A nazir is someone who, through a voluntary oath, prohibits himself primarily from eating meat and drinking wine for a set amount of time. Judaism’s attitude towards such a course of action seems highly contradictory – we find the nazir praised as righteous and holy in some places[1] and referred to disparagingly in others[2]. So what exactly was the purpose of nazirus, and how are we to resolve this apparent contradiction?
The resolution of this problem touches upon the far broader issue of how we, as Jews, are supposed to relate to the entire world within which we live. The Torah demands of us that we become a nation of holy people. Our natural

, Western/Christian influenced, concept of a ‘holy’ person tends to evoke images of a frail and aged person totally detached from physicality and worldly pleasures, who spends all day praying and meditating. This, thankfully, is not the Jewish notion of a holy life. G-d created a physical world for us to live in, not desist from. Our role is not to shun physicality but to elevate it. Each and every aspect of the physical world around us has the potential to be used as a tool to connect to spirituality and thereby elevate us and that tool in the process[3].
The Talmud says that no festive occasion is complete without its participants enjoying fine foods such as meat and wine. We are actually obligated to enjoy the satiety provided by a great meal and good wine as a means to appreciating the spiritual content of a shabbos or wedding meal!
It is therefore clear that for someone to actively reject physicality – expressed through a self-imposed ban on engaging in elementary physical pleasures – is to subscribe to a worldview antithetical to Judaism’s approach to engaging with the world around us.
Why then do we also find a nazir praised for his/her righteousness?
It is certainly true that every aspect of creation is ultimately intended to be positively used by us. It is for this reason that to abstain from physicality is to mistakenly reject the use of the tools we have been provided with to fulfil our intended purpose. At the same time, it is also true that every tool carries with it the danger of being misused, in which case it can become a source of negativity and destruction rather than the intended catalyst for spirituality and growth.
Wine serves as a perfect example; through the act of Kiddush over wine we instill a Shabbos or Yom Tov with it’s spiritual energy. Wine likewise has the capacity to free us of our limiting inhibitions and insecurities and thereby allow us to access and express our inner-most self[4]. Yet wine, or more generally alcohol, if abused, is a source of unparalleled destruction. People’s most destructive and animalistic behaviour is often alcohol-fuelled.
The challenge of life is to use every tool at our disposal in its constructive capacity, and not as a source of destruction. Inevitably this is more of a challenge for us with some tools than others. A mature and honest person is able to identify where his/her most difficult challenges lie. Sometimes the best way to deal with a challenge is to attack it head-on. At other times the most sensible thing to do may be to temporarily avoid it altogether.
To take an extreme example, a kleptomaniac is someone who is driven by an urge to steal simply for the thrill of stealing. The most sensible mode of rehabilitation for this addict may be to avoid entering any shop for a set period of time. This is obviously not a permanent solution; no healthy functioning member of society can live without ever coming into contact with possessions that s/he does not own. But in the short-term this extreme course of action may be a necessary and sensible one to create the necessary conditions for a long term recovery.
A nazir is no different. Ultimately we are supposed to be normal, healthy human beings who interact with every aspect of creation in a positive and constructive way. It is for this reason that abstinence is a very un-Jewish concept. Yet at the same time we recognise the potentially destructive dangers of every tool if misused. To the extent that a nazir is making an honest evaluation of his/her current weaknesses and acting upon them sensibly, the Torah praises such righteous behaviour. As a temporary measure avoiding the challenge may be the most sensible way of ultimately surpassing it. A nazir, by refraining from the most potentially self-indulging foods and drink is able is to rehabilitate him/herself to the point where they can then enjoy such foods in the positive and healthy way for which they were created to be enjoyed

[1] See Rambam, end of Hilchos Nedarim, Medrash Rabba 10, and the Ibn Ezra on the parsha itself. In fact the verse itself refers to the kedusha (holiness) of the nazir.

2 Talmud Bavli, Nazir, 19a. Rambam Hilchos Deos 3.1

3 See mesilas yesharim (path of the just) ch. 1.

4 This is the purpose of drinking wine at the Purim meal

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