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.