The Nazir and the Kohen Gadol

Nazir (7:1) | Allon Ledder | 8 years ago

Mishnah 1 of Chapter 7 discusses the case of a Nazir and a Kohen Gadol who are walking together and come upon a met mitzvah – an abandoned corpse.

Kohanim are forbidden from becoming impure from a corpse, except in the case of close relatives. The Kohen Gadol has an even more stringent prohibition – he cannot become impure even for a close family member. The Nazir has the same prohibition as the Kohen Gadol. However an exception is made in the case of an abandoned corpse when there is no one else available to attend to the burial. If a Kohen Gadol and a regular Kohen come upon an abandoned corpse the regular Kohen would attend to the burial so that the Kohen Gadol would not become impure. This is because the Kohen Gadol has a higher degree of sanctity than a regular Kohen. Who would take priority between a Nazirand a Kohen? According to Rabbi Eliezer the Nazir would take priority even over a Kohen Gadol because the Nazirhas to bring a korban if he becomes unclean. However the final halacha is that the Nazir would have to attend to the burial because a Kohen is sanctified for his whole life while the Nazir is only sanctified during the time of his Nezirut.

We see a number of comparisons between the Nazir and Kohanim in general and the Kohen Gadol in particular:

Can we learn a lesson from these similarities?

Judaism seems to have a rigid class system. See Kiddushin 4:1 which lists ten genealogical classes of people who returned to Eretz Yisrael after the Babylonian exile and explains which of those classes are allowed to intermarry and which are not.

It seems we are locked into a social class due to accident of birth. Those who are ‘lucky’ enough to be born as a Kohen are entitled to serve in the Bet Hamikdash. Even a king cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash (see the story of Melech Uziyahu who tried to serve in the Bet Hamikdash, with tragic consequences - Divrei Hayamim II 26:16-21).Someone who is ‘unlucky’ enough to be born a mamzer is limited in who they can marry.

This seems to be unfair. In the last cycle of Mishnah Yomit, during our study of Masechet Kidushin we tried to reconcile our Western notions of equality with Judaism’s apparent class system. Please see Volume 3, Issue 41 for this discussion.

Today we will present a different answer. Even though some people are born as Leviimor Kohanim, it is still possible for any person to reach an elevated level of Kedusha. An individual can choose to take upon themselves a vow of nezirut and become comparable to the Kohen Gadol himself.

Today we no longer have this opportunity to become a Nazir2. But we can still achieve an elevated level of Kedusha. The ‘accident of our birth’ is irrelevant. Regardless of which social or intellectual or religious ‘class’ we are born into, we can all achieve incredible heights of sanctity through Torahstudy and the keeping of mitzvot. We just need to grab the opportunity.


1 Some of the ideas in this article are based on a shiur by Rav Amnon Bazak from Yeshivat Har Etzion.

2 In truth, one can still take a vow today to be a Nazir. However, in the absence of the Bet Hamikdash there is no procedure to end the vow and one would need to be a Nazirf or life. Rabbi David Cohen (the ‘Nazirite Rabbi’)(1887-1972) is a famous example a modern day Nazir.

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