May 26, 2007
The haftarah this week relates the story of the birth of Samson, the heroic biblical figure with tremendous strength, who rescued the Israelite tribes from the Philistines after forty years of subjugation. This story is linked to the Torah reading because Samson\’s mother, the wife of Manoah, is promised a child provided he live his entire life as a nazir, refraining from wine and abstaining from cutting his hair. The nazirite oath is also related in the Torah reading in a different form. There, a person might take upon himself or herself the nazirite vow for a period of thirty days, abstaining from wine, refraining from cutting his or her hair and from contact with the dead. (See Numbers chapter 6.)
Samson\’s nazirite status differed from that mentioned in the Torah in a number of ways. Samson\’s vow, unlike the Torah\’s nazirite vow, was for a lifetime. His status also did not include refraining from contact with the dead. (See Nazir 4b for a discussion of this point.) The most salient difference is captured by the Talmud: \”But was not Samson a nazirite in the ordinary sense? Surely the verse [regarding the promise to his mother states:] For the child shall be a nazirite unto God from the womb!\” (Judges 13:5) [The Talmud\’s response to this question is telling:] It was the angel who said this! (Nazir 4b)
In the Torah, the nazir obligates himself. Samson\’s obligations were imposed upon him by the angel. Later sages, in their attempts to resolve this anomaly and qualify Samson as a bona-fide nazir, argue over whether someone other than the angel confirmed the angel\’s message. The Tosafot (13th century France) raise the possibility that the angel commanded Manoah, Samson\’s father, to confirm his son as a nazite. This conclusion is based on the opinion, found in the Mishnah (Nazir 4:6), that a father can impose the nazir vow on his son. Others contend that Samson confirmed the vow on himself. Rabbi Shmuel Edels (Poland 16-17th century) rejects both of these alternative answers. He asserts that Samson was not a regular nazir but only \”like a nazir\”.
Still, this debate raises an important religious question. Can a parent or an angel impose an obligation upon a child? The answer of the Mishnah is yes, at least with regard to the nazirite vow. Maimonides offers an interesting qualification to this law when he codifies it: \”A man may obligate his minor son as a nazir even though the son is not eligible to vow for himself. This is a law based on the tradition, but does not apply to other obligations. How so? If the father says: \’Behold you are a nazir\’, and the son is silent, the son is obligated as a nazir.\” (Laws of Nazirut 2:13-4) Still others, particularly later sages, attempt to limit the applicability of this law. These sages assert that the father can only obligate his son to be a regular nazir (thirty days), but not for obligations of extended length. (See Minkhat Hinukh 368)
What appears clear from this discussion is that the sages are aware of a parent\’s ability to obligate his/her child, but also have a conscious awareness that such obligations are best done with the consent of the child. The later sages also have a profound concern that such obligations not be overly onerous. Apparently, they felt that the experience of Samson was not meant as a model for all time.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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