaves, who did not have full rights before the religious law, could take the Nazarite vow, but only with the consent of their husbands or owners, while the vow was not valid among the heathen (Naz. 4:1-5, 9:1, et passim). Fathers were allowed to dedicate minors, but mothers were forbidden to do so (ib. 4:29b). The proper name "Nazira" may be connected with some such custom (Gen. R. end, et passim). Jesus is said to have been dedicated while still in the womb (Luke 1:15). Tradition regards not only Samson and Samuel, but also Absalom, as Nazarites, the last on account of his long hair (Naz. 4b). The duration of Nazariteship was voluntary, and ranged from one hour to a lifetime. In the former case, however, it really lasted for thirty days, which was also the period when no definite time was set (ib. 1:3; Sifre, Deut. 357). While the usual time was thirty days, two or more additional vows were generally taken, in which case each period was regarded as a separate Nazariteship, to be immediately followed, when duly completed, by the succeeding one (Maimonides, "Yad," Nezirut, 3:6). The period was at times measured by the number of days of the solar or the lunar year (Naz. , end; Yer. Naz. 54b); or one might say: "Let the number of my Nazariteships be as the hairs of my head, or as the dust-particles of the earth, or as the sands of the sea" (Naz. 1:4). A Nazarite for life might cut his too abundant hair once a year, but a Samson Nazarite might not cut his hair under any circumstances, although he might defile himself by touching a corpse (ib. 4a). While no comb was allowed to touch the hair, it might be cleansed and arranged by other means (ib. , end). A proverb says, "Let the Nazarite go around the vineyard, but let him not approach it" (Shab. 13a and parallels; Num. R. ).

Outside of Palestine and in the Middle Ages.

Nazarite vows were taken also outside of Palestine (Naz. 5:4; 3:6). Besides Helena, Queen of Adiabene, Miriam of Palmyra is mentioned as a Nazarite (Tos. to Naz. 4:10). While the Law stated that Nazariteship was equally valid in the country and outside it, in the time of the Temple and after its destruction there was a difference of opinion between the followers of Shammai and of Hillel: the former held that one who entered Palestine after the fulfilment of a prolonged period of Nazariteship must live there thirty days longer as a Nazarite, while the latter maintained that he must begin his vow anew (Naz. 3:6; comp. Maimonides, "Yad," Nezirut, 2:20-21). The earlier and more universal custom agreed with the view of the school of Shammai, Josephus referring to the thirty days demanded, as above, in the passage already quoted—"B. J." 2:15, § 1. The observance of the Nazarite vow probably continued for many centuries, but was finally lost in asceticism and mysticism. No Nazarites are known in the Middle Ages.

  • Bastian, Der Mensch, vol.;
  • Benzinger, Arch. Index, s. Nasiräer;
  • G. B. Gray, The Nazirite, in Journal of Theol. Studies, 1900, 1:201 et seq.;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. 1:785 et seq.;
  • W. Nowack, Handbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie, 2:134-138, Leipsic, 1894;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., 1:116,554,592; 3:120;
  • Fr. Schwally, Der Heilige Krieg in Israel, 1900.

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—Critical View:

The conclusion that because wine was prohibited to Samson's mother during pregnancy (Judges 13:4) it was prohibited to Samson also can hardly be correct, since he engaged in drinking-bouts (; comp. Judges 14:10 et seq.). Budde ("Richter," in Marti's "Commentar," pp. 94 et seq.) has shown that the text in Judges 13:4 is glossed, the oldest form of it containing no reference to wine. Nor could the later Nazaritic prohibition of touching a corpse have been observed by Samson, the conditions of whose life brought him frequently into contact with the dead. Furthermore, at such feasts as that described in 1 Samuel 9:19 Samuel, too, probably partook of some kind ofintoxicant, and he can not have kept himself free from contact with dead bodies, for he hewed Agag in pieces (1 Samuel 15:33). Samson and Samuel, then, belonged to an early type of simple devotees to Yhwh who were distinguished by unshorn hair. This meaning of the word is preserved in Leviticus 25:5,11, where "nazir" is used to describe an unshorn vine.

The Nazarites of Amos must have had a different origin from those with long hair. Because the Rechabites also are said (2 Kings 10:15 et seq.; Jeremiah 35) to have abstained from wine it has been conjectured that the Nazarites of the time of Amos were, like the Rechabites, representatives of the pre-Canaanitish type of Yhwh worship and abstained from all the luxuries of civilization; there are no data to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

The law of Numbers 6:1-21 was made for a new class of Nazarites; for in post-exilic times the life-long Nazarite is no longer found; instead there appears the Nazarite who has vowed himself to Yhwh for a longer or shorter period; any one may assume the Nazarite's vow. This law dates, possibly, from the sixth century B.C. It belongs to an intermediate stratum of the priestly law, neither the oldest nor the latest. In it apparently three older customs have been fused; according to one the Nazarite abstained from intoxicating drink; another prohibited to him all fruits of the vine; the third demanded unshorn hair. To the first or second, or to both, the prohibition of contact with the dead attached. Here all have not only been fused, but have been made temporary. These temporary Nazarites seem to have been very numerous. They are mentioned in the Maccabean period (I Macc. 3:49), in the time of Herod Agrippa I. (Josephus, "Ant." 19:6, § 1; idem, "B. J." 2:15, § 1), and later in the mishnaic tractate Nazir.

The description of James the Just which Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl." 2:23) quotes from Hegesippus indicates that James may have been a Nazarite for life, though the name is not applied to him. The general regulations concerning Nazarites in post-exilic times resemble, though with many differences, those of the Arabic "iḥram," the condition of one who has undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca (comp. Wellhausen, "Reste des Arabischen Heidentums," 2d ed., pp. 122 et seq.). Parallels to the long hair of the Nazarites are found in many parts of the world (comp. W. R. Smith, "Rel. of Sem." 2d ed., pp. 332, 482; Frazer, "Golden Bough," 2d ed., 1:362-389).

  • Nowack, Hebräische Archäologie, 2:133 et seq.;
  • Benzinger, Arch. pp. 430 et seq.;
  • G. Buchanan Gray, in Jour. of Theological Studies, 1900, 1:201 et seq.;
  • Numbers, in International Critical Commentary, pp. 56 et seq.
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Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Nazarite'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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