These are the sources that I handed out this past Shabbat for the drasha. The basic question is how does one view a person who takes on the vow of a Nazir – as a choteh (sinner) or as kadosh (holy). Rambam clearly decides the debate in the gemara in favor of the sinner. Ramban clearly describes the Nazir as kadosh, like Rebbi Elazar in the gemara. The final two sections from the Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed complicate the position of Rambam. Feel free to share your thoughts on the position of the Rambam or what you think should be a Jewish approach to asceticism.
The Nazir as a case study
תלמוד בבלי תענית יא ע”א
אמר שמואל: כל היושב בתענית נקרא חוטא. סבר כי האי תנא, דתניא: רבי אלעזר הקפר ברבי אומר: מה תלמוד לומר +במדבר ו’+ וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש, וכי באיזה נפש חטא זה? אלא שציער עצמו מן היין, והלא דברים קל וחומר: ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין נקרא חוטא, המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר – על אחת כמה וכמה. רבי אלעזר אומר: נקרא קדוש, שנאמר +במדבר ו’+ קדוש יהיה גדל פרע שער ראשו. ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מדבר אחד נקרא קדוש, המצער עצמו מכל דבר – על אחת כמה וכמה.
Bavli, Ta’anit 11a
Shmuel said: Whoever fasts is termed a sinner.
He is of the same opinion as the following Tanna. For it has been taught: Eleazar ha-Kappar ben Rebbi Says, “What is Scripture referring to when it says [of the Nazirite], And make atonement for him, for he sinned by reason of the soul (Bamidbar 6). Against which soul did he sin? [It must refer to the fact that] he denied himself wine. We can now make this inference from minor to major: If this man [Nazirite] who denied himself wine only is termed, Sinner, how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.” Rebbi Eleazar says, “He is termed, Holy. As it is said, He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. If this man [Nazirite] who denied himself wine only is termed, Holy. How much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.”
הִלְכּוֹת דֵּעוֹת פֶּרֶק ג
א שֶׁמֶּא יֹאמַר אָדָם, הוֹאִיל וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הֶן וּמוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, אֶפְרֹשׁ מֵהֶן בְּיוֹתֵר וְאֶתְרַחַק לַצַּד הָאַחֲרוֹן, עַד שֶׁלֹּא יֹאכַל בָּשָׂר וְלֹא יִשְׁתֶּה יַיִן וְלֹא יִשָּׂא אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יֵשֵׁב בְּדִירָה נָאָה וְלֹא יִלְבֹּשׁ מַלְבּוּשׁ נָאֶה אֵלָא הַשָּׂק וְהַצֶּמֶר הַקָּשֶׁה וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן, כְּגוֹן כּוּמָרֵי אֱדוֹם–גַּם זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הִיא, וְאָסוּר לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ. ב הַמְּהַלֵּךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ זוֹ, נִקְרָא חוֹטֶא: הֲרֵי הוּא אוֹמֵר בַּנָּזִיר, “וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו, מֵאֲשֶׁר חָטָא עַל-הַנָּפֶשׁ” (במדבר ו,יא); אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, וּמַה אִם נָזִיר שֶׁלֹּא פֵרַשׁ אֵלָא מִן הַיַּיִן, צָרִיךְ כַּפָּרָה–הַמּוֹנֵעַ עַצְמוֹ מִכָּל דָּבָר, עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה. ג לְפִיכָּךְ צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁלֹּא יִמְנַע אָדָם עַצְמוֹ אֵלָא מִדְּבָרִים שֶׁמָּנְעָה הַתּוֹרָה בִּלְבָד, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה אוֹסֵר עַצְמוֹ בִּנְדָרִים וּבִשְׁבוּעוֹת עַל דְּבָרִים הַמֻּתָּרִים. כָּךְ אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, לֹא דַּיֶּיךָ מַה שֶׁאָסְרָה תּוֹרָה, אֵלָא שֶׁאַתָּה אוֹסֵר עָלֶיךָ דְּבָרִים אֲחֵרִים. ד וּבַכְּלָל הַזֶּה, אֵלּוּ שֶׁמִּתְעַנִּין תָּמִיד–אֵינָן בְּדֶרֶךְ טוֹבָה, וְאָסְרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיְּהֶא אָדָם מְסַגֵּף עַצְמוֹ בְּתַעְנִית. וְעַל כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן, צִוָּה שְׁלֹמֹה וְאָמַר, “אַל-תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה, וְאַל-תִּתְחַכַּם יוֹתֵר: לָמָּה, תִּשּׁוֹמֵם” (קוהלת ז,טז).
Rambam, Hilkhot Deot, 3:1 (1135, Spain – 1204, Cairo)
This chapter explains that one should not impose on oneself more than the Torah has. In case one would think that envy, lust, honor and similar things are bad ways and remove a man from the world, and that one should separate oneself from them and go to the opposite extreme, so that one won’t eat meat, drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or dress in fine clothes, but dress only in sackcloth and hard wool, et cetera, like the priests of the gentiles do, which is also a bad way and one who follows this way is a sinner, for regarding a Nazir it is written, “…and atone for him for that which he sinned by the dead…”; the Sages said that if a Nazir, who separated himself from just wine, requires atonement, then how much more so anyone who separates himself from all things requires atonement. Therefore, the Sages commanded that one should not separate oneself from anything, except from things which the Torah has forbidden, and one should not refrain from using permitted things by means of vows and oaths. The Sages said, `Is it not what the Torah has forbidden enough that you have to forbid for yourself other things?!’ According to this rule, those who always restrict themselves are not on the path of good. About these and similar things Solomon said, “Don’t be excessively righteous, nor make yourself overwise; why should you destroy yourself?”
רמב”ן במדבר פרק ו פסוק יד
(יד) וטעם החטאת שיקריב הנזיר ביום מלאת ימי נזרו, לא נתפרש. ועל דרך הפשט כי האיש הזה חוטא נפשו במלאת הנזירות, כי הוא עתה נזור מקדושתו ועבודת השם, וראוי היה לו שיזיר לעולם ויעמוד כל ימיו נזיר וקדוש לאלהיו, כענין שאמר (עמוס ב יא) ואקים מבניכם לנביאים ומבחוריכם לנזירים, השוה אותו הכתוב לנביא, וכדכתיב (לעיל פסוק ח) כל ימי נזרו קדוש הוא לה’ והנה הוא צריך כפרה בשובו להטמא בתאוות העולם:
Ramban, Bamidbar 14:6 (1194, Spain – 1270, Israel)
And the meaning of the korban chatat that a Nazir brings upon completion has not been explained. And in the way of the peshat – for this person is sinning to his soul upon completion of his nezirut, for he has now separated himself in his divine worship, and by right should always continue to live a life of holiness and separation to God. As the verse says And I raised up your sons for prophets and your young man or Nazirites (Amos 2:11). As the Torah states, “All the days of his separation he shall be holy unto the Lord (Bamidbar 6:8). Now that he returns to defile himself with worldly passions, he requires atonement.
The Guide of the Perplexed 3:48
The object of Nazaritism (Num. vi.) is obvious. It keeps away from wine that has ruined people in ardent and modern times. “Many strong men have been slain by it” (Prov. xxvii. 26). “But they also have erred through wine. . . . the priest and the prophet” (Isa. xxviii. 7). In the law about the Nazarite we notice even the prohibition, “he shall eat nothing that is made of the vine tree” (Num. vi. 4), as an additional precaution, implying the lesson that man must take of wine only as much as is absolutely necessary. For he who abstains from drinking it is called “holy”; his sanctity is made equal to that of the high-priest, in not being allowed to defile himself even to his father, to his mother, and the like. This honour is given him because he abstains from wine.
The Guide of the Perplexed 3:33
IT is also the object of the perfect Law to make man reject, despise, and reduce his desires as much as is in his power. He should only give way to them when absolutely necessary. It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family. For by following entirely the guidance of lust, in the manner of fools, man loses his intellectual energy, injures his body, and perishes before his natural time; sighs and cares multiply; there is an increase of envy, hatred, and warfare for the purpose of taking what another possesses. The cause of all this is the circumstance that the ignorant considers physical enjoyment as an object to be sought for its own sake. God in His wisdom has therefore given us such commandments as would counteract that object, and prevent us altogether from directing our attention to it, and has debarred us from everything that leads only to excessive desire and lust. This is an important thing included in the objects of our Law. See how the Law commanded to slay a person from whose conduct it is evident that he will go too far in seeking the enjoyment of eating and drinking. I mean “the rebellious and stubborn son”; he is described as “a glutton and a drunkard” (Deut. xxi. 20). The Law commands to stone him and to remove him from society lest he grow up in this character, and kill many, and injure the condition of good men by his great lust.