Non-Jews and Nezeeroot (Nazir 61)

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

 

 

“And G-d said to Abram; go from your land, your birthplace and from the home of your father” (Breisheet 12:1). Rashi notes that Abram left well before his father passed away in Charan but the Torah did not want to specifically say so, lest it appear that Abram neglected the mitzva of kivud av v'eim[1]. The implication of this Rashi is that Abram was “obligated” in the mitzva of honouring one’s parents but due to G-d’s command to go to a special land, he could not do so and was excused from the mitzva[2]. While we do read parshat Lech Lecha this week, I write the above not because of the parsha but because of the Talmudic discussion in masechet nazir in the daf yomi cycle.

“The laws of nezeeroot do not apply to non-Jews; they do apply to women and children” (Nazir 61a). The Gemara explains that the laws of the nazir are introduced with the phrase “speak to the children of Israel” presumably excluding non-Jews from the possibility of becoming a nazir. Yet fascinatingly the Gemara rejects such a proof. While the Torah is addressed to the “children of Israel” that does necessarily exclude non-Jews - they can, shall we say, listen and join in. 

The Gemara then brings proof that there can be no nezeeroot for non-Jews from the following verse. “All the days of his nezeeroot for the Lord he shall not come upon a dead person. Neither to his father, to his mother, to his brother or to his sister may he defile themselves upon death” (Bamidbar 6:6-7). In a rather startling statement the Gemara says “’to his father and mother he shall not defile’ - for one who has a father [and mother] excluding idolaters who have no father”. The Talmud is as startled as we are asking in what way can we say non-Jews have no father.

The Gemara then posits that there is no fatherhood for non-Jews because non-Jews are not obligated in the mitzva of kivud av v’eim. Without the mitzva of kivud av v’eim one is to be considered fatherless. This is a quite a beautiful notion. What defines the parent-child relationship is the honour due from the latter to the former. 

Honouring parents is so central to our way of life that it is hard to imagine that non-Jews could be exempt from this most basic and most important of mitzvoth, but exempt they are. 

Yet it is not as if non-Jews need not respect to their parents. The mitzva of kivud av v'eim is much much more than respect, and involves serving one’s parents to an extent that is almost unattainable (see Kiddushin 31-32). So difficult is this mitzva to adequately fulfill our Sages recommend parents waive the strict honour due to them (Yoreh Deah 240:19), enabling the children to perform great honour even if such does not quite reach the level of kavod. While Jews may be practically exempt from the rigours of this mitzva on a practical level, non Jews were exempted even theoretically. Fascinatingly in describing the extent to which one must go to fulfil this mitzvah the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) uses the example of Dana ben Netinah a non-Jew. As no less a figure than Eisav was viewed by our Sages as excelling at this mitzva.

 

The obligation to honour parents is not so much biological as it is functional. It is they who raise us, teach and guide us. The word horim is from the same root as torah and morim, highlights our parents’ role as teachers of Torah. Once G-d choose Abraham to found a new nation, Torah teaching and by extension a greatly elevated obligation of kivud av v'eim became the domain of the Jewish people.  

Similarly the mitzva of pru verevu is not just a biological one. To properly fulfill the mitzva of having children one must raise and guide them and teach them. The mitzva of pru verevu was first given to Adam and then Noach with the goal of populating the earth. Yet the nature of the mitzvah changed  over time. The obligation of the Jewish people to procreate is based not on G-d’s words to Adam and Noach but emanates from the covenant at Sinai (see Rambam’s commentary to the Mishna, Chulin 7:1). By that point the focus was no longer on physically populating the world but on passing down the Jewish tradition from generation to generation effectively exempting non-Jews from this mitzva. Pru verevu and kivud av v'eim are opposite sides of the same coin. And non-Jews are obligated in neither and hence are unable to take a vow of nezeeroot.  

While accepting the premise that non-Jews are not technically obligated in kivud av v'eim the Gemara rejects the relevance of such to the parameters of a nazirNezeeroot has nothing to do with honouring parents or with having a father in the first place. There is no basis to claim that a Jew who has no father cannot be a nazir. All the law means is that one who is a nazir cannot contact tumah even if his father should happen to die while he is a nazir. But nezeroot is unrelated to fatherhood.  

Rather the reason nezeeroot does not apply to non-Jews is because the entire concept of tumah vetahara, purity and impurity does not apply to non-Jews. Purity and impurity cannot be measured physically. They are the embodiment of the value which we place on life itself such that even coming in contact with death - while often mandatory and laudatory - nonetheless distances us from the Living G-d. 

[1] This is a very strange idea - that the Torah would try to cover up the lack of respect Abraham showed to his father. See here for an explanation to this Rashi.
  

[2] Though one cannot really apply the nuances of mitzvot to a time period before mitzvoth were given (the notion that on some level the Avot kept Torah notwithstanding) Rav Yehuda Rosanes

in his sefer Parshat Drachim discusses whether the Avot had the status of Jews and all that entails or are to be considered bnei noach, non-Jews.