Parshat Naso: The Nazirite According to Rabbi Elia Benamozegh’s Em laMikra
Rabbanit Malka and Rabbi Eliezer Shai Di Martino are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as the community rabbinical couple in Lausanne, Switzerland
The analysis that we are going to make will be based on the teachings of Rabbi Elia Benamozegh of Leghorn (1822-1900). Rabbi Elia Benamozegh was a famous Italian rabbi and philosopher who lived in the 19th century, known for his work in reconciling Jewish and modern thought.
It is worth studying Rav Benamozegh’s Biblical Commentary Em laMikra, in order to know and understand the Jewish vision that one of the greatest Jewish minds of our era, Professor José Faur z”l, called Sephardic religious humanism and of which Rav Benamozegh is perhaps the highest representative.
As Sephardic scholar David Shasha perfectly expressed, the great thinkers of the Sephardic tradition have sought to articulate the critically important values of religion and humanism as one unified category. Religion is not only a matter of our relationship to God and the spirit. Religion in its scheme should give a place of honor to Humanity, and so should do the vast enterprise of Humanistic studies with the voice of religion.
My personal definition of Religious Humanism, based on Prof. Faur’s words, is the ability of some religious Jewish thinkers to extensively quote from a wide range of scholars and, by applying their field of specialization to Biblical texts and Rabbinic exegesis, be able to show the intimate relationship between the interpretation of the text and the conventions and values making up the historical context of the rabbis.
We are going to study Benamozegh’s teachings, based on Numbers 6, and try to understand his insights on the concept of a Nazirite vow.
“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any men or women explicitly utter a Nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for the Lord”. (Numbers 6, 2)
One of Rav Benamozegh’s main intellectual battles was to reinforce the idea, not only of the legitimacy, but of the indispensability of the Torah SheBeAl Pé, the Oral Torah. He never misses the opportunity to emphasize this concept and he does so by quoting Salomon Munk (1803-1867) the famous German-born Jewish-French Orientalist. The Written Torah does not mention an eternal Nazirite vow like that of Samson, so where did the Israelites got the idea to make such a vow? The Oral Torah must have instructed them on this matter, and without it, they would not have known how to behave in keeping the eternal Nazirite vow.
“If any men or women explicitly utter a Nazirite’s vow…”: We do not find in the Torah any mention of an eternal Nazirite like Samson’s Nazirite’s vow, as the sage (Salomon) Munk testified in his “Palestine,” p.168. And for me, this is a great proof of the truth of the Oral Torah, that if (the Oral Torah) did not enjoin to (the people of) Israel what the Written Torah was silent about, including the matter of eternal Nazirite vow, where would they take the idea to make an eternal Nazirite vow? And where would be found the Torah and the mitzva according to which they will behave in keeping it (the eternal Nazirite vow)? (Em laMikra, Numbers 6:2)
In Numbers 6:3, the Torah instructs Nazirites to abstain from wine and other intoxicants: “they shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried”. (Numbers 6:3)
Rabbi Benamozegh argues with a certain Dodwell – who could be the Irish writer on archaeology, Edward Dodwell, or the Anglo-Irish Christian theologian and controversial writer Henry Dodwell – who argued that prophets used to drink alcohol to prepare themselves for prophecy. Benamozegh cites several biblical passages that show that wine is not an aid to prophecy, but instead induces mistake and error. For example, in Amos 2:12 and Isaiah 28:7, implying that making someone drink wine prevents prophecy.
“They shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant…”: I didn’t know where Dodwell learned from that the prophets would drink wine to prepare themselves for prophecy, and we haven’t heard that they would use only music, and by way of hypothesis it is logic to say that they did not drink at all as priests, as monks, and as charioteers. And we find in the scripture: “But you made the Nazirites drink wine, and ordered the prophets not to prophesy” (Amos 2:12); and so you learn that the making someone drink wine prevents prophecy. And in the book of Isaiah: “But these are also muddled by wine and dazed by liquor: priest and prophet are muddled by liquor; they are confused by wine, they are dazed by liquor; they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in judgment” (Isaiah 28:7). And so you found that wine is not an aid to prophecy, instead it induces to mistake and error. See (Nicolas Antoine) Boulanger (L’)Antiquité dévoilée (par ses usages), Vol. IV 48 (Em laMikra, Numbers 6, 3).
Benamozegh concludes that wine is not conducive to prophecy, and it is best to avoid it suggesting to the reader to check this principle in the writings of French philosopher Nicolas Antoine Boulanger.
In Numbers 6:4, the Torah instructs Nazirites to refrain from eating anything that comes from the grapevine, including seeds and skin.
“Throughout their term as Nazirite, they may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds (chartzanim) or skin (zag)” (Numbers 6:4).
Rabbi Benamozegh analyzes the word “zag” and doesn’t miss the opportunity to argue with his main “rival”, his contemporary Shemuel David Luzzatto, known as the Shadal. Shadal was an extreme rationalist and a free thinker who often expressed little respect for Talmudic sages. Aside from this he was a harsh opponent of Jewish Kabalistic mysticism.
Shadal in his commentary contradicts the classical Talmudic understanding of the two terms, “chartzanim” meaning seeds and “zag” meaning skin. Shadal says that actually “zag” means the seeds. Benamozegh in this case, probably on purpose, doesn’t need to bring examples from non-rabbinical texts, and counters Shadal using only Talmudic proofs.
Skin (zag): According to Rabbi Yossé (Talmud Bavli Nazir 34b and Mishnah) “zag” refers to the skins (of the raisins), and the Sage Shemuel David Luzzatto (on his commentary on Numbers 6:4 doesn’t agree, and) thought that (Rabbi Yossé) being from the Galilee, didn’t speak proper Hebrew and relied on the (similar) word “zog,” meaning a bell. And if we analyze Rabbi Yossé’s words (Mishnah Nazir 6,2) we can find that he says: “a mnemonic so that you should not err: It is like a bell [zog] worn by an animal, in which the outer part is called zog, and the inner portion of the bell, the clapper, is called inbal”.
After all, you have no choice but to understand (Rabbi Yossé’s words) as a mnemonic sign as is the custom of the Sages in the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he did not rely on it at all in his interpretation. And other places where this expression comes in the words of our Sages: “so that you should not err”, will prove that it is just formulating a mnemonic sign, as in (Mishnah Menahot 11,4): “Rabbi Yehuda says: The following letters are a mnemonic so that you will not err and forget the dimensions of the two loaves: zayin, dalet, dalet. The numerical value of the letter zayin is seven and the numerical value of the letter dalet is four. The mnemonic therefore represents the length of seven handbreadths, the width of four handbreadths, and the height of four fingerbreadths, respectively. The following letters are a mnemonic for the dimensions of the shewbread: yod, heh, zayin, which stand for the length of ten handbreadths, the width of five handbreadths, and the height of seven fingerbreadths, respectively.” (Em laMikra, Numbers 6, 4)
Finally, in Numbers 6:20, the Torah explains that the priest has to perform the Nazirite offering in a special manner called “tenufá”, a sort of jolt:
“The priest shall elevate them as an elevation (Tenufa) offering before the Lord; and this shall be a sacred donation for the priest, in addition to the breast of the elevation offering and the thigh of gift offering. After that the Nazirite may drink wine” (Numbers 6:20).
Rabbi Benamozegh notes that it is not possible for Moses to warn about the “elevation” (tenufa) and not explain how to do it, and again he emphasizes the necessity and legitimacy of the Oral Torah paraphrasing a famous passage from tractate Taanit:
“The priest shall elevate them as an elevation offering…”: It is not possible for Moshe to warn about the “elevation” (tenufa), and not to explain how it is to be done. And the way of doing it is explained in the Oral Torah, “extends the offering to each of the four directions and brings it back, then raises and lowers it” (see T.B. Menahot 61a). And for all intents and purposes we have already found the custom of the movement (ni’nua’) explained in the Torah and our Sages extended it to the Lulav, and they truly said (T.B. Taanit 9a) that “there is nothing (in the Oral Torah) that isn’t alluded in the Written Torah”. (Em laMikra, Numbers 6:20)
Overall, Rabbi Benamozegh’s teachings on the Nazirite vow highlight the importance of the Oral Torah in Jewish tradition. The Torah’s commandments are not just limited to the Written Torah but are also found in the Oral Torah and the mystical traditions, which provide a deeper understanding of how to fulfill them. While expressing this central idea he shows a positive attitude towards the Nazirite vow, seeing it as a legitimate choice for those who wish to rise spiritually.
But most of all, through his vast knowledge and use of Jewish and modern thought, Benamozegh shows us that religious humanism has roots that draw from ancient sources and that extend into the future and represent an authentic and legitimate Judaism which should have a place of honor in the intellectual panorama of our faith.
The Jewish community of Lausanne and the Canton Vaud comprises approximately 600 families. The community was originally founded by Jews from Alsace who were cattle merchants in the region. Over the course of time, several waves of Jewish immigrants have strengthened the community, mainly from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. In the past 20 years, many families from France have joined the community. The community has a magnificent synagogue, a community center and several independent Jewish institutions – such as a very active Jewish kindergarten and primary school – are active in the city and within the community.