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Women Nazirites?

April 3, 2009

The other week Erik posted a comment on rabbinic perspectives of the Nazirite. This line of research led to some interesting observations which turned out to be far afield from the original discussion of permanent vs. temporary Nazirites, focusing rather on male vs. female Nazirites instead.

One of the most fascinating and yet maddening issues for me in the vow of the Nazirite in Numbers 6 is the inclusion of women in the vow (6:2). Women making this vow are presumably susceptible to the laws in Numbers 30; a woman’s Nazirite status could be nullified by either father (30:3-5) or husband (30:6-15), as is the case with other vows. However, the larger question to my mind is what a woman Nazirite is to do about menstruation.

Menstruation renders a woman impure with an extremely communicable impurity (Leviticus 15:19-24). If a Nazirite is holy unto the LORD in a manner analogous to that of the priests (as is indicated by the language in Numers 6:5; cf. Leviticus 21:6), what do we do with this situation?

The relationship between holiness and purity (as outlines by Jacob Milgrom among others) can be represented thus:


With the exception of the Red Heifer in Number 19, non-conitguous regions are prohibited from touching in the priestly system (used by both PT and HS, in Knohl’s understanding). In other words, something cannot be simultaneously holy and unclean, a situation we would have with a female Nazirite having her period.

It is in this situation that the rabbis might have something to say. In Nazir 8:2 of the Jerusalem Talmud, the rabbis discuss a man who has ṣāraʿat (“leprosy” or a “skin disease” of some sort). As part of his standard purification after recovering, he is to shave according to Leviticus 14:9. But as a Nazirite he is not to shave. Does this invalidate his vow? The rabbis discuss this at length and wind up prescribing up to four shavings for the poor man depending on when he may or may not have been a legitimate Nazirite. The implicit rational underlying the discussion appears to be that one cannot be both a meṣōraʿ and a Nazirite at the same time, and only once the man is pure does he begin counting the days of his Nazirite vow.

The communicative nature of a menstruant’s impurity is more sever, yet such a woman is not addressed in tractate Nazir. Indeed, the meṣōraʿ is probably addressed only because of the shaving rites involved in purification. So what happens when a sever, communicable impurity comes in contact with one already designated as holy to the LORD?

The short answer is that the text doesn’t say. But, it is possible that there is a precaution lying in the background: no one who could menstruate could be a Nazirite. This is, of course, an extreme position; but it is possible.

Women in this situation would be either very young (really girls), post-menopausal, or pregnant. The first seems unlikely since such young women are still potential sources of impurity. The second seems quite feasible. Hittite texts mention “old women” who have special ritual roles. The Bible attests both the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25) and the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14:1-10) who tradition at least endows with great age as well. Finally, two pregnant women are closely associated with Nazirite vows. Manoah’s wife in Judges 13:4, 14 is explicitly told to refrain from some elements found in the Nazirite vow. Likewise, the LXX and 4QSama both want Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 dedicating her unborn son as a Nazirite, and she protests to Eli that she hasn’t been drinking in 1 Samuel 1:15. Could we see Manoah’s wife and Hannah as having taken a Nazirite vow during part or all of their pregnancy?

All of this is highly speculative. However, the real threat of a menstruant Nazirite for the priestly purity system convincing. The question is how PT and HS would deal with such situations.

  1. Erik permalink
    April 4, 2009 8:03 pm

    see, I knew there’d be something to it. Had no ida what it would be, but your response makes me glad i mentioned it.

    • April 5, 2009 8:22 am

      Indeed. Though what I learned the most through reading the Talmud Nazir is that the questions I ask are not the questions that the rabbis did.

  2. Sarah permalink
    April 15, 2009 2:58 pm

    Or… third option…
    Perhaps some rites of holiness were given the old ‘wink and nod’. Most cultures have some rules that are given more ‘grace’ than others. Besides, who REALLY wants to know if you’re menstruating, anyway?

    Or… fourth option…
    In times of physical stress &/or malnutrition, menstruation becomes irregular and can even disappear for a number of years. Some women have physical issues that prevent them from ever bleeding. And THAT’s in TODAY’s medically advanced culture! I would guess that there has been little research on how many ANE women actually bled monthly.

    But hey, what do I know.

  3. April 16, 2009 4:40 pm

    For that matter, doesn’t the Talmud specifically address the case of Queen Helena of Adiabene, who ended up being a Nazirite for 21 years…

    • April 21, 2009 9:21 am

      There are a few women who are Nazirites in Second Temple texts. Helena was a Nazirite for either 14 or 21 years (the sources are split). Herod Agrippa senior’s daughter and junior’s sister, Bernice, also appears to have performed the vow according to Josephus. (War ii. 15, § 1)

      The real issue for me is how the Nazirite fits into the biblical conception of holiness as found in the priestly texts. Can a woman be “Holy unto Yhwh” while she is having her menses?

  4. September 9, 2011 9:58 am

    You can check the website the Jewish perspective on the vow of a Nazitrite that even today it is practiced in one form only, Le-Olam. Meaning any Jewish man or a woman equally may give a vow of a Nazitire Le-Olam, eternal vow, therefore not intending to bring a sacrifice upon completion of the vow, because he/she never intends to leave Kedusha(holiness), that is why a sacrifice is brought upon the completion of an Temporary Nazir. Since no sacrifices is required, the is no need of the temple to become Kadosh (holy).

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