Every seven years, those who learn Daf Yomi struggle to understand the concept of a nozir. Even those who don’t learn the Gemara encounter this subject every year when we read Parshas Naso, where the Torah introduces us to this concept and its halachos. However, this year something has changed a bit. Some publications have reminded us that in recent years, there was actually a real nozir, Rav Dovid Cohen of Yerushalayim, who was respected by several of the gedolim of his time and was considered a holy Yid. One of the prominent Daf Yomi maggidei shiur, who learns with thousands of loyal talmidim, actually interviewed a live long-haired nozir who lives in Eretz Yisroel and says that he is a Nezir Shimshon, a particular type of nozir. Since this is the first time in recent memory that this issue has been raised, we must ask ourselves: Is this something that we should be doing?
Quite early on in the Gemara (3a, very top), Rav Eliezer Hakapor refers to the nozir as a sinner. The Rambam (Hilchos De’ios 3:1) cites this opinion, adding that “it is sufficient that Hashem has forbidden us from certain things; therefore, we should not prohibit ourselves from more.” He goes on to explain that doing so falls under the rubric of Shlomo Hamelech’s prohibition not to “be overly righteous or excessively wise” (Koheles 7:16). Even the Raavad, who speaks strongly about limiting our eating habits (Baalei Hanefesh, Shaar Hakedusha), stresses that one should not fast excessively because he might injure his body. It is true that he endorses regular fasts and cites the Gemara (Taanis 11a), but he warns that this cannot be at the expense of being able to learn Torah and do mitzvos with the proper strength and vigor. The Shulchan Aruch (571:1) codifies this as depending on whether a person can fast in a healthy fashion. If so, he is called holy. When it is detrimental, he is called a sinner.
The poskim, writing on these words of the Shulchan Aruch (Taz, Mogein Avrohom and Mishnah Berurah), add that if someone is fasting because he has been instructed to do so in penance for particular sins, this is laudable. The Arizal is quoted by several of these poskim as saying that if one learns Torah full-time, he should not add any fasts at all, since it would diminish his learning and performance of mitzvos.
These same poskim cite alternatives to fasting to accomplish similar goals. These include stopping eating in the middle of a meal for a few moments, although one is still hungry and is enjoying the food. Similarly, they write that that the same desired results can be accomplished by taking on a taanis dibbur – refraining from speaking at certain times. This only enhances both body and soul without restricting things permitted by the Creator.
Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpot 2:65) was asked if one may go on a diet if this causes anguish to the dieter. In other words, while the Torah does not advocate any bodily excesses, nor does it require or even condone doing anything that causes pain or suffering. His answer is that since the diet is being undertaken to improve one’s health, it is permissible. He adds that even if it causes temporary pain or discomfort, it pays off in the long run with longevity and quality of life.
Rav Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halachos 5:299) also says that by refraining from foods that are unhealthy for that person, he is doing the mitzvah of overcoming his yeitzer hara and favoring the needs of the soul over those of the body. In ruling in this way, he relies upon the words of the Rambam that “one should not eat whatever is tempting to the palate like a dog or donkey” (ibid. 32).
Thus we see that from the halachic perspective, one should not forbid oneself from anything the Torah has permitted unless it is specifically dangerous to the person. Nevertheless, one should eat and drink in moderation to avoid becoming simply a creature whose life revolves around materialism. The meforshim on Parshas Naso reflect this dichotomy about the nozir as well. The Meshech Chochmah notes that part of the nozir’s need for kapparah – expiation – is that he withholds from himself the ability to properly make Kiddush and Havdalah upon wine. On the other hand, the Ramban states that the korbanos brought by the nozir are a kapparah for the fact that he is leaving the lofty status of nezirus to which he has attached himself.
A fascinating juxtaposition is that of the novi Amos (2:11), who states, “I established some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as nazirites.” He seems to be lauding the nezirim as being on the level of nevi’im. However, the Radak explains that the novi is actually chastising Klal Yisroel for allowing their sons to fall into the bad habits of following their desires and excessive drinking of wine. The Sefer Hakesav Vehakabbolah explicates the entire parsha of nezirus as being offered to those who are having difficulty restraining their worst impulses. They therefore require the added fences and limitations of nezirus. He quotes from the Rama that if one can control these urges without resorting to prohibitions not required by the Torah, that would certainly be the best approach for the average person.
I heard Rabbi Dr. A.Y. Twersky mention that alcoholics must go through twelve-step programs with all the humiliations of admitting their foibles because they need this to be healed and become functional human beings. However, it is certainly not recommended for those who can make a lechayim without endangering their entire sobriety all over again. In other words, it is best not to have to be a nozir at all.
Studying the Sefer Hachinuch on nezirus reveals that this is his attitude as well. He writes that by eschewing wine, which provides such wonderful opportunities for kedusha, such as in Kiddush, Havdalah, Arba Kosos, weddings and sheva brachos, the nozir is indeed transgressing a sin. The Kli Yokor adds that he sins also by distancing himself from regular society, which is capable of handling a bit of wine without catastrophe. He explains that this is what Chazal mean when they say that if one becomes a nozir, it is if he has built a bamah – a private altar – for himself. In other words, the Torah would prefer for a person to be able to mingle in society without falling prey to its worst failings. However, it is equally clear that if someone needs this methodology for avoiding spiritual disaster, he should avail himself of the healing benefits of taking on the nozir restrictions.
It would seem, therefore, from our sages throughout the ages that a nozir can indeed be considered holy if he is utilizing this method of dealing with his personal demons. On the other hand, if he is able to drink a few cups of wine in a spirit of kedusha without imbibing its worst potential results, he should do so. The Gemara (Yoma 76b) tells us that a bit of wine is good for the heart (anticipating by centuries modern medicine), restores one’s learning (Horiyos 13b), and gladdens the hearts of good people (Shoftim 9:13). Nevertheless, this is the ideal and not everyone is capable of taking advantage of these positive qualities of wine. Therefore, in our times, when we are uncertain of the results of nezirus upon ourselves, we have seen that overwhelmingly, most gedolei Yisroel have not encouraged us to become nezirim. There are mussar seforim full of advice and recommendations for how to temper our yeitzer hara, for how to avoid excess, and for eating and drinking in both a healthy and normative way.
I close with the wise words of the Rebbe Rashab of Chabad. He quotes the posuk which states that when Avrohom Avinu served his celestial guests, “he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate” (Bereishis 18:8). “Now who ate?” asks the rebbe. Surely it was not the angels, since they don’t eat. On the other hand, Avrohom Avinu, as the ultimate host, joined them and ate. This is what made him stand “above them,” meaning on a higher level.
To be human is to be able to engage in the physical and yet to elevate every act and every morsel into a spiritual event. That should be our goal with every gashmiyus endeavor in which we engage. We were given both a body and a soul, and it is our privilege and opportunity to use our neshomah to elevate our guf.
Perhaps for some, long ago, the method of choice was to be a nozir, but our avodah should be to use our abilities and tremendous powers to lives of kedusha with the wonderful things Hashem has permitted for us.