The Narrative of the Narcissistic Nazirite
Naziriteship as a Remedy to Self-Absorption
A famous aggadah, which appears in tractates Nedarim and Nazir of both talmuds, speaks of a shepherd who was prompted to become a nazirite. After glancing at his reflection in water, the shepherd became so overloaded with desire for himself that it threatened his very life.
אמר שמעון הצדיק: לא אכלתי אשם נזירות מימיי אלא אחד. כשבא אחד מן הדרום יפה עינים וטוב רואי וקווצותיו מסודרות לו תלתלים, נמתי לו: מה ראית להשחית לו שיער זה נאה?
Simeon the Righteous said: Only once in (all) my days have I eaten a nazirite penalty offering. When one person came from the south, with beautiful eyes and of handsome appearance, and with his locks arranged in curls, I said to him: “Why did you see fit to destroy this beautiful hair?”
נם לי: רועה הייתי בעירי והלכתי למלות מן הנעיים. נסתכלתי בביאה שלי פחז לבי עלי ביקש להעבירני מן העולם. נמתי לו: רשע הרי אתה מתגאה בשאינו שלך, בשלעפר ושלרימה ושלתוליעה! הריני מגלחו לשמים!
He said to me: “I was shepherding in my town and went to draw (water) from a well. When I gazed upon my reflection (in the well) my heart rose upon me seeking to remove me from the world. I said to it (my lustful heart): ‘Wretch! How you pride yourself in what is not yours, in what is of dust, worm and maggot! Behold I will shave it off for the sake of heaven!’”
מכתי את ראשו ונשקתיו על ראשו, נמתי לו: כמותך ירבו עושין רצון המקום בישראל ועליך נתקיים ״איש או אשה (כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה׳)״ ((במדבר ו, ב)
I lowered his head and kissed him on his head (and) I said to him: “May there be many like you carrying out the will of God in Israel and in you is fulfilled (the verse): ‘If anyone, man or woman, (explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord)’” (Numbers 6:2).
Our initial expectations of this shepherd from the south are not high since shepherds in rabbinic literature are not typically known for their piety and the rabbis apparently viewed southerners as boorish and ignorant. This shepherd, however, managed to overcome his desire, chastising his lustful and rapacious heart as if it were another person: “Wretch! How you pride yourself in what is not yours, in what is of dust, worm and maggot!” The shepherd castigated his passions, arguing that the body is not a suitable object of pride but a putrid substance, destined to rot away as the fodder of worms and maggots. In order to rid himself of the source for his misplaced pride, the shepherd cries out: “Behold I will shave it off for the sake of heaven!” These words were no mere threat but a nazirite vow that enabled the shepherd to triumph over his powerful passions. As a nazirite, the shepherd dedicated himself to God, committing to shaving off his hair and burn it in the temple precincts at the end of the duration of his naziriteship.
For his part, Simeon the Righteous is perfectly suited to acknowledge the merits of the nazirite from the south. As high priest, Simeon the Righteous was consecrated to God just like a nazirite and was also constrained by prohibitions similar to the prohibitions of the nazirite. In addition, perhaps it is no coincidence that a high priest known for his own righteousness is the one who recognizes the righteousness and piety of another.
Hair as a Substitute for the Body
The nazirite here is an offering to God, a form of self-dedication. Since one cannot literally sacrifice oneself and survive the ordeal, the nazirite consecrates and sacrifices his or her hair. The nazirite’s hair is a renewable part of the body that symbolically substitutes the nazirite’s person as a whole. When the shepherd is mesmerized and captivated by his own beauty, he behaves like the polar opposite of the nazirite. Far from selflessly dedicating himself to God, the shepherd, at first, is entirely self-absorbed to the exclusion of all others, God included. Naziriteship serves here as the ideal corrective for the self-obsessed shepherd. By dedicating himself entirely to God, naziriteship helps him remedy a self-centered existence devoid of the divine.
Narcissus: A Parallel Myth of Obsession with One’s Reflection
Modern commentators have long noted that this story bears a striking resemblance to the myth of Narcissus from Hellenistic antiquity, one of the most famous stories to survive from the Graeco-Roman world. The myth of Narcissus was told in antiquity with marked variations, but the most popular version is that of a youth who becomes enraptured and obsessed by his own reflection when he catches sight of it in the spring. Narcissus’s self-admiration is so potent and overwhelming that he becomes rooted to the spot where he first sees his reflection. He refuses to depart the spring for fear of losing sight of his beloved visage. Our nazirite, like Narcissus, undergoes the same unusual experience and in both cases, the youth’s overpowering passions come to threaten his life.
Ovid’s version of the Narcissus myth
The great Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE – AD 17/18), preserves in his Metamorphoses the fullest extant version of the Narcissus myth. Narcissus, writes Ovid, was a handsome young man whose love was sought by many youths and maidens, but he was too arrogant and haughty to love anyone in return. A nymph named Echo fell in love with him but he spurned her as well and her broken heart caused her to waste away and lose her physical form. One of Narcissus’s slighted admirers beseeched the gods to punish Narcissus with unrequited love and Nemesis, goddess of retribution, granted his wish. At long last Narcissus fell in love but the object of his love, the reflection of his visage in the water of a spring, could not love him in return. Narcissus yearned to kiss and touch his reflection but to no avail; unwilling to remove himself from the spring, he wasted away and died.
Contrasting the Stories of the Nazirite and Narcissus
Unlike Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the rabbinic narrative makes no reference to any rejection of aspiring lovers, so the shepherd’s predicament apparently is not the product of long-term ongoing hubris. The shepherd’s story revolves around a onetime event when the shepherd was so overcome by desire that his passions came to threaten his very life. The shepherd’s trance is a caricature of desire and his obsessive self-centered behavior excluded even God.
While Narcissus’s hubris is expressed in the social sphere of human interaction, the shepherd’s has an added spiritual dimension as well. Naziriteship, however, successfully extricates the shepherd from his trance by replacing his all-consuming selfishness with uncompromising selflessness. Thus while the tragic myth of Narcissus cautions us to be mindful of fate’s inexorable retribution, the rabbis’ optimistic story illustrates the ongoing possibility of repentance and redemption.
Though we cannot point to any specific Greek or Latin text, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and claim that the author of our rabbinic story was influenced by it, the striking similarities between the rabbinic narrative and the myth of Narcissus point to the ancient myth as the source of inspiration for the shepherd’s predicament.
Absalom: An Additional Source of Inspiration
Other central elements in the rabbinic narrative were modeled on the biblical story of Absalom. The stories of Absalom and the southern shepherd are alike in fundamental and striking ways. Like the southern shepherd, Absalom is portrayed as a beautiful man with remarkable hair (2 Samuel 14, 25-26):
וּכְאַבְשָׁלוֹם, לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ יָפֶה בְּכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַלֵּל מְאֹד: מִכַּף רַגְלוֹ וְעַד קָדְקֳדוֹ, לֹא הָיָה בוֹ מוּם. כו וּבְגַלְּחוֹ, אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ, וְהָיָה מִקֵּץ יָמִים לַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר יְגַלֵּחַ, כִּי כָבֵד עָלָיו וְגִלְּחוֹ; וְשָׁקַל אֶת שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ, מָאתַיִם שְׁקָלִים בְּאֶבֶן הַמֶּלֶךְ.
No one in all Israel was as beautiful as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head he was without blemish. When he cut his hair – he had to have it cut every year, for it grew too heavy for him – the hair of his head weighed two hundred shekels by royal weight.
The shepherd’s hair almost led to his death, while Absalom’s long locks were instrumental in his death, trapping him in a terebinth and facilitating his murder. Moreover, just as the shepherd’s obsession with his hair endangered his life, Absalom’s fatal flaw, in rabbinic eyes, was his excessive pride in his beautiful locks (Misnah Sotah 1, 7-8):
במדה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו: …אבשלום נתגאה בשערו לפיכך נתלה בשערו
With the measure a man measures out, it shall be measured to him (in return)… Absalom gloried in his hair – therefore, he was hanged by his hair.
Absalom and our shepherd are the sole individuals in all rabbinic literature who take too much “pride” (“mitga’im”) in their hair and in both stories hair plays a pivotal role in a measure for measure equation. Whereas Absalom is cornered and killed because of the long hair in which he was excessively proud, the shepherd saves himself by first dedicating his locks to God, and then shearing off the long locks which aroused his self-destructive passions.
Absalom the Nazirite
Not only did the story of Absalom apparently supply the literary inspiration for the shepherd’s dangerous pride in his hair, it also seems to have provided the idea of making the shepherd a nazirite. Whereas the Bible simply reports that Absalom cut his hair infrequently, the rabbis viewed Absalom as a nazirite.
ר’ יהודה אומר: נזיר עולם היה והיה מגלח לשנים עשר חדש שנאמר “ויהי מקץ ארבעים שנה ויאמר אבשלום אל המלך אלכה נא” וגו’ (שמואל ב טו, ז) ואומר “כי נדר נדר עבדך בשבתי בגשור” וגו’ (שם, טו ח). ר’ יוסי הגלילי אומר: נזיר ימים היה והיה מגלח אחת לשלשים יום שנאמר “מקץ ימים לימים” וגו’ (שם יד, כו).
R. Judah says (Absalom) was a nazirite for life and would shave his hair every twelve months, as it is said, “After a period of forty years had gone by, Absalom said to the king, ‘Let me go (to Hebron and fulfill a vow that I made to the Lord’” (2 Samuel 15, 7)), and it says, “For your servant made a vow when I lived in Geshur” (2 Samuel 15, 8). R. Jose the Galilean says he was a nazirite of a certain number of days and he would shave once every thirty days, as it is said, “after a period of days” (2 Samuel 14, 26) (Mekhilta Shirata 2 (p. 123).
In rabbinic eyes, Absalom became a nazirite in order to let his beautiful hair grow long. The rabbinic notion that Absalom was a nazirite apparently prompted the idea to portray the shepherd as a nazirite who, like Absalom, took excessive pride in his hair. However, whereas Absalom’s naziriteship was driven by his vanity, the shepherd hoped to contain his vanity through naziriteship.
Foil of Narcissus and Absalom: The Shepherd as the Ideal Nazirite
The story of Simeon the Righteous and the nazirite is designed to showcase an ideal conception of naziriteship. Naziriteship, in rabbinic eyes, involves the dedication of the self to God, and in order to accentuate this essential dimension of naziriteship, the author of our story chose to contrast self-dedication with its opposite, self-love. In seeking to portray the ultimate self-lover, our author modeled his character, in part, on a well-known figure in antiquity who embodied egotism more than any other: Narcissus. As the polar opposite of naziriteship self-dedication, Narcissus served as the perfect foil in a story designed to promote self-control and the conquest of desire.
The shepherd’s indulgent and immoderate pride in his hair, however, stemmed from Absalom, not Narcissus. In light of our author’s intention to critique narcissism, the biblical account of Absalom naturally resonated with him since Absalom’s beauty, vanity and eventual downfall perfectly illustrate the dire threat of unchecked desire and self-obsession. In addition, the idea to present naziriteship as the antidote to narcissism was inspired by the rabbinic notion that Absalom was a nazirite.
Our author thus synthesized Narcissus and Absalom in the creation of a new hero. However, since the purpose of the rabbinic story was to showcase naziriteship as an ideal, the tragic dooms that befell Narcissus and Absalom had to be reversed. Whereas Narcissus and Absalom both died because of their self-centered behavior, the shepherd, as the ideal nazirite, defied his own passions and modeled naziriteship as a means of self-control and metamorphosis.
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Dr. Amram Tropper, Ph.D. (2002) Oxford University, is Senior Lecturer in Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University. His publications include Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography (Oxford, 2004), Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter (Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2011) and Simeon the Righteous in Rabbinic Literature (Brill, 2013).
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