What Is A Nazarite?

I might be the only candidate for political office that titles himself a Nazarite. In 1987 I baptized myself in the McKenzie River after writing on a piece of paper “I am a Nazarite”. Walking back to my camp I ran into three of my male relatives who went looking for me after spotting my car. The odds of this are astronomical, I had not talked to them in weeks. I did not tell them what I was doing.

John ‘The Nazarite’


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Not to be confused with Nazarene (sect) or Nazarene (disambiguation).

In the Hebrew Bible, a nazirite or a nazarite (Hebrewנזיר) is one who voluntarily took a vow which is described in Numbers 6:1–21. “Nazarite” comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning “consecrated” or “separated”.[1] Those who put themselves under a Nazirite vow do so by adding unto themselves a degree of sanctity, as it says: “Until the time is completed, etc., he shall be holy.”[2] A person who puts himself under a Nazirite vow without designating how long he intends to remain as such, he is obligated in all that pertains to Nazirite strictures for a period of thirty days.[3] This vow required the person to observe the following strictures:

  • Abstain from all wine and anything else made from the grape vine plant, such as cream of tartar, grape seed oil, etc. (Traditional rabbinic authorities state that all other types of alcohol were permitted.)
  • Refrain from cutting the hair on one’s head; but to allow the locks of the head’s hair to grow.[4]
  • Not to become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.[5]

After following these requirements for a designated interval (which would be specified in the individual’s vow), the person would immerse in a mikveh and make three offerings: a lamb as a burnt offering (olah), a ewe as a sin offering (hatat), and a ram as a peace offering (shelamim), in addition to a basket of unleavened bread, grain offerings and drink offerings, which accompanied the peace offering. They would also shave their heads in the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem and then they would place the hair on the same fire as the peace offering (Numbers 6:18).

The nazirite is described as being “holy unto God”,[6] yet at the same time, he or she must bring a sin offering. This has led to divergent approaches to the nazirite in the Talmud, and later authorities, with some viewing the nazirite as an ideal, and others viewing the Nazirite as a sinner.


Laws of the nazirite[edit]

An Israelite (not a gentile)[7] becomes a Nazirite through an intentional verbal declaration.[8] This declaration can be in any language, and can be something as simple as saying “me too” as a Nazirite passes by.[9] In general there are two types of Nazirites,[10][11] those who take a vow for a set time, and permanent Nazirites. A person can specify how long they intend to be a Nazirite, but if no time period or a time period of less than 30 days is specified, the vow is considered to last for 30 days.[12] A person who says “I am a Nazirite forever” or “I am a Nazirite for all my life” is a permanent Nazirite and slightly different laws apply. However, if a person says that he is a Nazirite for a thousand years, he is a regular Nazirite. The permanent Nazirite has no source in the Bible but is known through tradition.[13] At the end of their vow, the Nazirite brings three sacrificial offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. The first is a ewe for a chatat (sin offering), the second is a lamb for an olah (elevation offering), and finally a ram as a shelamim (peace offering) along with a basket of matzah and grain and drink offerings.[14] After bringing the sacrificial offerings, the Nazirite shaves their head in the outer courtyard of the Temple. Part of the Nazirite’s offering is given to the Kohen. This gift is one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts. A person can become a Nazirite whether or not the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. However, no temple means that there is currently no way to make the offerings that end the Nazirite vow, so anyone taking the vow would become a de facto permanent Nazirite.[15]

All the laws of vows in general apply also to the nazirite vow. As with other vows, a father has the ability to annul the vow of his young daughter, and a husband has the ability to annul a vow by his wife, when they first hear about it (Numbers 30).[16] A father, but not a mother, can declare his son, but not his daughter, a Nazirite, however the child or any close family member has a right to refuse this status.[17] Likewise, all of the laws related to intent and conditional vows apply also to Nazirite vows.

A Nazirite must abstain from all beverages derived from grapes, even if they are not alcoholic. According to traditional rabbinic interpretation, the Nazirite may drink alcoholic beverages not derived from grapes.[18] According to less traditional rabbinic interpretation, a Nazirite is forbidden to consume any alcohol, and vinegar from such alcohol, regardless of its source.[19] The law regarding combining wine or grapes with other food is similar to kashrut, which applies to all Jews.[20] An early rabbinic proverb warned the Naziriite: “Go away! Go away, O Nazirite! Take the long way around! Take the long way around, so that you may not come near the vineyard![21]

A Nazirite must refrain from cutting the hair his head. He can groom his hair with his fingers or scratch his head and need not be concerned if some hair falls out, however, he cannot use a comb since it very likely to pull out some hair. A Nazirite is not allowed to use a chemical depilatory to remove hair.[22] However, a Nazirite who recovers from tzaraath, (a skin disease described in Leviticus 14), is obligated to cut his hair, and a permanent Nazirite may cut his hair once a year.

Nazirites who shave their hair are obligated to redo the last 30 days of the Nazirite period

A Nazirite must avoid corpses and graves, even those of family members, and any building that contains one. A permanent Nazirite becomes ritually impure through proximity to a corpse. Nonetheless, a Nazirite who finds an unburied corpse is obligated to bury it, although he will become defiled in the process.[23]

If a Nazirite touches a corpse or carries a funeral bier, or goes into a building that contains a corpse,[24] their vow is ended as unfulfilled.[24] In this case, after he has waited seven days for his purification, the Nazirite should shave their head and to bring sacrificial offerings.[24] After that, they are permitted to put themself under another Nazirite vow with a new time limit.[24]

If the Nazirite simply enters an area where a grave or graveyard had been ploughed (in which case there is only a chance that they touched human bones), or if he went into a foreign land that was declared unclean by the chazal (sages) and had touched its earth, or if he stands beneath the branches a tree or a protroding rock that shades the ground (Hebrew: סככות) near a graveyard, he still contracts a level of uncleanness. However this is less than the impurity of touching corpse, and although he must be sprinkled with water containing the ashes of a red heifer on the third and seventh days, he is not required to shave his head or bring sacrificial offerings, and his Nazirite vow is not invalidated, though he adds seven days to the time he spends as a Nazirite to make up for the days of impurity.[24]

Halakha (Jewish law) has a rich tradition on the laws of the nazirite. These laws were first recorded in the Torah (Written Law of Moses), in Numbers 6:1–21, and explained in their detail in the compendium of Oral Law known as the Mishna, as well as in the Talmud in the tractate Nazir. These laws were later codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah.

Attitudes toward Nazirites[edit]

If “any man die very suddenly beside him, and he defile his consecrated head”[25] the nazirite must undergo a cleansing. He was to shave his head on the seventh day and on the 8th day bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to a priest as a sin offering.[26] The Babylonian Talmud claims this is a contradiction, leading to two divergent views. Samuel of Nehardea and Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar, focusing on the sin offering of the nazirite, regarded nazirites, as well as anyone who fasted when not obligated to or took any vow whatsoever, as a sinner. A different Rabbi Eliezer argues that a nazirite is indeed holy and the sin referred to in the verse applies only to a nazirite who became ritually defiled.[27]

According to the Jerusalem TalmudSimeon the Just (a High Priest) opposed the nazirite vow and ate of the sacrifice offered by a nazarite on only a single occasion. Once a youth with flowing hair came to him and wished to have his head shorn. When asked his motive, the youth replied that he had seen his own face reflected in the spring and it had pleased him so that he feared lest his beauty might become an idol to him. He, therefore, wished to offer up his hair to God, and Simeon then partook of the sin offering which he brought.[28]

Maimonides ((1138–1204), following the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar, calls a nazirite a sinner, explaining that a person should always be moderate in his actions and not be to any extreme.[29] Nevertheless, he does point out that a nazirite can be evil or righteous depending on the circumstances.[30]

Nachmanides (1194–1270), in his commentary on the Torah, sides with Samuel of Nehardea and Rabbi Eliezer. He explains that ideally, the person should be a nazirite his whole life. Therefore, ceasing to be nazirite requires a sin offering.[citation needed]

Many later opinions compromise between these views and explain that a nazirite is both good and bad.[31] For example, Jacob Neusner records the vow of the nazirite to be shrouded in “arrogance” and “weakness.”[32]

Nazirites in history[edit]

In the Hebrew Bible[edit]

Two examples of nazirites in the Hebrew Bible are Samson (Judges 13:5), and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). Both were born of previously barren mothers and entered into their vows through either their mothers’ oath (as in the case of Hannah[33]), or a divine command (in the case of Samson[34]), rather than by their own volition. These vows required Samson and Samuel to live devout lives, yet in return they received extraordinary gifts: Samson possessed strength and ability in physical battle against the Philistines, while Samuel became a prophet.

Some believe[who?] that Samson broke his vow by touching the dead body of a lion and drinking wine (Judges 14:8–10).[citation needed] However, the divine terms for not touching a dead body, listed in Numbers 6, refer to the body of a human—not that of an animal. Also, the feast held by Samson for his marriage does not indicate that Samson drank wine. In addition, the supernatural strength that Samson was given would have been taken away at the time of Judges 14 if his nazirite vow had been broken. Goswell suggests that “we cannot understand the career and failings of Samson without attention to his Nazirite status.”[35]

Samson has a unique nazirite status called Nazir Shimshon which permitted him to touch dead bodies, since the angel who imposed the status omitted this restriction. Radak conjectures that even without this special status, Samson would be allowed to touch dead bodies while doing God’s work defending Israel.[36]

The prophet Amos later condemned the Israelites for their failure to respect the nazirite vow, along with their failure to hear the prophets:And I raised up some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as nazirites; is this not so, O children of Israel? says the Lord.And you gave the nazirites to drink wine, and you commanded the prophets saying, “Do not prophesy.”[37]

In Rabbinic literature[edit]

  • According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 7:2; Nazir 5:3),[38] as explained by Talmudic exegete Solomon Sirilio,[39] 300 persons who had taken upon themselves the Nazirite vow had immigrated to the Land of Israel during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (c. 103 to 76 BCE), at a time when Shimon ben Shetach served as the head of the Sanhedrin. These nazirites had either fulfilled the days of their vow, and wished to perform their duty by bringing the required offerings for their atonement, or had been defiled by corpse uncleanness and were still required to bring animals for their atonement, accompanied with the shaving-off of their hair and burning it on the altar. However, being wholly incapable of providing for themselves these animals, they appealed to the head of the Sanhedrin to release them from their Nazirite vows, in which case their vows would be made null and void in retrospect and they would be exempt from bringing the animal offerings. Shimon ben Shetach, being brother-in-law to the king, presented their case before the king, saying that, in the event that their vows cannot be cancelled, each would have to bring for his atonement three sacrificial animals in accordance with the Mosaic law (Numbers 6:14), and since they had not that with which to pay for such animals, he would be willing to foot the bill for half these men and women if the king would defray the cost of the other half. The king consented, agreeing to pay half the cost of the animal purchases for 150 persons, for a total of 450 sacrificial animals. Meanwhile, Shimon ben Shetach found a way to annul the vows of 150 persons, in which case, they were exempt from bringing any animal offering, and he, too, was free from his obligation to pay for their animal offerings – since none were necessary for the one-hundred and fifty people whose vows were cancelled retrospectively. The king, however, was still obligated to foot the bill for the remaining 100 fifty people who could not be released from their vows. When it was told the king that Shimon ben Shetach had not paid for any animal offerings (in keeping with his part of the deal), and not realizing that Shimon ben Shetach had succeeded in releasing them from their vows, the king was angry with his brother-in-law, as if he had been tricked and deceived by him. Shimon ben Shetach fled for his life, until eventually he was called back under the assurances that the king would do him no harm, at which time Shimon ben Shetach explained the situation to the king, and how that when a nazirite has his vow annulled (on certain conditions), he is no longer obligated to bring the three sacrificial animals for his atonement.
  • The Mishnah (Nazir 3:6)[40] relates an incident concerning Queen Helena of Adiabene (c. 48 CE) who had placed herself under a Nazirite vow for seven years, on condition that her son returned home from war safely. When her son returned home safely, she began to perform her Nazirite vow for seven years, at the end of which years she came up to Jerusalem to perform her duty by bringing the required animal offerings. When she arrived there, she was told by those professing to the philosophy taught by the School of Hillel that she must observe her vow anew, and she therefore lived as a Nazirite for seven more years. Towards the end of those seven years, she contracted corpse uncleanness which rendered her vow as null and void, and, therefore, was required to repeat her Nazirite vow once again for a period of another seven years. Altogether, she continued her Nazirite vow for a period of 21 years.
  • Josephus (The Jewish War 2.15.1.) briefly recounts an episode where, in the 12th year of the reign of Nero, during the outbreak of the First Jewish-Roman WarBernice the sister of King Agrippa II and daughter of Herod Agrippa, had put herself under a Nazirite vow and had come to Jerusalem thirty days before she was to offer her sacrifices, during which time she was to abstain from wine and, at the conclusion of which days, to shave the hair of her head. Josephus adds that those who put themselves under the Nazirite vow often did so when they “had been either afflicted with a distemper, or with any other distresses.”

Kabbalah and Nazirite[edit]

According to Kabbalah, material elements can be subjected to transcendental or symbolic analysis: the archetype, the “reference-principle”, and the form, that is the “matter” subject to the modality proper to it, compose the “foundation” together.[41] Thus also the fruits in nature present meanings beyond the literal interpretation[42] like almost any creature or almost everything present in the creation: proof of this are the Jewish religious ceremonies performed with the Seder of Pesach, the Seder of Tu BiShvat and the Seder of Rosh Hashanah.

Therefore also the grape and each of its derivatives present a meaning beyond appearance.

A midrashic rabbinical interpretation in this regard indicates that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is precisely the grape.[43]

Intertestamental Period[edit]

This vow was observed into the intertestamental period (the interval between the writing of the Hebrew Bible and the writing of the Christian New Testament). 1 Maccabees (part of the Christian Deuterocanon) 3:49 mentions men who had ended their nazirite vows, an example dated to about 166 BCE. Josephus mentions a number of people who had taken the vow, such as his tutor Banns (Antiquities 20.6), and Gamaliel records in the Mishna how the father of Rabbi Chenena made a lifetime nazirite vow before him (Nazir 29b).

The Septuagint uses a number of terms to translate the 16 uses of nazir in the Hebrew Bible, such as “he who vowed” (euxamenos εὐξαμένος)[44] or “he who was made holy” (egiasmenos ἡγιασμένος)[45] etc. It is left untranslated and transliterated in Judges 13:5 as nazir (ναζιρ).[46]

New Testament Period[edit]

See also: Historical Jesus

The practice of a nazirite vow is part of the ambiguity of the Greek term “Nazarene[47] that appears in the New Testament; the sacrifice of a lamb and the offering of bread does suggest a relationship with Christian symbolism (then again, these are the two most frequent offerings prescribed in Leviticus, so no definitive conclusions can be drawn). While a saying in Matthew 11:18–19 and Luke 7:33–35 attributed to Jesus makes it doubtful that he, reported to be “a winebibber”, was a nazirite during his ministry, the verse ends with the curious statement, “But wisdom is justified of all her children”. The advocation of the ritual consumption of wine as part of the Passover, the tevilah in Mark 14:22–25 indicated he kept this aspect of the nazirite vow when Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” The ritual with which Jesus commenced his ministry (recorded via Greek as “baptism“) and his vow in Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:15–18 at the end of his ministry, do respectively reflect the final and initial steps (purification by immersion in water and abstaining from wine) inherent in a Nazarite vow. These passages may indicate that Jesus intended to identify himself as a nazirite (“not drinking the fruit of vine”) before his crucifixion.[48]

Luke the Evangelist clearly was aware that wine was forbidden in this practice, for the angel (Luke 1:13–15) that announces the birth of John the Baptist foretells that “he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb”, in other words, a nazirite from birth, the implication being that John had taken a lifelong nazirite vow.[49]

Acts of the Apostles is also attributed to Luke (see Luke-Acts) and in Acts 18:18 it is reported that the apostle Paul cut off his hair “because of a vow he had taken”.[50] From Acts 21:23–24 we learn that the early Jewish Christians occasionally took the temporary nazarite vow, and it is probable that the vow of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 18:18, was of a similar nature, although the shaving of his head in Cenchrea, outside of Palestine, was not in conformity with the rules laid down in the sixth chapter of Numbers, nor with the interpretation of them by the rabbinical schools of that era.[51] If we are to believe the legend of Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius,[52] James, brother of JesusBishop of Jerusalem, was a nazarite, and performed with rigorous exactness all the practices enjoined by that rule of life. In Acts 21:20–24 Paul was advised to counter the claims made by some Judaizers (that he encouraged a revolt against the Mosaic Law). He showed the “believers there” (believers in Jesus, i.e. the Jewish Christians) in Jerusalem otherwise by purifying himself and accompanying four men to the temple who had taken nazaritic vows[53] (so as to refute the naysayers).[54]

This stratagem only delayed the inevitable mob assault on him. This event brought about the accusation[citation needed] in Acts 24:5–18 that Paul was the “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes”, and thus provides further verification that the term Nazarene was a mistranslation of the term nazirite.[citation needed] In any case, the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed.

What is curious is that Luke does not here mention the apostle James the Just as taking nazirite vows, although later Christian historians (e.g. Epiphanius Panarion 29.4) believed he had, and the vow of a nazirite would explain the asceticism Eusebius of Caesarea ascribed to James,[55] a claim that gave James the title “James the Just”.

Early Syriac Christianity[edit]

Several Syriac Christians beginning in the 4th century appropriated the vow in ascetical practice.

Apharat writes in the 4th century: “The sons of Seth were virtuous in their virginity, but when they became mixed up with the daughters of Cain, they were blotted out with the water of the flood. Samson was honorable in his Naziriteship and in his virginity, but he corrupted his Naziriteship with his licentiousness.”[56][57]

John Scully records Ephrem suggesting that “the vines of Paradise rush out to meet only those ascetics who lead a life of virginity and abstain from wine” in the 4th century.[58][57]

John the Solitary refers to John the Baptist for a model of fasting in the 5th century.[59]

Dadisho‘s Commentary on Abba Isaiah lists several physical activities in relation to the term “Nazirite”.[60]

The anonymous author of the Cave of Treasures writes: And [the Priest] shall be a Nazirite all the days of his life. He shall not take a wife, he shall not have a house to dwell in, and he shall not offer the blood of animals or fowl. Rather, he will offer bread and wine to God.[61]

In modern religions[edit]


The tradition of the nazirite vow has had a significant influence on the Rastafari Religion, and elements of the vow have been adopted as part of this religion. In describing the obligations of their religion, Rastafari make reference to the nazirite vow taken by Samson. Part of this vow, as adopted by the Rastafari, is to avoid the cutting of one’s hair. This is inspired by the text of Leviticus 21:5 “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” The visible sign of this vow is the Rastafarian’s dreadlocks.[62][63] Some Rastafari have concluded that Samson had dreadlocks, as suggested by the description stating that he had seven locks upon his head.[citation needed]

Additionally, the Rastafari are taught to abstain from alcohol in accordance with the nazirite vow. They have also adopted dietary laws derived from Leviticus, which accounts for some similarity to the prohibitions of the Jewish dietary law of Kashrut.

Protestant perspectives[edit]

In 1979, Witness Lee of the Local Church movement published the Principal of the Nazarite, a short pamphlet outlining a metaphorical interpretation of the vow for uptake amongst Christians.[64]

Lou Engle, a charismatic evangelical American leader, has written Nazarite DNA, which outlines a metaphorical interpretation of the vow.[65]

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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