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The Egyptian Samsonite

I. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY

Looking through sixteenth century responsa from the Mediterranean region, I saw something strange that I have not seen in any other time and place. Many responsa discuss the rare phenomenon of the Nezir Shimshon, a Samson Nazirite. Most generations barely mention this phenomenon other than in a theoretical sense. This particular century in the area near the land of Israel seemed to have a high number of practical questions.

The Gemara (Nazir 4a-b) discusses the parameters of a nezir Shimshon. He cannot drink wine or grape products, nor cut his hair. Unlike a regular nazir, a nezir Shimshon can become impure to the dead. However, a nazir has a limited time period, after which the individual returns to normal behavior. A nezir Shimshon must observe the structure forever, without any time limit nor a possibility of undoing the status by asking a court. For this reason, it seems that people were swearing to be a nezir Shimshon as a form of emphasis, like many people today (unfortunately) say that they “swear to God.”

Rav Shmuel de Modena (Responsa Maharshdam, Yoreh De’ah 75) says that the problem “is not that common” so there is no need for extra stringency to curb the abuse. In another responsum (ibid., no. 134), he describes an earlier enactment that communities may not use a vow of nezir Shimshon in enforcing local rules. However, he adds, individuals are free to do it, as sometimes occurs. On the other hand, Rav David Ibn Zimra (Responsa Radbaz, vol. 3 no. 983), in a slightly comical responsum, mentions an enactment against individuals using a vow of nezir Shimshon.

II. FREEING THE LEADER

The most celebrated question dates to approximately 1513. The Nagid (formal Jewish political leader) Yitzchak Shulal swore that he would become a nezir Shimshon before appointing a specific rabbi as a judge. However, after a thorough search he concluded that there was no other qualified candidate. He gathered the local rabbis to explore his options, since presumably he had no desire to live the rest of his life as a nezir Shimshon. The key question that exercised respondents revolves around a Mishnah’s requirements.

The Mishnah (Nazir 1:2) teaches:

“[Someone who says] ‘I am like Shimshon,’ ‘like the son of Manoach,’ ‘like the husband of Delilah,’ ‘like the one who uprooted the gates of Gaza,’ ‘like the one whose eyes were pierced by the Philistines,’ he is a Nezir Shimshon.”

The Gemara (Nazir 4a) explains that if you just say that you are like Shimshon or like the son of Manoach, you are insufficiently clear about whom you wish to be like. Many people have the name Shimshon and/or a father named Manoach. You need to be very specific by listing multiple (at least three) qualifiers.

The Nagid had only said that he would be a nazir like Shimshon, without further qualifiers. Among others, Rav Ya’akov Beirav (Responsa Re’em, no. 51) argues that this should free the Nagid from any potential obligation. However, these rules might not be that straightforward. Rav Yosef Tiatatzak (quoted in Responsa Maharshdam, Yoreh De’ah, no. 75), the Spanish exile who became a rosh yeshiva in Salonica, lamented that previous generations had not fleshed out these laws sufficiently. Apparently this generation was unique in the revival of this ancient practice, at least in colloquial speech. Therefore, they lacked texts for guidance.

Even though Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Nazir 3:13-15) discusses the nezir Shimshon only briefly, he manages to include a contradiction with practical implications. In law 14, Rambam writes: “Therefore, if someone said: ‘Behold I am a nazir like Shimshon,’ he is a nazir forever with regard to cutting his hair and wine…” In law 15, Rambam follows the above Mishnah: “When a person says: ‘Behold, I am like Shimshon,’ ‘…like Manoach’s son,’ ‘…like Delilah’s husband,’ ‘…like the one who uprooted the gates of Gaza,’ or ‘…like the one whose eyes were pierced by the Philistines,’ he must keep the nazir restrictions observed by Shimshon…”

III. DEFINING SHIMSHON

In the first law, Rambam does not require the three qualifiers like the Mishnah and Gemara. Merely saying “I am a nazir like Shimshon” begins the restrictions. In the next law, Rambam lays down more detailed requirements. Mahari Beirav (ibid.) says that the earlier reference is preliminary, merely setting the stage for the more detailed requirements in the next law. Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (Responsa Re’em, no. 50) says that these two laws are addressing different situations. If someone vows to be a nazir like Shimshon having in mind the biblical figure, then no additional qualifiers are necessary. That is the first law. However, if someone has a different Shimshon in mind, then he is not a nezir Shimshon unless he uses at least three qualifiers. If he says that he is a nazir like “Shimshon the son of Manoach, the husband of Delilah,” then even if he had in mind his neighbor Shimshon, he must still observe the strictures of the biblical Shimshon. (See Kesef Mishneh, ad loc.)

The practical difference between these two interpretations is very real. When the Nagid made his vow, he had in mind the biblical Shimshon. According to the Mahari Beirav, this intention does not matter because he did not verbalize it unequivocally. Therefore, his vow is null. According to Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, the Nagid’s vow still stands because both his words and his intent referred to the biblical figure. Therefore, if he appoints the individual a judge, the Nagid must observe the restrictions of a nezir Shimshon.

I will note that Radbaz has many responsa on this subject and never seems to comment that the people are vowing to be a nezir Shimshon without additional qualifiers. I deduce from here that he agrees with Rav Mizrachi. Therefore, since the people clearly intend the biblical Shimshon, they do not need more qualifiers to be bound by the nezir Shimshon requirements.