The Mishna (Nazir 3:7) in today’s daf (Nazir 16b) discusses a situation where someone commits to being a Nazir while there are in a cemetery. The problem with this is that among the prohibitions that apply to a Nazir is that they are forbidden to be in contact with the dead (see Bemidbar 6:6). Given this, the question addressed by the Mishna and subsequent discussion in the Gemara is whether this commitment can take effect due to the location of where it is made: according to Rabbi Yochanan it does, while according to Reish Lakish it does not.
However, beyond this important technical question, a point that particularly interests me here is why would someone make a commitment to be a Nazir while they are presently in a cemetery? And to my mind, I believe that a possible answer is that it is precisely because they are in a cemetery – in a location that reminds them of death – which prompts them to commit themselves to keep their distance from death.
To be clear, I believe that Jewish teachings encourage us to maintain a cognizance of our mortality in order to help us value the gift of life and to live each day intentionally. And especially when it comes to Jewish burial customs, mourners are compelled to confront the reality of the death of their loved one because the only way that we can mourn a death is by accepting that there has been a death.
Still, there may come a point when this awareness is overbearing. For example, in a situation where a shocking death has occurred where being in a cemetery does not feel life affirming, or in a situation where the quantity of deaths that an individual has been forced to confront are simply too many to compute (for example, numerous cemetery workers during the height of the pandemic reported experiencing post traumatic stress symptoms). In such a situation, a person – even while in a cemetery – may declare that they want to keep their distance from any and all reminders of death because it is too much for them to bear and because it is harmful to their mental health. What this suggests is that the proclamation to become a Nazir while present in a cemetery is not just a ritual decision. Instead, it is a cry for help reflecting an existential crisis.
Unfortunately, there may be those who inform a religious guide that they have committed to becoming a Nazir while in a cemetery who will receive a response along the lines of the debate between Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish regarding the question of the validity and efficacy of this commitment.
But as I have explained, it is likely that the more important question here isn’t whether this person is or is not a Nazir, but rather, why they made this commitment in the first place. And once this is considered, and possibly understood, we can then be in a much better position to support that individual in terms of their next steps forward in life.