Today’s daf (Nazir 29a) discusses the question of whether a parent who is a Nazir is obligated to educate their child in the ways of Nezirut. And in this spirit, I would like to offer some reflections on Rav David Cohen (1887-1972) and his son, Rav Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016).
Notwithstanding his title as ‘HaRav HaNazir’, Rav David Cohen was not a Nazir in the formal sense of the word – primarily because Nezirut can only formally be concluded with the bringing of a sacrifice. Instead, for various personal reasons he adopted certain Nezirut customs such as not drinking wine and not cutting his hair, in addition to other customs unrelated to Nezirut such as not eating meat and not wearing leather shoes (nb. as a Cohen, he was already prohibited from coming in contact with the dead). Interestingly, and a point which is rarely mentioned, is that Sarah, his wife, also adopted many of these practices (see Mishnat HaNazir p. 30).
It was in this atmosphere that young Shear Yashuv was born who, in addition to his parents’ unique spiritual practices, was deeply influenced by Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook who, as he remarks, was like a grandfather to him. And given the commitments of his parents, Shear Yashuv was raised to follow certain Nezirut customs. In fact, as Yechiel Frish and Yedidya HaCohen note in their book ‘Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace (p. 52), he was nicknamed ‘the boy with the long hair’ since he followed his father’s Nazirite custom of not having his hair cut.
Having publicly declared when he was twelve years and one day old that his Nezirut was merely a “practice” and not an “oath”, Rav Shear Yashuv continued to study Torah and learn from the greats of his generation. However, when he reached his mid-teens, while spending more time out of the house, he realized that this was not for him. As he later recounted:
“Even as a small boy I was aware that my father led a way of life that was holy and special. My parents explained to me that I, too, was being brought up in this way. So, within the protective four walls of my home I grew up as a Nazir… Only after I left home did I experience it differently. When I mixed with other people I wanted to be like them. Attending Yeshiva was the turning-point in my decision to release myself from this particular custom, when I was no longer within the four walls of the home in which I was adored and protected” (ibid. p. 66).
As a result, when Rav Shear Yashuv reached the age of 16 a unique hair-cutting ceremony was held during which the participants read the sections of the Torah describing the sacrifices that were previously brought by the Nazir.
However, and this is the key point which I’d like to emphasise, while Rav Shear Yashuv ceased observing the external features of being a Nazir, he continued with many of the other practices which he’d previously adopted (eg. he did not drink wine) and therefore he was, as Yechiel Frish and Yedidya HaCohen explain, a form of ‘spiritual Nazirite’.
There are many lessons we can learn from this episode about the expectations that we have of our children and the choices that they make. Yet while Rav Shear Yashuv didn’t entirely continue the practices of his father, neither did he entirely reject them.
Oftentimes we describe children who don’t exactly follow the religious path of their parents as not doing so. But life is not so binary, and even when children choose different paths, they generally maintain a deep connection to the way in which they were raised. I believe that this lesson is powerfully brought out in the above-mentioned story, and it is one that we would all do well to remember.