So at the end of Leviticus I made some silly comments about how I couldn’t think of what kind of people would be “dedicated” in a sacrificial sense other than people subject to herem, and would therefore be subject to redemption.
Yeah, I completely forgot about Nazirites. “Nazir” means “consecrated.” They’re basically people who make their lives a sacrifice by avoiding anything made from grapes, not cutting their hair, and not being around dead bodies.
What isn’t clear is what they gain for doing this. Does this somehow work as a repentance for a sin? Does it give them a special social status (other than getting you out of military service)? Or is it just a way of making yourself be in a closer relationship to God?
I decided to dig into rabbinical interpretation to see whether they held the answers, but instead I found out that they were fascinated with how, at the end of their time of dedication, a nazirite had to offer a sin offering. Why would someone who had made themselves holy have to make atonement for a sin?
Well, the medieval consensus seemed to somehow be that becoming a nazirite actually was a sin, because that kind of ascetic extremism was wrong. I can’t help but suspect that’s more of a response to the extremism of Christian asceticism and monasticism, rather than the actual, frankly mild restrictions placed on nazirites.
Another scholar, though, Nahmanides, said that the reason a nazirite had to offer a sin offering at the end of their term was because it was supposed to be a lifelong devotion. It’s not that “my time is up, now I offer a sin offering because I was wrong to do this in the first place” (???) but “this was a lifelong vow and I want out of it, so I have to redeem myself.” Far be it from me to tell rabbis how to interpret their text, but I think Nahmanides’ reading makes more sense. Perhaps it was right for Judaism to eventually reject nazirite vows, but why would the Bible give explicit rules on how to make them if it didn’t want you making them?
The last part of the chapter is actually the oldest part of the Bible that we have written evidence of. There are inscriptions going back to the First Temple period (7th century BCE) with this blessing, and it’s still one that’s used in liturgy to this day. My church ends every service with it, and I think that’s the case in a lot of liturgical church traditions.
In Judaism, only a kohen or Levitical priest can say this blessing; it’s one of their few remaining responsibilities now that there isn’t a temple. They make a specific hand sign as they do it. Extend your thumb, then press your pointer and middle finger together and your ring and pinky together to make a sort of “W” shape.
Got that? Now, retract your thumb.
Leonard Nimoy’s father was a kohen, and when Gene Rodenberry let him come up with the “Live long and prosper” sign, he based it on the gesture he’d seen his father make many times as a child. Neat, eh?
The Japanese: kenshin suru “to dedicate oneself, to devote oneself” (v 2), tatsu “to dissociate, to be through with” (v 3), jukusu “to ripen” (v 4), aratameru “to alter, to amend,” mukou “invalid, null and void” (v 12), tamawaru “to be given, to be granted, to be honored with” (v 26).