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Richard Lederman





What Is a Nazir, and Why the Wild Hair?





APA e-journal

Richard Lederman





What Is a Nazir, and Why the Wild Hair?








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What Is a Nazir, and Why the Wild Hair?

Like many prophets, a nazirite once characterized holy people living on the periphery of society, with wild flowing hair to mark their separate status. Some were divine messengers, like the prophets Elijah and Samuel. Others were warriors, like Samson, a wild-man warrior reminiscent of the Sumerian hero Enkidu. The priestly legislation neutralizes the nazir, making the hair itself the focus.


What Is a Nazir, and Why the Wild Hair?

Samson (or Hercules?), detail. Jacques Bellange, late 16th–early 17th century. Met Museum

A nazir (nazirite) dedicates him- or herself to YHWH with an oath:

במדבר ו:ב ...אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר לְהַזִּיר לַי־הוָה.
Num 6:2 … If anyone, man or woman, takes the wonderous step of uttering a nazirite vow, to be consecrated to YHWH,

For however long the vow is to last, the nazir is bound by three prohibitions. The first concerns the consumption of wine or any grape product:

במדבר ו:ג מִיַּיִן וְשֵׁכָר יַזִּיר חֹמֶץ יַיִן וְחֹמֶץ שֵׁכָר לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה וְכָל מִשְׁרַת עֲנָבִים לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה וַעֲנָבִים לַחִים וִיבֵשִׁים לֹא יֹאכֵל. ו:ד כֹּל יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר יֵעָשֶׂה מִגֶּפֶן הַיַּיִן מֵחַרְצַנִּים וְעַד זָג לֹא יֹאכֵל.
Num 6:3 he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. 6:4 Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.

This prohibition goes well beyond the parallel one to kohanim (priests), who are forbidden to drink wine only, and only when on the job (Lev 10:9).

The second prohibition, against cutting their hair, is unique to nazirites, with no parallel to priests:

במדבר ו:ה כָּל יְמֵי נֶדֶר נִזְרוֹ תַּעַר לֹא יַעֲבֹר עַל רֹאשׁוֹ עַד מְלֹאת הַיָּמִם אֲשֶׁר יַזִּיר לַי־הוָה קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ.
Num 6:5 Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite no razor shall touch his head; until the completion of his term as a nazirite of YHWH, the pera[2] hair of his head growing shall remain consecrated.

The verse begins with a simple prohibition, against shaving the head, but continues with a positive statement that the hair itself is consecrated. This point is made clearer in the third prohibition, against coming into contact with a corpse:

במדבר ו:ו כָּל יְמֵי הַזִּירוֹ לַי־הוָה עַל נֶפֶשׁ מֵת לֹא יָבֹא. ו:ז לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לְאָחִיו וּלְאַחֹתוֹ לֹא יִטַּמָּא לָהֶם בְּמֹתָם כִּי נֵזֶר אֱלֹהָיו עַל רֹאשׁוֹ. ו:ח כֹּל יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ קָדֹשׁ הוּא לַי־הוָה.
Num 6:6 Throughout the term that he has been consecrated to YHWH, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. 6:7 Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since the crown (nezer) of his God is upon his head. 6:8 Throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated to YHWH.

The meaning of the verb נ.ז.ר is “to consecrate,” but the noun form nezer means “crown,”[3] and it is this crown of hair that is consecrated. Similar language is used in the law forbidding the high priest[4] to become impure even for relatives:

ויקרא כא:יא וְעַל כָּל נַפְשֹׁת מֵת לֹא יָבֹא לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא יִטַּמָּא. כא:יב וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֵת מִקְדַּשׁ אֱלֹהָיו כִּי נֵזֶר שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת אֱלֹהָיו עָלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 21:11 He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. 21:12 He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, since the crown of his God’s anointing oil is upon his head, I am YHWH.

This connects the nazir to the high priest, though the difference is that for the high priest, the anointing oil poured upon his head is the expression of his consecrated status, for the nazirite, it is the hair itself. Thus, if a nazir does accidentally come in contact with a corpse, וְטִמֵּא רֹאשׁ נִזְרוֹ “and brings impurity upon the crown of his head” (Num 6:11), he or she must shave their heads upon completing the seven-day purification ritual, and then וְקִדַּשׁ אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא “he shall sanctify his head (=hair) on that day” (Num 6:12).

Pera Hair

The command for the nazirites to grow their hair is described as גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ “the pera hair of his head growing.”[5] We find this root, פ.ר.ע, used in descriptions of people who are behaving outside of accepted norms. Thus, when Moses descends from the mountain sees the people gathered around the golden calf, the text declares:

שמות לב:כה וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם.
Exod 32:25 Moses saw that the people were out of control—since Aaron had let them get out of control—so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.[6]

Thus pera hair seems to mean wild, i.e., untrimmed and/or disheveled hair. Such a translation fits the context of all five of the additional occurrences of this root in the Bible with regard to hair. Three times, it is in reference to a mourning practice,[7] forbidden to priests.

1. When Nadav and Avihu are killed by a heavenly fire, their father Aaron and their brothers Elazar and Itamar are warned not to exhibit mourning:

ויקרא כא:י וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲשֶׁר יוּצַק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וּמִלֵּא אֶת יָדוֹ לִלְבֹּשׁ אֶת הַבְּגָדִים אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ לֹא יִפְרָע וּבְגָדָיו לֹא יִפְרֹם.
Lev 21:10 The priest who is exalted above his fellows [i.e., the high priest], on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not para his head or rend his vestments.

2. A high priest is forbidden to perform acts of mourning:

ויקרא כא:י וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲשֶׁר יוּצַק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה וּמִלֵּא אֶת יָדוֹ לִלְבֹּשׁ אֶת הַבְּגָדִים אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ לֹא יִפְרָע וּבְגָדָיו לֹא יִפְרֹם.
Lev 21:10 The priest who is exalted above his fellows [i.e., the high priest], on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not para his head or rend his vestments.

3. In the legal section of Ezekiel, whose Priestly (or Holiness) nature scholars have long noted, priests are forbidden to perform acts of mourning:

יחזקאל מד:כ וְרֹאשָׁם לֹא יְגַלֵּחוּ וּפֶרַע לֹא יְשַׁלֵּחוּ כָּסוֹם יִכְסְמוּ אֶת רָאשֵׁיהֶם.
Ezek 44:20 They shall neither shave their heads nor let their hair go pera; they shall keep their hair trimmed.[8]

Implicit in this thrice-repeated prohibition is that mourners would let their hair go wild. As is still true today in traditional Jewish practice, mourners stand outside of normal social engagement. Together with torn clothes, this would communicate the message that they are so overwhelmed with grief that they are not taking care of their appearance at all.

The other two examples communicate a similar message:

4. An individual infected with tzaraʿat skin disease must leave his hair para to stand out:

ויקרא יג:מה וְהַצָּרוּעַ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ הַנֶּגַע בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא.
Lev 13:45 As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be paruʿa, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, Unclean! Unclean!

5. A woman accused by her husband of adultery undergoes a ritual of humiliation, one aspect of which is (Num 5:18): וּפָרַע אֶת רֹאשׁ הָאִשָּׁה, “[the priest] shall para the woman’s head,” which again would mean to dishevel the hair.[9] Disheveled hair is meant to make the person look bad. In the case of the sotah, it communicates that, until she is acquitted, she stands outside of normal social structures.

The nazir usage is unique, since the long hair is the instantiation of the person’s consecration to YHWH, a distinct positive. How do we understand this symbolism?

Nazirites and Prophets

We know very little about the function of nazirites in ancient Israel. The book of Amos groups them together with prophets, messengers sent by YHWH only to be scorned by the people:

עמוס ב:יא וָאָקִים מִבְּנֵיכֶם לִנְבִיאִים וּמִבַּחוּרֵיכֶם לִנְזִרִים הַאַף אֵין זֹאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְ־הוָה. ב:יב וַתַּשְׁקוּ אֶת הַנְּזִרִים יָיִן וְעַל הַנְּבִיאִים צִוִּיתֶם לֵאמֹר לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ.
Amos 2:11 And I raised up prophets from among your sons, and nazirites from among your young men. Is that not so, O people of Israel? says YHWH. 2:12 But you made the nazirites drink wine, and ordered the prophets not to prophesy.

The parallel between nazirites and prophets here is telling. Elijah, a central prophetic figure from the monarchic period of Israel, roamed Israel and abroad, making pronouncements and performing miracles. In one story, when a holy man sends King  Ahaziah a message, rebuking him for consulting with a Phoenician god instead of with YHWH, Ahaziah asks the messenger to describe him:

מלכים ב א:ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר וְאֵזוֹר עוֹר אָזוּר בְּמָתְנָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֵלִיָּה הַתִּשְׁבִּי הוּא.
2 Kgs 1:8 They replied: “A man with a lot of hair, with a leather belt tied around his waist.” “That’s Elijah the Tishbite!” he said.

While he is called the Tishbite, a reference to a city in the Transjordanian territory of Gilead, he doesn’t seem to actually have a home, but wanders from place to place. Elisha is also a wandering prophet, as is Samuel, whose mother promises that among other things (1 Sam 1:14): וּנְתַתִּיו לַי־הוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ, “I will dedicate him to YHWH all of his life, and no razor shall ever touch his head.” While the MT never explicitly calls Samuel a nazir, the Qumran version of Samuel does (4QSama 1:22):

[ונת]ת֯יהו נזיר עד עולם כול ימי [חייו].
And I [shall make] him a nazirite forever, all the days [of his life].[10]

LXX does not use the word nazir, but in v. 11, it adds a prohibition of wine[11] to that of cutting his hair. Like these prophets, the nazirite lived outside civilization, and the long hair would have served as a sign of this person’s consecration to YHWH, something like a holy hermit.

Enkidu: A Mesopotamian Wildman

The figure of a holy, hairy wild-man is a variation on a trope found in ancient Near Eastern literature.[12] Perhaps the most famous such wild-man is Enkidu, the heroic companion of Gilgamesh. Enkidu is created by the birth goddess Aruru, and one of his defining features is his hair (the Akkadian word for this is cognate with Hebrew פרע):

Shaggy with hair was his whole body
He was made lush with head hair (peretu), like a woman,
the locks of his hair (pertišu) grew thick as a grain filed
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with the gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
with wildlife he drank his fill of water. (Tablet I, 105­–112)[13]

Enkidu is hairy all over, and his head hair is loose and unkempt;[14] he eschews human contact, living out in the steppe with the wild animals. He is altogether a peripheral character.

Gilgamesh: Returning to Civilization

Elsewhere in the epic, Gilgamesh himself is described as having dirty, unkempt hair on account of an arduous journey or heroic adventure. To reenter society, he must wash and tidy his hair, matted during a long, arduous, dangerous journey undertaken by the hero. Upon returning from the duo’s battle against the monster Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forest:

He washed his matted locks, cleaned his head strap,
He shook his hair down over his shoulders,
He threw off his filthy clothes, he put on clean ones (6:1–3).

Following his failed bid for immortality, the immortal Utnapshtim tells Ur-Shanabi, the boatman who brought Gilgamesh across the sea, to prepare him for his return to his civilized urban life as king of Uruk:

Take him away, Ur-Shanabi, bring him to the washing place,
Have him wash out his filthy hair with water, clean as clean snow,
Have him throw away his hides [worn as a sign of mourning for Enkidu], let the sea carry them off,
Let his body be rinsed clean.
Let his headband be new,
Have him put on raiment worthy of him (11:257–262).

In the cases of both Enkidu and Gilgamesh, long, matted, unkempt hair is a feature that leaves these two heroes as peripheral characters, outside of the urban civilization that gave birth to their legend. The biblical Samson, the heroic fighting nazirite, is another such example.[15]

Samson the Nazirite and His Hair

In the book of Judges, a messenger comes to the wife of Manoah and tells her that she will have a son:

שופטים יג:ד וְעַתָּה הִשָּׁמְרִי נָא וְאַל תִּשְׁתִּי יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר וְאַל תֹּאכְלִי כָּל טָמֵא. יג:ה כִּי הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ כִּי נְזִיר אֱלֹהִים יִהְיֶה הַנַּעַר מִן הַבָּטֶן וְהוּא יָחֵל לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד פְּלִשְׁתִּים.
Judg 13:4 Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything unclean. 13:5 For you are going to conceive and bear a son; let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite to God from the womb on. He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.”

Samson’s status as a nazirite does not conform to the Torah’s description in several ways: he is a permanent nazirite from the time of his birth rather than from the time later in life when he makes a vow. His mother must avoid alcohol and unclean food,[16] and he certainly can’t be said to avoid dead bodies (at least not Philistine bodies). Also, he has superhuman strength, which is obviously not a feature of nazirites.

Nevertheless, like the nazirite in Numbers, Samson’s hair plays the defining role. In the Delilah story we learn that Samson never cuts his hair. When Delilah pesters him to find out the source of his strength, he explains to her about the hair:

שופטים טז:יז וַיַּגֶּד לָהּ אֶת כָּל לִבּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מוֹרָה לֹא עָלָה עַל רֹאשִׁי כִּי נְזִיר אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי מִבֶּטֶן אִמִּי אִם גֻּלַּחְתִּי וְסָר מִמֶּנִּי כֹחִי וְחָלִיתִי וְהָיִיתִי כְּכָל הָאָדָם.
Judg 16:17 He confided everything to her. He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man.”[17]

Samson’s long hair is just a part of his wildness but in the heroic cast of Gilgamesh and Enkidu: he is untamed and undomesticated. He eschews the accoutrements of civilization, feeding on wild honey and using the jawbone of an ass rather than a manufactured weapon to defeat his enemies.[18]

Taming the Wildman

Heroic characters such as Samson and Enkidu are subjects for stories and myths. Yet from the verse in Amos, we see that nazirites, holy hermits, were part of the Israelite religious culture, and like prophets, they influenced Israelite society from the outside.

The Priestly legislation in Numbers incorporates the nazirite into the priestly landscape, but neutralizes them. While nazirites take an oath to dedicate themselves to YHWH, they do not have any responsibilities or privileges in the official cult. In the Torah, the service of YHWH is exclusively the realm of the kohanim from the family of Aaron, assisted by members of the tribe of Levi. The nazirites play no role, thus even women can be nazirites.[19]

Moreover, the nazirite’s status is controlled by the priests. While the nazirite’s entry point is merely a vow, the exit is controlled by sacrificial offerings at the altar, which is brought by the priests. So too, if the holy hair becomes impure, the nazirite must undergo the purification process supervised by the priests, and must bring an offering to the Temple.

The hair, once the sign of the freedom of nazirites from social bonds becomes a sign of their subservience to the priests.[20] As Susan Niditch of Amherst College writes, the nazir is “in a perpetual state of priestly-style cleanness and holiness, as if he were about to enter the sacred locus.”[21] As the Priestly authors did with other subjects, such as divination,[22] rather than fighting against a religious institution that went against their sensibilities, they domesticated it.


June 9, 2022


Last Updated

June 18, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Richard Lederman taught courses in Bible, Religion, and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University, Montgomery College, and Gratz College. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from Dropsie College. Before returning to academia, Lederman worked as a Jewish communal professional. He blogs at thereligioushumanist.com and spiritunboundsandr.blogspot.com.