Standard collections of the Mishna include Massekhet Nazir after Massekhet Nedarim and before Massekhet Sota in Seder Nashim, even though Nazir has no direct connection to marital issues or family law. Nevertheless, since the parsha that discusses the laws of Nazir appears in close proximity with that of Sota – a wife suspected of adultery (see Bamidbar chapters 5–6) – they were placed next to each other in the Mishna, as well. The entire tractate focuses on the laws of a Nazir, although some of these laws were already discussed in Massekhet Nedarim and others find their place in the laws of sacrifices and ritual purity.
Nezirut is a unique type of neder in which a person obligates himself to follow the laws of a Nazirite, as delineated in the Torah (Bamidbar 6:1-21). A person may choose to accept this status for any one of a number of reasons: as part of his penitence, as an expression of thanksgiving to God, as a method of prayer and beseeching, and, on occasion, out of anger. When nezirut is accepted for purely positive reasons, it is viewed as an attempt to reach higher levels of holiness (see Bamidbar 6:8).
The expression “nezirut” refers to a person who abstains from certain actions, yet we find that the expression also refers specifically to the uncut hair which is comparable to a crown (see Bamidbar 6:7). The Torah does not prohibit becoming ritually impure or drinking wine, yet these restrictions can be seen as representative of a level of holiness, as indicated by the fact that a kohen cannot enter the precincts of the Temple when he is drunk or in a state of ritual defilement. Thus, the person who accepts nezirut upon him himself has effectively donned the mantle of a kohen for a temporary period.
The Talmudic Sages were of different minds regarding the value of nezirut. As we have noted, refraining from drinking wine and coming into contact with the dead are seen as positive things; nevertheless, some Sages viewed it as sinful for a person to obligate himself with these restrictions, particularly because of the fear that accepting this status may have been done for the wrong reasons.
The rules of nezirut are clearly stated in the Torah. A nazir cannot:
- Cut his hair
- Eat grapes or drink any grape products
- Come into contact with the body of a dead person
Once the individual has completed his period as a nazir he is obligated to bring a series of sacrifices, after which time his nezirut has ended.
Should the individual become tameh while he is a nazir, he must undergo the normal week-long purification process, after which time he has all of his hair cut off and brings a number of sacrifices. At that point he must begin his nezirut over again.
Although nezirut is a type of neder, it differs from other vows in that the details of the neder are not defined by the person who accepts the nezirut, but rather by the rules as stated in the Torah and understood by the Sages. The only part that is controlled by the individual is the length of the nezirut, as long as it is not shorter than 30 days. The 30-day minimum is not mentioned in the Torah, but the Sages had a tradition that stam nezirut sheloshim yom – the standard length of time for nezirut is 30 days. Similarly, the Sages had a tradition that a person could accept upon himself nezirut olam (nezirut that would remain in force for the person’s entire life) and nezirut Shimshon (nezirut of the kind kept by Samson – see Shoftim chapters 13–16), which forbids drinking wine and cutting hair, but permits ritual defilement.