Ascetics, Aesthetics, and Cosmetics

My halachah column for this past year’s פרשת נשא:

In Parashas Naso (6:11), a Nazarite is commanded to bring a sin-offering. As we have noted in previous years, the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b) cites an explanation that this is to atone for the sin of having (unnecessarily) deprived himself of the enjoyment of wine. Elsewhere (Nedarim 10a), the Talmud derives from this that one who engages in (discretionary) fasting is called a sinner.

But in yet another discussion of the topic, the Talmud (Taanis 11a-b) again begins by citing the opinion that the Nazarite and the faster are considered sinners, but then proceeds to cite two other opinions: one that considers them both ‘holy’, and one that invokes the term ‘pious’ (although Rashi and Tosafos actually disagree whether it is the faster, or the one who refrains from fasting, who is termed pious).

The Tosafos complicate matters even further, noting that the same sage (Shmuel) who maintains that the faster is considered a sinner, elsewhere maintains that fasting is permitted, and even a mitzvah! They explain that although fasting is inherently sinful, the mitzvah involved outweighs the sin. This is obviously difficult to understand.

R. An-Shlomo Astruc in his Midrashei Ha’Torah adopts a similar position, elaborating that the ‘sin’ requiring ‘atonement’ is not the Nazarite’s abstemiousness itself, but the underlying fact that his urges have become so powerful that he is compelled to become a Nazarite and renounce wine “which cheereth G-d and man” (Shoftim 9:13) in order to subdue his base nature and evil characteristics and eliminate his carnal lusts. He explains that just as some substances are good for the physically healthy but harmful to the ill, so, too, is wine good for the morally healthy but abstention therefrom a tonic for the morally deranged (cf. Gilyonot Nechama year 5710).

The Ramban in his commentary to our parashah sides with the view that Nazarism is praiseworthy. He explains that a Nazarite ideally ought to maintain his elevated status permanently – “he should remain all his days a Nazarite and holy to his G-d” – and that by declining to do so, he commits a grave sin, “and he requires atonement as he returns to becoming defiled by the lusts of the world”.

My parashah lecture, on the same topic, along with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive. [See also our previous posts here and here about the permissibility of cosmetic surgery.]

The Song of the Warrior-Judge

From this week’s parshah:

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם: שִׁירוּ לַיקוָק כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.1

From the haftarah:

וַתָּשַׁר דְּבוֹרָה, וּבָרָק בֶּן-אֲבִינֹעַם, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, לֵאמֹר.2

How could Devorah have sung together with Barak, in apparent contravention of the principle of קול באשה ערוה? Rav Yissachar Ber Eilenberg suggests Divine dispensation:

תוכחת מגולה יפה ומעולה אדבר עם בחורים וגם בתולות זקנים עם נערים ובפרט עם נשים נשואות שהם מזמרות ומשמיעות קול שיר בזמירות בשבת עם בחורים זקנים עם נערים יחד. ואינם משימין אל לבם שהיא מצוה הבאה לידי עבירה חמורה …
ואל תשיבני מדכתיב ותשר דבורה וברק בן אבינועם וגו’ כמו שנשאלתי מן אשה משכלת. כי יש לומר על פי הדיבור שאני וכיוצא בזה ממש תירצו התוספות בפרק החולץ …3

Rav Efraim Zalman Margolis explains that Devorah merely composed her wonderful poem, but did not actually sing it vocally before a male audience:

ושמעתי שלכך לא כתיב ששרתה יעל לפי שאמרו (מגילה טו.) יעל בקולה מביאה לידי הרהור וזנות, מה שאין כן דבורה שפיר אמרה לפי מה שכתבו הפוסקים דדוקא לקריאת שמע איתמר
אמנם נראה דבלאו הכי אין ראיה מ”ותשר דבורה”, שעיקרה לא נאמר אלא נוסח השירה והמליצה הנפלאה, אבל לא נזכר ששרתה בקול לפני אנשים.4

I mentioned these sources in the introduction to a miscellaneous lecture I recently gave on poetry, song and grammar in the Jewish tradition; it is available, along with my notes, at the Internet Archive. [It is based on a series of essays I published about five years ago on the Seforim Blog titled “Wine, Women and Song: Some Remarks On Poetry and Grammar”: part I; part II; part III.]

In a follow up post, we shall, בג”ה, discuss the problem of Miriam’s singing.

  1. שמות טו:כ-כא []
  2. שופטים ה:א []
  3. באר שבע, ספר באר מים חיים אות ג, הובא באליה רבה סימן ע”ה סוף אות ה []
  4. מטה אפרים, דיני קדיש יתום, שער ד’ סעיף ח’ באלף למטה []