In a way, the nazirite seems to be an overly ambitious, self-possessed poseur who, lacking any special status by birth desires to accord himself a higher position. Being neither royal nor priestly the nazirite aims to separate himself from the hoi polloi of which he is a part. Yet while the derivation of the word nazirite might support this dim view, in the opinion of at least one commentator the actions of the nazirite are actually commendable.

 

According to Professor Jacob Milgrom, the Hebrew root n-z-r from where the word “nazirite” is derived (Numbers 6:2) means “separate oneself” (New JPS Commentary, p. 44). If the separation is for God, that is to say, separation from uncleanness, it implies sanctification (Leviticus 15:31). The noun nazir, Milgrom goes on to explain, is probably an abbreviation of nezir elokim, one who is separated or consecrated to God, like Samson (Judges 13:5). Metaphorically, the word nazir is applied to someone singled out from a larger group, like the tribe of Joseph that is blessed by the patriarch Jacob as “a prince among his brethren” (Genesis 49:26).

 

Based on what Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra intimates, Rabbi Abraham Menahem Ha-Kohen Rappaport, author of Minhah Belulah, claims that the nazir is one who is master of his own domain. Indeed, the word nezer can refer to the hair on the head (cf. Jer.7:29) and figuratively to headgear (Exodus 39:30). But Rabbi Rappaport has something deeper in mind. Instead of being enslaved to one’s biological impulses, the nazir rules over them. Cravings for wine can be suppressed. And once those impulses are controlled, the nazir is like a king wearing his crown. In a similar vein, Pirke Avot (4:1) includes the observation that the hero is one who conquers his urges.

 

Perhaps the vital message here is that while not everyone may choose to let their hair grow and refrain from drinking alcohol, anyone can rule over their impulses. And those who are successful in doing so achieve the highest degree of nobility.