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.]