אמר שמעון הצדיק מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר טמא חוץ מאדם אחד שבא אלי מן הדרום יפה עינים וטוב רואי וקווצותיו סדורות לו תלתלים אמרתי לו בני מה ראית לשחת שער נאה זה אמר לי רועה הייתי לאבי בעירי והלכתי לשאוב מים מן המעיין ונסתכלתי בבבואה שלי ופחז יצרי עלי וביקש לטורדני מן העולם אמרתי לו ריקה מפני מה אתה מתגאה בעולם שאינו שלך שסופך להיות רמה ותולע העבודה שאגלחך לשמי' עמדתי ונשקתיו על ראשו אמרתי לו כמותך ירבו נזירים בישראל עליך הכתוב אומר איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה
Shimon the Zaddik said: In my entire life, I ate of the guilt-offering of a defiled nazirite only once. [Shimon was afraid that those who vowed to become a Nazir did so for the wrong reasons, and so he would refuse to eat from the sacrifices they brought.] This man [whose sincerity was beyond question] came to me from the south; he had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I said to him: 'Why, my son, did you destroy such wonderful hair?' He answered: 'In my town I was my father's shepherd, and when I went to draw water from a well I used to gaze at my reflection [in its waters]. Then my evil inclination took over me, and tried to banish me from the world [in the pursuit of sin]. I said to my evil inclination: "Empty one! Why are you conceited in a world that is not yours, where your end is with worms and maggots. I swear I shall shave my hair for the glory of Heaven!"' [Shimon the Zaddik continued:] Then I stood, and kissed his head and said to him: 'May there be more nazarites like you in Israel. It is about a person like you that the verse (Numbers 6:2) says: "When a man shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite to consecrate himself unto the Lord." (Nazir 4b.)
The tractate we are now studying, Nazir, contains the discussions and laws that apply to a man or woman who makes a vow of asceticism, and become a Nazarite. For as long as the vow is in place, such a person is forbidden to drink wine (or consume any grape products,) must not come in contact with the dead, and must not cut his (or her) hair. At the end of the period of Nezirut, several offerings are brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. It's all rather theoretical, but ascetics are still found today, and a Nazir lived in Jerusalem and died less than fifty years ago.
In 2007 Yehuda Bitty wrote a PhD thesis on the work of David Hacohen (1887-1972), who was better known as The Nazir, because of a life of asceticism he had followed. The thesis, "Philosophy and Kabbalah in the Thought of Rabbi David Cohen" is a study of Hacohen's work קול הנבואה (The Voice of Prophecy), and gives us an insight into the teachings of the Nazir. (Another paper describing the work of Hacohen was published in Tradition. You can find it here.)
David Hacohen - The Nazir
David Hacohen was born into a rabbinic family near Vilna in 1887, and was given a tradition eduction in the local Cheder and various Yeshivot (including Volozhin and Slobodka). Hacohen read secular works too - as a student Volozhin ("they did not damage me or my studies") and later he made a point of learning Russian grammar and of reading some works of the maskilim. In 1909 he made his way to the newly opened academy of Baron David Ginzburg (d. 1910) in Saint Petersburg, where he was exposed to courses in history, the philosophy of world religions, and near eastern religious ethics, to name but a few. But his heart was set on traditional Jewish works, and he returned to the Bet Midrash, though he continued to study secular books and later spent time at the University of Freidburg where he studied philosophy.
Bitty's PhD notes that sometime around 1920 he started to exhibit ascetic tendencies: he avoided contact with others, and he abstained from eating meat (which is not a requirement of a Nazir) and stopped cutting his hair. His lack of sleep and food caused him to be hospitalized, but he did not waiver in his decision. "Little by little" wrote Bitty (p128) " he separated himself more and more from worldly matters, and began to feel a contradiction between the world and himself. " Later, he would fast on a regular basis, he stopped wearing leather shoes, and he completely refrained from speaking for forty days before Yom Kippur, all of this, apparently, in an effort to obtain the gift of prophecy...
In 1919 David Hacohen attended a conference in Switzerland organized by Agudas Yisrael, (The World Congress of Ultra-Orthodox Organizations), in order to meet Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook (a meeting that was recently described in detail here). Hacohen was quickly won round to the mystical Rav Kook and his equally mystical interpretations of the fledgling zionist movement.
David Hacohen later settled in Israel and become a lifelong student of Rav Kook, whose work he later edited. Hacohen had two children: a daughter Tzipia, who married Shlomo Goren, (later the Chief Rabbi of the IDF and, even later, Chief Rabbi of Israel) and a son, Sha'ar Yishuv Cohen, who served as Chief Rabbi of Haifa.
It was in Jerusalem that a young reform rabbi named Herbert Weiner (d. 2013) interviewed The Nazir. Weiner described that meeting in a his classic book Nine and a Half Mystics; The Kabbalah Today (Collier Books New York 1969.)
...there was something cherubic about the Nazir's appearance. Although no-longer young, his bespectacled blue eyes had an open childlike expression...Long locks of his gray-blond hair reached down to the shoulders of his red bathrobe and a bushy beard framed his long thin face.
The Nazir on Science
Weiner tried to coax the Nazir into revealing a mystical teaching, and, somewhat reluctantly, the Nazir agreed. It is fascinating to read what the Nazir taught, because he described the difference between Judaism and western science:
Shema- come hear...the logic that is based on the sense of hearing rather than seeing, that is what characterizes our teaching. And do you know what the Greek word theoria, 'theory' comes from? Is is derived from the Greek word theatric. Theory, in Western philosophy, connotes then, what can be seen, visualized, beheld. But the Hebrew way of apprehending truth is based on acoustical sense. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." "Speak unto the Children of Israel..." Does the gentleman understand the difference between the Hebrew and the non-Jewish, Western way of perceiving truth? The latter wants to identify truth with what can be conceptualized, seen - either in the mind or in a bodily sense. To the Jew, identification of truth with that which can be seen is the beginning of idolatry. Do you understand?
Weiner confesses that "I was not sure that I did fully understand the rabbi's point." Yehuda Mirsky's recent biography of Rav Kook (p.189) notes a similar reaction from the great academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershon Scholem:
Scholem also made the acquaintance of Ha-Nazir, who left a deep impression on him, saying, "I had thought there were no more Kabbalists, and here in Jerusalem there walked a living Kabbalist, creating Kabbalah in our times." Yet, Scholem added, "All my efforts to get to the bottom of his thinking came to naught."
Apparently, Hacohen's work is very difficult to understand. For many of us, his lifestyle choice was was perhaps no less difficult to comprehend. He chose a path of asceticism which, like the shepherd in today's daf, seems to have been a calling he had to follow. But his choice was one of which Maimonides would have approved. Echoing the passage from today's page of Talmud, Maimonides wrote that one who undertakes to become a nazir for the wrong motives is called a רשע -wicked- but
one who undertakes a vow to God through a path of purity is called "pleasant" and "praiseworthy" and about such a person the Torah wrote "...for the crown of his God is upon his head...he is holy to the Lord" (Numbers 6:7-8). And the text equates such a person with being a prophet, as it is written "And I raised up your sons for prophets and your young men for nezirim." (Amos 2:11) (משנה תורה הל׳ נזירות 10:14).