This week’s haftorah chronicles the birth of Samson to the childless Manoah and his wife of Tribe Dan. A visiting angel informs the mother-to-be that her son is to be a lifetime Nazirite, and as such, forbade her from taking part in food or wine forbidden to the Nazirites. Samson would thus be blessed and foretold to save the Jews from their current Philistine oppression.
What is a Nazirite, you ask? Good question, because I had to look it up too. In Hebrew, nazir meant “consecrated,” or “separated,” which is particularly poignant because those who voluntarily undertook a special type of covenant even more restrictive than the Jewish law at-large, that individual must surely have felt separate. Among the vows: refraining from wine and intoxicants (as well as all things containing grapes), cutting one’s hair, touching corpses or graves (even of one’s own family members) among others.
In modern Hebrew, nazir is mostly used in reference to monks, including Christian and Buddhist monks, and you can see how that seems to apply—voluntarily taking on even more vows than the average religious observant.
The Torah isn’t exactly replete with references to this special segment of Jews, save for the story of Samuel, who became a prophet.We’re probably pretty familiar with the story of Samson—he grows up endowed by superhuman strength and heroism, and in various encounters, wrestles lions, takes on a Philistine army escort with a donkey jawbone as his weapon, and lastly, bringing down a pagan Philistine temple, crushing a number of political leaders (as well as himself). We’re also familiar with the mechanism of his undoing—like Achilles and his heel, Samson tells one of the Torah’s notorious bad-women, Delilah, his uncut hair is the source of his strength (as part of his Nazirite vow), which is revoked when she cuts it in his sleep.
Interestingly, if Nazirite seems familiar, the Greek word Nazarene of Christian reference is highly ambiguous in origin. The ritual offerings described in the Torah as the Nazirite takes his vow is virtually repeated in Christian biblical references to those of the Nazerene, which show up in 4th Century as a Christian sect, which at the time was rather ostracized, or “separate” if you will.