What is the Nazarite vow?

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Everyone should dedicate themselves to God and how we do that is different for each person.

The Nazarite vow is important because a person chooses to dedicate themselves to God for a particular purpose and time. The Hebrew Bible presents prolific characters who are Nazarites. Sampson in Judges 13 was a Nazarite. Samuel in 1 Samuel 1:11 is the story of becoming a Nazarite when Hannah pleads with God, and she finally has a child who adheres to a Nazarite vow. The Christian Bible tells of Paul possibly taking the Nazarite vow in Acts 18:18, as well as four other members of the Jerusalem community who took a Nazarite vow. In fact, the place and purpose of people who chose to separate themselves for the dedication and service to God in the Second Temple were so important that the Second Temple courtyard had a dedicated area set aside for Nazarites.

Deciding to dedicate yourself to God in service and action is a solemn choice a person makes. This week’s study in the Bible presents the premise for the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6:2-3, which states:

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a Nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the LORD, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.”

The Nazarite vow is used to set oneself apart for God. Maybe you have met someone who has taken the Nazarite vow; this is common with those of the Rastafari religion whose adherents do not cut their hair according to Leviticus 21:5 and follow the precepts of Numbers 6:2-3. Historically, the Nazarite vow could be made for a short period, such as 30 days or even long-term, such as seven years or for life.

So, what is a Nazarite then?

The term “nazir” is also used in juxtaposition with Nazarite or Nazirite. Most of the understanding regarding the rules surrounding the nazir is found in the Mishnah. The Nazarite “năzˈərīt, (Hebrew) nazir is defined as someone who is consecrated, in the Bible, a person dedicated to God.” The vow is to God, and the person making the vow encompasses separation unto God. It usually is accompanied by abstinence from grapes, alcohol and hair cutting.

What is the difference between oaths and vows?

Someone who undertook a Nazarite vow such as Samson did so by making the vow conditional on his performance of or abstention from a certain act, thereby using it as an assurance for his word.

The Talmud distinguishes between shevu’ah, generally translated as “oath,” and neder, usually translated as “vow.” A shevu’sh is a statement that invokes God as surety for its veracity. A subcategory of shevu’ah consists of a promise that one will do something or not do something. A shevu’ah of this kind, therefore, restricts an individual.

I have often met people in life who ask God to answer a prayer, and they promise not to do an act like smoking. A barter with God, in essence. Josephus explained that the Essenes refused to take oaths with unneeded speech; thus, they protected their integrity as always truthful. Christianity teaches that Jesus taught similarly in Matthew 5:33-37.

A neder, by contrast, restricts an object. It is a declaration that the use of the benefit of a particular object is forbidden to oneself. This example would be Sampson, who could not have intoxicant or cut his hair.

The difference in Christian and Jewish interpretations.

The Western Church developed a school of thought termed the “Holiness School.” The concept is that holiness is achieved primarily through behavioral, even ethical means, rather than through ritual. Holiness is a standard in which the votive has goals to attain. It happens when people feel they must do something to have God’s love. This concept is that holiness is not a preexisting state but something to be attained.

In Jewish tradition, originating from Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2, 21, the Chosen People are holy because they are separate. In the Hebrew Bible, the Nazarite was a person who was set aside for God. Personal sacrifice is being made for this relationship, often for Sampson or Samuel, by the abstention of grapes, which represented joy. The ancient Israelites did not have to “earn” God’s approval to become set apart. The vow was a symbol of the relationship that God honored.

If you are not in a personal relationship with God, now is the time to begin that journey. You may not want to take a vow or oath yet; however, a committed heart is the first step.

Roger Cohen is a military veteran and a university lecturer in Southern California, specializing in ethics, religious studies and political science. Follow him at http://www.facebook.com/ProfessorRoger.

Congregation B’nai Chaim offers services to Jewish and interfaith families and is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit http://www.bnaichaim.com.