In this week’s Parashah, we are introduced to the concept of Nezirut, in which somebody takes upon himself the prohibition of eating grape products, cutting his hair, and coming in contact with a dead body (BeMidbar 6:2-6). The Torah’s attitude towards this practice is very puzzling. On the one hand, the Torah writes that when somebody becomes a Nazir, he is sanctified to Hashem (6:5). On the other hand, he must bring a sin offering after he finishes his time of Nezirut (6:10:12). If a Nazir is sanctified to Hashem, why must he bring a sin offering after his period of holiness ends?
In the Gemara (Ta’anit 11a), there is a debate as to what the sin of the Nazir is. Rabi Elazar HaKappar explains that the sin of the Nazir is that he unnecessarily deprived himself of wine. Based on the fact that depriving oneself of wine is a sin, Rabi Elazar holds that one who deprives himself of all physical pleasures for no reason is sinning. Therefore, a person who voluntarily fasts is a sinner.
Rabi Elazar ben Shamua has the opposite view regarding the sin of a Nazir. He believes that since the Torah writes a Nazir is sanctified to Hashem, it must be that it is good to fast for no apparent reason. Since it is a Mitzvah to restrict oneself from wine, haircuts, and contact with dead bodies during a state of Nezirut, it must be praiseworthy for a person to restrict himself from all physical pleasures.
The real debate between these two views about Nezirut may revolve around the Torah’s view toward the physical world. Rabi Elazar HaKappar believes that the Jewish religion values the physical world, so one who removes himself from it must bring a sin offering. Rabi Elazar ben Shamua believes that the Jewish religion sees no value in the physical world and even praises someone who does not seek pleasure from the physical world.
Centuries after this Tannaic debate, Rambam in Mishneh Torah elaborates on this debate (Shofetim 12:4-5). He writes that a person should not say that he will not marry, eat, or wear nice cloths, because the path of separating oneself from the physical world is an evil path; anyone who goes on this path is a sinner. This explains why the Torah requires a Nazir, who tries to avoid physical pleasures, to bring a sin offering.
In Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah, he writes that a person should engage in the physical world unless it will cause him/her to stray from the Torah. This also supports the idea of the importance of maintaining a connection to the physical world.
Perhaps we can solve the mystery of how to view the physical world by examining the debates between Hillel and Shammai. It is well-known that these two houses of study have dozens of arguments throughout the Gemara, and we follow Hillel on all but six of these debates. A common theme between these debates is that Shammai strives for the ideal, whereas Hillel formulates the Halachah with regards to the average man’s physical needs. We see from the fact that we almost always follow Hillel that although it is important to strive for complete abstinence from the physical world, that ideal cannot be attained. Therefore, as always, it is important to find a balance in life and enjoy the benefits of the physical world, yet not completely rely upon them. Perhaps, if we are able to recognize this balance, we will better understand the topic of Nezirut.