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In the Hebrew Bible, a Nazirite or Nazarite, (in Hebrew: נזיר, nazir), refers to one who voluntarily took a vow described in Numbers 6:1–21. The proper noun "Nazarite" comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning "consecrated" or "separated". This vow required the man or woman to:
After following these requirements for a designated period of time (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 head in the outer courtyard of the Temple (the Jerusalem Temple for Judaism) and then place the hair on the same fire as the peace offering. (Numbers 6:18)
The Nazirite is described as being "holy unto YHWH" (Numbers 6:8), yet at the same time 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 him as a sinner.
Halakha (Jewish law) has a rich tradition on the laws of the nazirite. These laws were first recorded in the Mishna, and Talmud in tractate Nazir. They were later codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah Hafla'ah, Nazir. From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism these laws are not a historical curiosity but can be practiced even today. However, since there is now no temple in Jerusalem to complete the vow, and any vow would be permanent, modern rabbinical authorities strongly discourage the practice to the point where it is almost unheard today.
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 nazirite 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). Likewise all of the laws related to intent and conditional vows apply also to nazirite vows.
In general there are three types of nazirites:
Each one of these has slightly different laws. For example, a permanent nazirite is allowed to cut his hair once a year if the hair is bothersome. A Samson-like nazirite is a permanent nazirite and is not enjoined to avoid corpses. These types of nazirites have no source in the Bible but are known through tradition.
A person can become a nazirite whether or not the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. However, lacking the temple there is no way to bring the offerings that end the nazirite period. As such the person would de facto be a permanent nazirite.
If a nazirite fails in fulfilling these three obligations there may be consequences. All or part of the person's time as a nazirite may need to be repeated. Furthermore, the person may be obligated to bring sacrifices.
Whether a nazirite has to repeat time as a nazirite depends on what part of the nazirite vow was transgressed. A nazirite who becomes defiled by a corpse is obligated to start the entire nazirite period over again. In the Mishna, Queen Helena vowed to be a nazirite for seven years, but became defiled near the end of each of two of her first nazirite periods, forcing her to twice start over. She was a nazirite for a total of 21 years. Nazirites who shave their hair are obligated to redo the last 30 days of the nazirite period. However, if the nazirite drinks wine, the nazirite period continues as normal.
An Israelite  man or woman can only become a nazirite by an intentional verbal declaration. This declaration can be in any language, and can be something as minor as saying "me too" as a nazirite passes by.
A person can specify the duration as any period of 30 days or more. If a person does not specify, or specifies a time less than 30 days, the vow is for 30 days. 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. Likewise if a person says "I am a nazirite like Samson," the laws of a Samson-like nazirite apply. However if a person says that he is a nazirite for a thousand years, he is a regular nazirite.
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.
This vow required the man or woman to observe the following:
It is also forbidden for the nazirite to have grape or grape derivatives, even if they are not alcoholic. According to traditional Rabbinic interpretation, there is no prohibition for the nazirite to drink alcoholic beverages not derived from grapes. According to less-traditional Rabbinic interpretation, a Nazirite is forbidden to consume any alcohol, and vinegar from such alcohol, regardless of its source. The laws of wine or grapes mixing in other food is similar to other dietary laws that apply to all Jews.
A nazirite can groom his hair with his hand or scratch his head and needn’t be concerned if some hair falls out. However a nazirite cannot comb his hair since it is a near certainty to pull out some hair. A nazirite is not allowed to use a chemical depilatory that will remove hair. A nazirite that recovers from Tzaraath, a skin disease described in Leviticus 14, is obligated to cut his hair despite being a nazirite.
The nazirite (except for a Samson-like nazirite as stated above) may not become ritually impure by proximity to a dead body. Causes include being under the same roof as a corpse. However a nazirite can contract other kinds of ritual impurity. A nazirite that finds an unburied corpse is obligated to bury it, even though he will become defiled in the process.
At the end of the nazirite period the nazirite brings three sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. The first is a ewe for a chatat (sin offering), the second is lamb for an olah (elevation offering), and finally a ram as a shelamim (peace offering) along with a basket of matzah and their grain and drink offerings. After bringing the sacrifices the nazirite shaves his or her head in the outer courtyard of the Temple.
Part of the Nazir's commencement offering is given to the Kohen. This gift is listed as one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts.
The nazirite is called "holy unto the Lord" (Numbers 6:8), but at the same time must bring a sin-offering (Numbers 6:11) and his sins are explicitly referred to ("and make atonement for that which he sinned"). This apparent contradiction, pointed out in the Babylonian Talmud, led to two divergent views. Samuel and Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar, 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 the nazirite is indeed holy and the sin referred to in the verse applies only to a nazirite who became ritually defiled.
Simeon the Just (a High Priest) was opposed to the nazirite vow and ate of the sacrifice offered by a nazirite 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 a 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.
Maimonides, 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. Nevertheless he does point out that a nazirite can be evil or righteous depending on the circumstances.
Nahmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, sides with Samuel 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.
Many later opinions compromise between these views and explain that a nazirite is both good and bad.
Two examples of Nazirites in the Hebrew Bible are Samson (Judges 13:5), and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). In the first case, God sent an angel to make the vow known to the mother for her not yet conceived son of what he wanted the child to be like in his life(ref. Judges 13:3–5), and in the second case, the mother (Hannah) made the vow before he was even conceived because she was barren (ref. 1Samuel 1:11), which required them to live a devout life, yet in return they received extraordinary gifts: Samson possessed strength and ability in physical battle, while Samuel was a prophet.
Samson appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a משׁתה, "drinking party", in Judges 14:10). Goswell suggests that "we cannot understand the career and failings of Samson without attention to his Nazirite status."
This vow was observed into the so-called intertestamental period (the period 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) or "he who was made holy" (egiasmenos ἡγιασμένος) etc. It is left untranslated and transliterated in Judges 13:5 as nazir (ναζιρ).
The practice of a nazirite vow is part of the ambiguity of the Greek term "Nazarene" 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 Eucharist, 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 Nazirite vow. These passages may indicate that Jesus intended to identify himself as a Nazirite ("not drinking the fruit of vine") before his crucifixion.
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.
Acts of the Apostles is also attributed to Luke (see Luke-Acts) and in Acts 18:18, Paul cut off his hair because of a vow he had taken, 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 Cenchræ, 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 period. If we are to believe the legend of Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius, St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, was a Nazarite, and performed with rigorous exactness all the practices enjoined by that rule of life. and 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 (so as to refute the naysayers).
This stratagem only delayed the inevitable mob assault on him. This event brought about the accusation 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. 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 (something the Jewish Nazarite Vow was never intended to do), a claim that gave James the title "James the Just".
The tradition of the nazirite vow has had a significant influence on the modern Rastafari Movement, 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. Some Rastafari have concluded that Samson had dreadlocks, as suggested by the description stating that he had seven locks upon his head. Others interpret Samson's "locks" to have been simple braids.
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.