"Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head;
it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed..." (Numbers 6:5)

Although Judaism never encouraged asceticism, the Torah did make an exception in the case of the Nazirite. The biblical Nazirite — sthough an ascetic, he was definitely not a hermit — acquired a holy status similar to that of the High Priest.[1] The most famous Nazirite was Samson, whose unshorn hair held the secret to his extraordinary statue.

The biblical Nazirite did not lead a monastic existence apart but, to the contrary, was an active participant in all his familiar and communal affairs. What set him apart from his fellows was his meticulous observance of three prohibitions: he was forbidden to cut his hair, to drink wine, and to come in contact with a corpse.

The uncut hair of the Nazirite was truly his distinction.[2] In this respect, he differed from the priest who, though forbidden to shave his hair, was compelled to trim it.[3] Thus the Nazirite could always be recognized by his appearance and it is no wonder that the term for Nazirite can also refer to his hair.[4] The possibility exists that during Israel's early wars to conquer the land of Canaan, whole armies would vow not to cut their hair until victory was won. This would explain Samson's lifelong dedication to battle the Philistines, the association of Nazirites (and prophets) with the conquest in Amos 2:10-11, and the possible Nazirite vow taken by Deborah's soldiers.[5]

"And Delilah said to Samson: "You have been deceiving me all along; you have been lying to me! Tell me, how could you be tied up?"

Since hair continues to grow throughout life (and apparently for a time after death), it was considered by the ancients to be the seat of man's vitality and life-force, and in ritual it often served as his substitute. A bowl dating from the ninth century BCE found in a Cypriot temple contains an inscription on its outside surface indicating that it contained the hair of the donor. It was placed there, if the reconstructed text is correct, as "a memorial" to Astarte,[6] that is, as a permanent reminder to the goddess of the donor's devotion.

And he answered her, "If you weave seven locks of my head into the web." (Judges 17:13)
Click here to view Dore illustration enlarged

However, one must be careful not to attribute Samson's superhuman powers to his Nazirite vow. The story of his magic locks is a prevalent motif in Greek mythology that may have entered into the folklore of the Danites, Samson's tribe, through their contact with their neighbors, the Philistines — former residents of the Greek world.

The offering of hair is also attested in later times in ancient Babylonia, Syria, Greece, and Arabia. The Syrian Lucian's comment merits quotation: "The young men make an offering of their beards, while the young women let their 'sacred locks' grow from birth and when they finally come to the temple, they cut them. When they have placed them in containers, some of silver and many of gold, they nail them up to the temple, and they depart after each inscribes his name. When I was still a youth I, too, performed this ceremony and even now my locks and name are in the sanctuary."

It was said of Absalom, one of King David's sons, that when he cut his hair — he had to have his hair cut every year, for it grew too heavy for him — the hair of his head weighed two hundred shekels by the royal weight.[7] The Hebrew verse indicates that Absalom was wont to cut his hair mikkets yamim la-yamim; if this phrase is rendered "annually at the yearly feast," then the possibility exists that Absalom offered up his shorn hair at the sanctuary. It was customary for pre-Islamic Arabs to deposit their shorn hair at a tomb of a revered saint as a sacrificial act. An analogy persists in the custom of present-day Hasidim who pilgrimage to Meron in the Galilee on Lag ba-Omer in order to cut their children's hair for the first time at the purported tomb of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai.


[1] Scripture records two kinds of Nazirite status: lifelong and temporary., both of which result from a vow. In the case of a lifelong Nazirite, the vow is imposed by others, usually by a pregnant mother, whereas the vow of a temporary Nazirite is self-imposed. [back]
[2] Judg. 16:12; I Sam. 1:11 [back]
[3] Ezek. 44:20 [back]
[4] Num. 6:6,7,12,18; Jer. 7:29; note the parallelism in Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33:16 [back]
[5] cf. Judg. 5:2, "when they grew their hair long in Israel" [back]
[6] Certain gifts and rites in Israel's sanctuary also served as memorials, e.g., Exod. 28:12,29; 30:16; Num. 10:10; Zech. 6:14 [back]
[7] 2 Sam. 14:26 [back]
From: The JPS Commentary: Numbers Commentary by Jacob Milgrom, JPS, 1990

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