Nazarite, Hebrew nazar, dedicate, is a vow of a peculiar kind which may be taken by either sex that sets them apart from others for the service of God. The vow may be for life or a definite period of time.
The term «nazarite» comes from the verb nazar meaning to separate, or with persons, to separate them from others, so they are distinguishable, and consecrated to God (Genesis 49:26; Deuteronomy 33:16). Others hold that the word nezer, a diadem, contains the orginal concept of nazar, which will then radically signify a crown, and the hair is regarded as a crown to the person. In accordance to this view, the Nazarite is a crowned one, because he has «the crown of God upon his head» (Numbers 6:7), evidently in allusion to the mass of uncut hair, which was considered an ornament (2 Samuel 14:25, 26).
Some claim the custom’s origin has been lost in obscurity. However, the prescriptions in Numbers 6 presuppose it to have been an institution already in existence, and merely regulate it as to bring it into accord with the whole of Mosaic legislation. There are no conclusive analogies to indicate the custom was taken from heathen sources, especially Egyptian.
Mosaic legislation speaks of such vows as being for a specified period of time, probably set by the person taking the vow; although it was certainly believed the person dedicated his life to God. Yet, there were instances where the vow was for life, in such cases the parents usually dedicated their children before their birth, such as Samson (Judges 13:5, 14), Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), and John the Baptist (Luke 1:13). According to the Mishna the usual time was for thirty days, but double vows for sixty days and treble vows for a hundred days were sometimes made. The vow of the apostle Paul appears also to have been some kind of a Nazarite vow, in the fulfillment of which he shaved his head at Cenchrea (Acts 18:18), although according to the law (Numbers 6:9,18) and the Talmud the shaving of the head was required to be done at the door of the temple.
The specifications of the Nazarite are described in Numbers 6:1-21. The Nazarite, during the period of his consecration, was bound to abstain from wine, grapes, with every production of the vine, and from every kind of intoxicating drink. He was forbidden to cut the hair of his head, or to approach any dead body, even that of his nearest relation. If a Nazarite incurred defilement by accidentally touching a dead body, he had to undergo specific rites of purification, and recommence his period of consecration. There is absolutely no mention in the Old Testament concerning the period of duration, in days, of the Nazarite vow. When the duration was fulfilled successfully the person was released there from, and was required to offer a ewe lamb for a sin offering, and a ram for a peace offering, with the usual accompaniments of peace offerings (Numbers 6:13-20) and of the offering made at the consecration of priests (Exodus 29:2) «a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil» (Numbers 6:15). He brought also a meat offering and a drink offering, which appear to have been presented by themselves as a distinct act of service (Numbers 6:17). Then he was to cut off the hair of «the head of his separation» (that is the hair grown during the period of his consecration) at the door of the tabernacle, and put it into the fire under the sacrifice on the altar. The priest then placed upon his hands the sodden left shoulder of the ram, with one of the unleavened cakes and one of the wafers, and took them again and waved them for a wave offering. These, as well as the breast and heave, or right shoulder (to which he was entitled in the case of ordinary peace offerings, Leviticus 7:32-34) were perquisite of the priest. The Nazarite also gave him a present proportioned to circumstances (Numbers 6:21). From this the custom afterwards emerged, that when poor persons took the Nazarite vow upon them, those who were better off defrayed the expenses of the sacrifices (Acts 21:24). When the Nazarite had concluded the complete service of his consecration, he was at liberty to indulge in the use of wine (Numbers 6:20).
In summary the Nazarite, the one taking the vow, separated himself from others while remaining in the world by consecrating himself to God for a certain period of time, although there have been life-long Nazarites. The uncut hair of the Nazarite also distinguishes him as being consecrated to the Lord, and signifies his vital powers which he rendered to God. The hair is his diadem of consecration, and like the anointed priest he must not defile it by approaching the dead. Some rabbis discouraged the taking of the Nazrite for more than thirty days because it is against the spirit of Judaism. The Nazarite laws could only be kept in Erez Israel and, although they have been renewed in repent years, there are no references to Nazarites in the Middle Ages. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 779-780
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 689