Monday, May 24, 2010

nazir -- sinner or saint?

While some Tanaim hold that the nazir’s self-denial is itself sinful, the majority view seems to be that nezirus can bring a person to great spiritual heights. Various pesukim refer to the nazir and the prophet in the same breath, implying a similar status. Why then must the nazir bring a korban chatas? Ramban answers that the chatas is a penalty for the nazir ending his nezirus and not remaining on this plateau of spiritual perfection. Tosfos (Ta’anis 11), however, denies the basis of the question. The nazir surely reaches great spiritual heights, but at the same time is guilty of a minor infraction of foregoing the pleasures of the world. The greater good is worth the peril of the lesser evil. Tosfos notes that even where required by halacha to take on a vow of nezirus – “ha’ro’eh sotah b’kilkula yazir min ha’yayin” – the nazir is nonetheless is guilty of a minor sin.

Rav Bloch in Shiurei Da’as wonders what Tosfos means by this last point. How can a person be called a sinner if he/she is following the path required by halacha?!

Ain tzadik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov v’lo yechetah.” The simple understanding of the pasuk is that even the greatest people experience failures – 99 out of 100 actions of a tzadik may be raiseworthy, but there is always that 1 out of 100 misstep. R’ Chaim Volozhiner, however adds an additional insight: the pasuk is not just speaking of quantitative tzidkus, but qualitative tzidkus as well. Even acts which are perceived as righteous are only 99% pure, but there is an inevitable element of “lo lishma,” selfishness, wrongful motivation, which creeps into all deeds. Even a tzadik cannot act with pure intention of “tov” without cheit tainting his deeds.

As psychologists put it, our actions are overdetermined, i.e. there are multiple individually sufficient causes that drive behavior. The Torah is realistic in its assessment of personality – even good people who do the right thing do so with mixed motives.

Rav Bloch interprets Tosfos as referring to the motivations that bring one to accept a vow of nezirus. Becoming a nazir may, under certain circumstances, be the 100% right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean the potential nazir's motives are 100% pure is making that leap. When we submerge the totality of our personality into an endeavor, even a positive endeavor, the bad traits that are inherent within us come along for the ride. That initial small lacking of proper intention stands out all the more in light of the tremendous spiritual heights reached by the nazir, but ultimately does not diminish in the larger sense from the value of the commitment.


  1. Why not both? Most of the hard decisions in life are trade-offs among conflicting values.

    IOW (and to start pinning down those conflicting values), as R' Lord J Sacks recently suggested, the Rambam would likely categorize the nazir as a great chassid and a lousy chakham.


  2. It's not your decision -- either G-d wants you to do it ("yazir atzmo min ha'yayin") or he doesn't. If G-d wants you to be a nazir, then how can doing that be a sin?

  3. Of course it's your decision, unless you're Shimshon or Shemu'el.

    Numerous shu"t reach their conclusion by trying to figure out which issue is a bigger problem for this particular sho'el.

    What's so hard to accept about deeming something constructive in one area of spiritual development, but simultaneously destructive in another?


  4. >>>What's so hard to accept about deeming something constructive in one area of spiritual development, but simultaneously destructive in another?<<<

    Because Hashem told you to do it ("haro'eh...yazir") and what Hashem says to do by definition cannot be sinful, as sin=the opposite of what Hashem wants. How can the same action be something that G-d wants you to do and something that G-d doesn't want you to do? It's one or the other.

  5. That's a rather funny statement by R' Sacks. Rambam in his commentary on Avot 5:6, states that being an accomplished chacham is a necessary precondition for being a true chassid. So it's really impossible according to Rambam to be a lousy chacham and a great chassid.

  6. That distinction isn't Rabbi Sacks', only the application to the difference between the condemnation of asceticism in Dei'os 3:1 and his lauding of the nazir in Nezirus 10:14.

    Distinguishing between the chakham's middah beinoni and the chassid's going further in one direction is in Dei'os 1:4-5. "... כָּל אָדָם שֶׁדֵּעוֹתָיו כֻּלָּן דֵּעוֹת בֵּינוֹנִיּוֹת מְמֻצָּעוֹת, נִקְרָא חָכָם; [ה] וּמִי שְׁהוּא מְדַקְדֵּק עַל עַצְמוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר וְיִתְרַחַק מִדֵּעָה בֵּינוֹנִית מְעַט לְצַד זֶה אוֹ לְצַד זֶה, נִקְרָא חָסִיד...."

    I intend to complete this evening a second blog entry on the subject. (Link should go live in a little over an hour.) The first blog entry, just on chakham vs chassid, is here. This post adds R' Sacks' observation, a possible maqor for the Rambam's distinction, and mention of the Chassidim haRishonim.


  7. If you don't include the Rambam's commentary on Avot where he clearly defines the relationship between chacham and chassid, as part of your analysis, then I'm afraid you are not getting the Rambam's true definition of what a chassid is.

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