Parshas Naso :
Deprivation Good or Bad?

By Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh

In this weeks Parsha we find the laws of the Nazir, one who accepts upon himself an ascetic lifestyle, refraining from grapes, grape products and haircuts, and committing not to become ritually defiled through coming in contact with a corpse.

    At the conclusion of the Nazir's period of exclusion he must perform a many faceted ritual. The ritual includes offering a Korban Chatas. A Chatas,or sin offering, is brought after someone has committed some wrong, generally after unintentionally transgressing a command that carries Korais (spiritual excision) as the penalty for willful violation. What is confounding here is that, not only has this Nazir apparently not violated any serious command, but further, the Torah begins its discussion of Nazirus by saying Speak to the people of Israel and say to them; a man or women who take an oath to become a Naizr to Hashem.  At a later point the Torah says All the days of his Nazirus he is Kadosh to Hashem. In Amos we find I will establish from amongst your sons Prophets and from amongst your Nezirim. These all suggest that the Nezirus is L'shem Shamayim and desirous in Hashem's eyes. Why then the necessity of a sin offering?

    Many of commentators on the Torah grapple with this problem. The most common response to the question is based on a statement of the Tanna, Rabbi Elazar Hakaphar: "Because he denied himself wine" (Nazir 19a). This is generally understood to reflect the theology that people should not deny themselves use of Hashem's creation. He wants us to use whatever he has permitted and to sanctify it. The Nazir has taken something which was permitted and should have been sanctified, and separated himself from it. This is wrong and he therefore must bring a Chatas. Regarding a Nazir the sages say Anyone who sees a Sotah in her degradation should become a Nazir from wine. Although it is generally sinful to deny yourself that which is permitted, there are times when a person feels that they have lost control of their nature and must take a radical path to right their ship. His path is therefore L'Shem Shamayim and sinful at the same time. Although this is not the path the Torah prefers at times, due to a persons weaknesses, it is the correct path to take. This theology of the Torah would then stand starkly opposed to others who maintain that holiness can only be achieved through a rigorously ascetic lifestyle.

    A radically different understanding of Nezirus was first presented to me by the late Rosh Hayeshiva of Novhardok, Rav Bentzion Brook ZT'L. Rav Bentizon often spoke of his time as a young student at Novhardok. Before the war Novhardok was a well established Mussar Yeshiva, known for its radical approach to ethical development. Students were continuously urged to face their failings and to take dramatic action to overcome them. On that particular day, he told of students, many of them thirteen, fourteen or fifteen years of age, who would sneak over the border from Russia to Poland to start up new branches of the Yeshiva. The students were young and many of them were homesick. They were afraid that if they gave into their homesickness they would never accomplish their mission, which was to establish as many Yeshivos as they could ( within a few years, over eighty yeshivos were established). Because of their devotion to their mission and their sense of its sacredness many of them made a pact that they would tear up their identity papers when they crossed the border to nip in the bud any chance that they would give in to their weakness and fail their mission. Without identity papers there was no chance of ever returning home.

    Rav Bentzion used this example to suggest that making resolutions to deny yourself something that might lead you astray is an important tool for spiritual growth. I approached him after the lecture and asked him how what he had said was consistent with the message the Torah seemed to be conveying regarding the Nazir which is that Hashem does not want us to deny ourselves that which is permitted. True, it may be necessary for someone in an extreme circumstance to temporarily commit to being a Nazir, but that is not the optimum path. Rav Bentzion smiled and told me to learn the Ramban's commentary on the Nazir. According to the Ramban the reason that the Nazir brings the Chatas is because he is stepping down from his Nezirus. The sinfulness is the choice to leave that holy lifestyle. I was embarrassed and shocked. I was embarrassed because I had not seen the Ramban and shocked by how radically different it was from the other commentators' positions. How can one reconcile two such radically different positions. On the one hand there are those who assert that except for extenuating circumstances one should not become a Nazir and that the ascetic lifestyle is sinful. On the other hand there is the Ramban, who is of the opinion that not only is it not sinful, but quite the opposite, it is the choice lifestyle and that leaving it is sinful.

    I recently found what for me has reconciled these two widely divergent opinions. The Netziv in his Haemek Davar, in the midst of a discussion about the prohibition of the Nazir becoming Tameh Mes (impure due to contact with a dead body), suggests that there are two types of Nazir. Type A is a person dedicated to spiritual growth with his goal perhaps prophecy. Type B is the person who feels that his life is temporarily out of control. Type A is the person about whom it is said Nazir to Hashem  and about whom it is written in Amos  I will establish from amongst your sons Prophets and from amongst your youths Nezirim. Type B is the person who has taken his vow because he saw a Sotah in her degradation.

    I would like to suggest that it is regarding the Type B Nazir that Rabbi Elazar Hakaphar says that he brings the Chatas because of his having denied himself wine. His Nezirus was for an original lack of control. Had he been able to remain on an even keel he would have never become a Nazir and would never have needed to prohibit these things upon himself. It is therefore due to his failing in ethical development that he refrained from that which is permitted and he must therefore bring a Chatas. The Type A Nazir however is choosing a lofty path to the most elevated of spritual lifestyles and connection to Hashem. He doesn't choose it for lack of a solid character, quite the opposite. He chooses it for the loftiest of reasons. For him what is sinful is not the life of Nazirus, but his choice to leave it.

    Those young Novhardokers chose to live their lives like the Type A Nazir and Rav Benzion was urging us to do the same.


Parsha Encounters is 1998 by the Chicago Community Kollel

Published June 4, 1998 


Rabbi Karsh is Director of outreach at the Chicago Community Kollel as well as a really nice guy. He is in the process of writing a mystery novel and a host of other things. If you have any questions write him at



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