1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nazarite

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NAZARITE, or rather Nazirite, the name given by the Hebrews to a peculiar kind of devotee. The characteristic marks of a Nazarite were unshorn locks and abstinence from wine (Judges xiii. 5; 1 Sam. i. 11; Amos ii. 11 seq.); but full regulations for the legal observance of the Nazarite vow are given in Num. vi., where every product of the grape-vine is forbidden, and the Nazarite is enjoined not to approach a dead body, even that of his nearest relative. The law in question is in its present form post-exilic, and is plainly directed to the regulation of a known usage. It contemplates the assumption of the vow for a limited period only, and gives particular details as to the atoning ceremonies at the sanctuary by which the vow must be recommenced if broken by accidental defilement, and the closing sacrifice, at which the Nazarite on the expiry of his vow cuts off his hair and burns it on the altar, thus returning to ordinary life. Among the later Jews the Nazarite vow, of course, corresponded with the legal ordinance, which was further developed by the scribes in their usual manner (Mishna, tractate Nāzīr; cf. 1 Macc. iii. 49; Acts xxi. 23 seq.; Joseph. Ant. xix. 6. 1, Wars ii. 15. 1). On the other hand, in the earliest historical case, that of Samson, and in the similar case of Samuel (who, however, is not called a Nazarite), the head remains unshorn throughout life, and in these times the ceremonial observances as to uncleanness must have been less precise. Samson’s mother is forbidden to eat unclean things during pregnancy, but Samson himself touches the carcass of a lion and is often in contact with the slain, nor does he abstain from giving feasts.[1] In the cases of Samuel and Samson the unshorn locks are a mark of consecration to God (Judges xiii. 5) for a particular service—in the one case the service of the sanctuary, in the other the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines. Since, moreover, the Hebrew root n-z-r is only dialectically different from n-d-r, “to vow,” both corresponding to the same original Semitic root (Arab. n-dh-r), it would seem that the peculiar marks of the Nazarite are primarily no more than the usual sign that a man is under a vow of some kind. To leave the locks unshorn during an arduous undertaking in which the divine aid was specially implored, and to consecrate the hair after success, was a practice among various ancient nations, but the closest parallel to the Hebrew custom is found in Arabia.[2] There the vow was generally one of war or revenge, and, till it was accomplished, the man who vowed left his hair unshorn and unkempt, and abstained from wine, women, ointment and perfume. Such is the figure of Shanfara as described in his Lāmīya. The observances of the ihrām (period of consecration) belong to the same usage (see Mecca), and we find that at Tāif it was customary to shear the hair at the sanctuary after a journey. The consecration of Samuel has also its Arabic parallel in the dedication of an unborn child by its mother to the service of the Kaʽba (Ibn Hisham, p. 76; Azraḳī, p. 128). The spirit of warlike patriotism that characterized the old religion of Israel could scarcely fail to encourage such vows (cf. 2 Sam. xi. 11, and perhaps 1 Sam. xxi. 4 seq.), and from the allusion in Amos we are led to suppose that at one time the Nazarites had an importance-perhaps even an organization parallel to that of the prophets, but of a very different religious type from the Canaanite nature-worship.

See Rechabites; Encyc. Bibl. col. 3362 seq.; G. B. Gray, Numbers, pp. 56-61; E. Kautzsch (l.c. n. 1 below); W. R. Harper, Amos and Hosea, p. li. sq., with references.  (W. R. S.; S. A. C.) 

  1. The prohibition to Samson’s mother to abstain from wine does not appear to belong to the original narrative (see E. Kautzsch, Hastings's D.B. v. 657 col. b, following Böhme). John the Baptist is a later example of lifelong consecration (Luke i. 15); cf. also the tradition as to James the Just (Euseb. H.E. ii. 23).
  2. On consecration of the hair, see Spencer, De Legibus Hebr. iii. 1. 6; I. Goldziher, Rev. Hist. Rel. xiv. 49 sqq. (1886); I. G. Frazer, Golden Bough2, i. 368 sqq.; and W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem.2, Index s.v. “hair.”