Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


A man or woman who shall disassociate himself by taking a nazirite of abstinence for the sake of Hashem. (6:2)

The nazir is a unique individual, who takes upon himself a vow of abstinence from: wine and grape derivatives; cutting his hair; and contact with a corpse. These are three areas that seem to have no common denominator. The three regulations are that he may not drink wine, cut his hair, or defile himself by contact with the dead. These restrictions apparently elevate him above the rest of Klal Yisrael, as well as enhance every aspect of his personal life. What is the relationship of one to the other? The Shem MiShmuel explains that three areas define all of human activity: thought, speech, and action. How are these three areas of human endeavor enhanced by the laws of the nazir?

The nazir may not cut the hair "on his head." The head is the seat of the brain and intellect. The hair, which covers the cranium and thus surrounds the brain, is, at least symbolically, an outgrowth and development of the perspicacity which lies within. The hair, when cut, represents a boundary, a limit. By abstaining from cutting his hair, the nazir manifests a presence that permits his intellect to burst forth beyond its usual parameters.

When one abstains from wine, he has greater control over the power of speech. Indeed, Chazal teach us, Nichnas yayin yatzah sod, "When wine goes in, secrets come out." During the period of nezirus, the nazir learns self-control; he learns to restrain his speech by abstaining from wine. Last, death, the cessation of life, represents the failure and demise of the physical world. By avoiding contact with a corpse, one consecrates the physical, active components of man. Distancing oneself from death ennobles life and its potential.

The Shem MiShmuel goes on to draw a parallel between the three areas from which the nazir must abstain, and the three korbanos, sacrifices, that he offers at the end of his period of nezirus. This is part of his reentry into society, marking an end to his restrictive period. For a person to have undergone such a sanctified period of abstinence and not take some portion of it with him would be a waste. He has achieved an exalted status with which he must now continue life. He accomplishes this through the three sacrifices which he offers. He brings a Korban Olah, Elevation /Burnt offering, a Korban Chatas, Sin offering; a Korban Shelamim, Peace offering.

The Olah is a korban brought to atone for inappropriate thoughts. It reflects the nazir's intellect. The Chatas is an offering brought for sinful activities. The Shelamim is a sacrifice that is brought for the purpose of promoting peace between people, because it brings harmony between the owner and the Kohanim who share in this korban. It represents the positive relationship between two generally opposing forces. Likewise, speech is the product of a conjunction between the powers of the intellect and the body. The lips produce what the brain wills. Hence, the Korban Shelamim corresponds with the speech aspect of the nazir's ritual.

The nazir had taken great strides to ensure his spiritual ennoblement. The korbanos aim to provide a tangible and spiritual reminder of his ascension, so that once he has completed his period of nezirus, he will continue in his spiritual ascension with the appropriate resolve necessary for this drive upward and forward.

As an individual who has invoked upon himself a level of kedushah, holiness, akin to that of a Kohen Gadol, High Priest, the nazir must realize that responsibility accompanies the position. The greatest responsibility is that he must maintain what he has achieved. All too often, we obtain a spiritual achievement only to allow it to slip through our fingers because we lack the fortitude and resolution to hold on in order to keep fighting for it.

As a caveat to better understand the nazir's lofty spiritual perch, we cite the Avnei Nezer who explains why the nazir's level of kedushah, in a sense, is even greater than of a Kohen Hedyot, common Kohen, who may defile himself to his closest relatives. The nazir, as mentioned previously, may not even do that. Why?

He explains that a Kohen receives his holiness, his exalted position, from his ancestors. His father was a Kohen; therefore, he is also a Kohen. Since he draws his spirituality from his family relationships, he becomes closely related to his family. When family members die, the laws that usually prohibit a Kohen from defiling himself to the dead are suspended. One is permitted to contaminate himself to close relatives, since they are the source of his holiness. The father symbolizes the concept of "close relatives." The nazir, however, acquires his holiness through his personal initiative, which is sanctioned by the Almighty. As such, his holiness has no relationship with close family at all. He may not defile himself to close relatives, because they are no different to him in this respect than common Jews.

The Kohen Gadol is different because his position is by appointment, based solely upon his personal qualifications as a spiritually refined and holy kohen. Without his self-developed eminence, he would have remained a Kohen Hedyot. Once again, his position is not a consequence of his family connections, but is self-merited. As in all things, however, one must work at what he has achieved, in order to be able to retain the moments of greatness that have impacted his life.

To his father or to his mother, to his brother or to his sister - he shall not contaminate himself to death upon their death. (6:7)

The nazir has accepted upon himself to be completely devoted to the Almighty. Nothing may interrupt this devotion - not even the passing of his closest relatives. Chazal derive from this pasuk that a nazir may contaminate himself to a meis mitzvah, a corpse who has no one to bury him. This applies, likewise, to a Kohen Gadol. If a Jewish body is laying in degradation with no one to arrange its burial, then the nearest Jew, regardless of his spiritual devotion and hallowed position, must address the needs of this corpse. Veritably, the corpse does not feel the bizayon, humiliation; nonetheless, it is there, and we, as Jews, must see to it that it is immediately handled appropriately. How much more so we should be concerned with the needs and feelings of the living! When we see that the Torah insists upon sparing embarrassment for a corpse, it should be a lesson for us in how to interact with a living person, making sure to go out of our way to spare him any humiliation.

With this idea in mind, Horav Aizik Ausband, Shlita, explains an earlier law regarding the sotah, wayward wife. The Torah writes, "But if the woman had not become defiled, and she is pure, then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed (Bamidbar 5:28)." Chazal tell us that this woman, who had been under suspicion from her husband and had agreed to drink the bitter waters-- which would have killed her had she been guilty-- will now bear children successfully. If she had previously suffered difficult labor, she will now give birth more easily; if her babies were dark skinned, they will now be fair. Hashem will compensate her for the ordeal which she underwent. We wonder why she is entitled to receive a reward. Against the advice of her husband, this woman had secluded herself with another man to the point that there was considerable reason to believe that she had acted immorally. She clearly acted inappropriately. Just because it has been confirmed that she did not participate in an immoral act, she certainly did nothing to earn a reward. She acted in a manner unbecoming to a Jewish wife and mother.

We understand from here that the humiliation one sustains - regardless of its source- serves as an incredible therapeutic and atoning force. This woman went through overwhelming embarrassment in order to prove her innocence. Hashem rewards a person for his humiliation, because He understands the mental anguish that is caused by disgrace. I am not sure if this will calm anyone during a period in which he is experiencing humiliation, but the mere fact that it is a form of yisurim, troubles, that has a silver-lining should in itself elicit a positive response. We have only to look around with a perceptive eye at individuals who for various reasons have been subject to painful humiliation, noting the subsequent rewards they have seen - be it in tremendous nachas, satisfaction, from their children, or in other areas of life - to accept the verity of this fact.

What may be included in the category of personal disgrace is a situation in which one experiences a challenging ordeal and does not respond to aggression. Even though the person did not sustain embarrassment, the mere fact that he did not retaliate when it was the "normal" thing to do, is in itself worthy of merit. The following story is a classic, but, at times, even classics are forgotten. Let this serve as a reminder.

Over ninety years ago in the small town of Shavil, Lithuania, a woman was walking home and noticed that her neighbor had hung out two large sheets to dry. This was the norm for the day, but this lady was having a bad day. The sheets were flapping in the wind, and she would have to go a few feet out of her way to reach her apartment. This was unacceptable, especially in her current foul mood. In a burst of anger, she tore them off the clothesline and threw them onto the muddy ground. She did all of this under the watchful and shocked eye of the laundry's owner. Instead of reacting to this outrageous act, she quietly picked up her muddy sheets, washed them again and hung them up to dry.

A few days later, the son of the lady who had tossed the laundry suddenly became seriously ill. A devout woman, she understood that nothing in this world just happens, there had to be a reason. She went to a tzaddik, righteous man known as the Leshem, Horav Shlomo, zl, known for his classic work, Leshem Shevo V'achlama, and cried hysterically, begging for a blessing for her son. "I have done nothing wrong. Why would my son become so ill?" she cried.

The Leshem calmed her down, but said, "You must think. Nothing happens in a vacuum. You must have done something to warrant this Heavenly response." She then remembered the two sheets flapping in the wind and her irresponsible reaction. "Do you know whose sheets they were?" he asked. "Yes," she replied. "Then you must go and ask forgiveness before Hashem can forgive you," the Rav said.

The lady immediately went to the home of the woman whose sheets she had soiled and, when the husband answered the door, she asked to see his wife. "I must speak to your wife immediately," she said. "I must apologize to her for something terrible I did to her."

The husband said, "First of all, my wife is not in. I cannot believe, however, that you did anything to offend her, because she did not mention anything to me about it."

This was not enough to dissuade the woman, who burst into tears as she related to him what she had done. The husband once again told the woman, "You must have the wrong house. My wife never said a word to me about any sheets. You have no reason to apologize."

The woman was confused and returned to the rav to relate her dialogue with the husband. "I know that family quite well. That woman is very righteous. She wanted to preserve your dignity and not tell anyone what you did - not even her husband. She has had numerous miscarriages. I gave her a brachah, blessing, that Hashem should grant her a child that will illuminate the hearts and minds of the Jewish People."

A short while later, the rav's blessing was fulfilled when the woman gave birth to a little boy. She named him Yosef Shalom. Yes, the venerable gadol hador, pre-eminent Torah leader of our generation, Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita, was the product of that blessing - a blessing warranted because his mother preserved the dignity of a woman who had brought her grief. Humiliation, even when one might conjure up a reason to justify it, is still pain, and emotional pain hurts deeper than physical pain.

And he shall atone for him for having sinned against the soul. (6:11)

By becoming a nazir, the individual accepts upon himself three restrictions: he is forbidden from partaking of wine or grape products; he may not contaminate himself by contact with a corpse; and he may not cut his hair. At the completion of his nezirus term, he brings three sacrifices: a Korban Olah, Elevation/Burnt offering; a Korban Chatas, Sin offering; and a Korban Shlemim, Peace offering. In the Talmud Bava Kamma 91b, Chazal wonder why a nazir who has just completed a period of holy spiritual devotion should be relegated to bring a Sin offering? What did he do that was sinful? They answer that since he deprived himself of wine, he is considered to have sinned against his soul. This statement causes Tosfos to comment that taking a vow of nezirus is not something one should take upon himself. It is a vow that one should not take lightly. Nonetheless, the Talmud does stipulate that a person who sees a sotah, wayward wife, during her degradation, should take a nazarite vow. This is because wine in excess can cause a person to act immorally, as the sotah has done. In this case, the preventative barrier against sin outweighs the more minor infraction of depriving oneself of wine. Rabbeinu Tam compares this to an individual who fasts in response to a troubling dream. By doing this form of penance, he hopes to counter the dream's unfortunate foreboding. This fasting may even take place on Shabbos for a dream that occurred on Friday night. He must, however, fast an additional day because of the sin of fasting on Shabbos, which deprives him of oneg, enjoyment, on Shabbos.

In conclusion, certain behaviors are necessary, albeit, "sinful." Therefore, even though the behavior was necessary and commendable, since it involved a behavior that was blameworthy, the former nazir must offer a Sin-offering as a form of atonement. In Rabbi Sholom Smith's anthology of the Rosh Yeshivah's shmuessen, ethical discourse, he cites Horav Avrohom Pam, zl, who derives an insightful lesson from this. The Torah has placed restrictions on a Jew, and Chazal have supplemented these restrictions with constraints of their own. A Jew is clearly allowed to prohibit certain foods or behaviors to himself by making a vow. Nonetheless, whatever impositions a person makes upon himself, they must be within the parameters set by the Torah and Chazal. To impose prohibitions that are counter to one's Biblical and Rabbinic obligations makes no sense. How can one supplement if he has not yet fulfilled that which is already required of him?

The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno explains this with an analogy. Two poor Jews lived in a town. They were friends, and both had daughters of marriageable age. This is where the similarity ceased. It was in their vocation that they differed sharply. One was a thief, while the other was a woodchopper. When it was time for the woodchopper to marry off his daughter, he did so respectably. The thief, who knew how poor his woodchopper friend was, wondered how he could afford such a wedding. The woodchopper explained, "When my daughter was born, I made a small box and put a lock on it. Every week, I would take one or two coins and place them in the box. True, there were many times, during these past years that I would have wanted to "raid the box," but it was locked. During the course of years, I had saved a significant amount of money, enough to marry off my daughter. Why do you not do the same?"

The thief responded, "Are you a fool? Do you think that a simple lock will prevent me from gaining access to the money? Did you forget what my profession is? A flimsy lock will not prevent me from reaching the money!"

The Maggid concludes by saying that while the Torah does allow a person to make a vow as a way of obtaining greater spirituality, this is only effective for the individual who honors the original "locks" of the Torah. For one who has a difficult time keeping up with the prohibitions imposed by the Torah and Chazal, however, what value is there in extra mitzvos, more prohibitions? "Locks" mean nothing to him anyway. Is not what the Torah has imposed upon him sufficient?

Everybody wants to establish a name for himself as a pious and righteous man of integrity, upright with a balanced moral character. If one follows the Torah in accordance with the interpretation of Chazal and the Shulchan Aruch, he will succeed in becoming this unique specimen which is referred to as a "normal Jew." Indeed, that is how one of the Torah luminaries of the previous generation described the Chafetz Chaim: A normal Jew! This was because he did not demonstrate any unusual display of piety or strictness in mitzvah performance. He did what the Shulchan Aruch detailed a Jew should do, and he did not call attention to himself. He was just a normal Jew. He lived with joy, at peace, without intensity - just as a normal Jew should live.

Hashem wants us to enjoy this world. We should neither get carried away with frivolity, nor should we abstain from deriving any pleasure in life. Live normally; follow the Torah; enjoy life when it is proper; be sad when sadness is appropriate. In short: be normal!

Va'ani Tefillah

Rommemu Hashem Elokeinu, v'histachavu l'hadom raglav…ki kadosh Hu. V'hishtachavu l'har kodsho///ki kadosh Hashem Elokeinu. Exalt Hashem our G-d, and prostrate yourselves at His footstool, He is Holy…bow at His holy mountain, for Holy is Hashem, our G-d.

Rommemu, to exalt, is an all inclusive form of praise which includes all of man's thoughts, words and deeds in this world. Indeed, everything about him praises Hashem in every way possible. Eitz Yosef comments that until this pasuk, every praise had been said in front of the Aron Hakodesh. This would allow people to infer that there exists holiness only in the presence of the Aron. What about during the time of the Second Bais HaMikdash, when there was no Aron? Did the kedushah, holiness, end? Therefore, these pesukim were added to declare that the holiness is present despite the lack of an Aron. This is interpreted in the words of the verses, "Exalt Hashem," and "prostrate yourselves," during the Second Temple - even though there is no Aron, "He is holy." The Bais Hamikdash is holy even without the Aron. If one might think in his heart that now that the Temple has been taken from us, the holiness has regrettably ended, the tefillah adds the next verse to exalt Hashem and "bow at His holy mountain." Although nothing is left of the Sanctuary but a mountain, kedushah is retained there because, "holy is Hashem, our G-d." The Kedushah is not necessarily in the Aron, the Bais Hamikdash, or the Temple mount. Hashem is the Source of kedushah, and He is Eternal. Wherever He is, and He is everywhere, there is reason to exalt, because kedushah is present.

Sponsored in loving memory of our
dear father and zaidy on his yahrtzeit
Rabbi Shlomo Silberberg

HaRav Shlomo ben Nosson z"l
niftar 14 Sivan 5759

Zev Aryeh & Miriam Solomon & Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel