You Go First (Nazir 47)

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |


Jewish law rules that when one must “desecrate” the Shabbat in order to save a life it is the greatest scholar present who should be the one to do so. It is the rabbi who, if need be, gets in the car and the task should not be delegated to a non-observant Jew who drives anyway, or even to an observant lay leader (see Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 2:3). The rabbis must lead by example, demonstrating that saving a life takes precedence over observing shabbat. This law is especially noteworthy viewed in a historical context in which many Jews did not believe one could violate Shabbat even to save a life. “We must follow the Torah and if such causes death one can take comfort in dying for the cause”, they argued. It was only during the Chasmonean revolt that the notion that pikuach nefesh, saving a life overrides [almost] all else became mainstream. 


Absent such pressing concerns it is not clear who should violate the law when circumstances dictate that we must do so. Such is the case when a kohen gadol and a nazir out on a walk together, come across a dead body lying in the road (Nazir 47a). While Jewish law forbids both a nazir and a kohen from coming in contact with a corpse, this  law is suspended in the face of a meit mitzva, an unattended corpse; “whoever buries them first merits [the mitzva of burial]”. While immediate burial is called for there is no need for both of them to become tameh, ritually impure. 


Rabbi Eliezer argues that it is best if the kohen gadol takes care of the body as a nazir who comes in contact with death must bring a korban, a sacrifice, and restart his nezeeroot, whereas there are no such consequences when a kohen is metameh.  On the other hand the Sages argue that it is the nazir who should defile himself as the kohen’s status is a permanent one whereas the nazir’s status is only temporary, generally lasting only 30 days.


This technical question of who should deal with the dead body may reflect a broader philosophical dispute. The kohen gadol and the nazir reflect two very different methods of avodat hashem, service of G-d. The kohen gadol attains holiness by interaction with the people including and perhaps especially the sinners of Israel while the nazirattains holiness by separating himself from these same people. 


When one becomes a nazir one immediately attains a higher status of kedusha, even apparently greater than that of the kohen gadol. While we are apt to translate kedusha as holiness, (a most amorphous term) a more accurate translation would be separate. Those items imbued with kedusha are separate and distinct - things such as Shabbat, the land of Israel, a spouse (the wedding ceremony is known as kiddushin) and a nazir. Unlike others in society a nazir deprives him/herself of wine and all grape products, may not properly groom themselves letting their hair grow wild, and may not offer comfort at people’s greatest time of need as they are unable to attend a funeral. They separate themselves from society in an attempt to draw closer to G-d[1].


As spiritual leader of the Jewish people the kohen gadol has no such “luxury”. He cannot focus only on his own religious development. While “from the [sanctity] of the Temple he may not depart” (Vayikra 21:12) he must carry the burden of the sins of the people - working hard for their atonement. He is held indirectly responsible for the problems of society and only upon his death may an accidental killer go free. He must give up some of his kedusha to serve the people. While he may have a “lower” level of kedusha he must maintain his greatly heightened level of kedusha 24/7 year in and year out.


Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages are debating which factor is decisive; the intense but temporary sanctity of the nazir or the less intense but prolonged sanctity of the kohen gadol. Jewish law follows the view of the Sages. 

Intense experiences are great and allow one to reach unparalleled heights but they, almost by definition, are unsustainable. We have only ten days of repentance for a reason. We must strive for a level of religious fervor that is sustainable for us even as it is less intense. 


[1]Whether this is positive or negative is debated amongst our Sages but there is little doubt he has an elevated status of kedusha during nezeeroot.