Aharon Shemesh is Associate Professor at the department of Talmud, Bar-Ilan University. He served as visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University (2005); was a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University (1996 and 2007), at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2000) and at the Rockefeller Foundation study center in Bellagio, Italy (summer 2006). Aharon Shemesh has published widely on the development of Jewish law (Halakhah) in antiquity, and specialized in the field of Halakhah in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is the author of Punishments and Sins (Magnes, Jerusalem 2003) and Halakhah in the Making: From Qumran to the Mishnah (UC Press, forthcoming).
Historical, Cultural and Legal Aspects of Nezirut as Reflected
in Rabbinic Literature and Halakhah
My main interest in this project is the Rabbis’ reshaping of the biblical institution of nezirut, as well as the historical reality of this institution at the Second Temple period and the time of the Mishnah afterwards. The fashion in which the rabbis handle the biblical material and reshape the image and social status of the nazir and their general attitude to this phenomena reflects their view with regard to some interesting social cultural and legal issues.
The historical aspect is the basic one and needs to be addressed first. The scope of the phenomena in the various historical periods should be assessed. We have not a few historical evidences for nezirim (men and women) at the time of the Temple, but almost none for the post destruction period. Does this mean that nezirut is a solely cultic phenomena? Was any alternative to the classical nezirut developed to substitute it, and is there a direct link between Jewish nezirut and Christian monasticism?
Of not less importance, however, are the social and cultural aspects of nezirut and especially their legal expressions. As a vow, nezirut is a speech act which the halakhic system recognizes as a legal mechanism that enables the individual to impose upon himself (and sometimes upon others as well), a set of norms and obligations. Indeed, the Mishnah discusses intensively the exact proper wordings for the vow of nezirut, the different situations for its validity and the exact definition of the obligations resulted from it.
One should notice that in fact nezirut is an act of extreme individualism, anti-nomian and anti-social that breaches the boundaries of the society norms. By accepting upon himself the nazrite vow a man may elevate himself to the holiness status usually reserved to priests. Nezirut is thus a ladder for social mobility in a society which is rigidly divided according to classes.
The tannaitic creation of laws concerning nezirut is thus a reflection of the inner tension experienced by the legal system (as representing the society) between the need to allow nezirut as an expression of individualism on the one hand and the willingness to institutionalize it in order to control it on the other hand.