Echoes of the Nezirim

by Esteban

“In this generation in France and especially in its southern part we hear with increasing frequency of scholars called by the epithet ha-parush, the ascetic, or ha-nazir, the Nazirite. The exact definition of these terms is provided by a regulation that was undoubtedly composed in this region at the beginning of the thirteenth century, or at best a short time earlier. There it is said that …

“ … one should appoint scholars whose vocation it is to occupy themselves incessantly with the Torah, so that the community might fulfill the duty of the study of the Torah, and in order that the reign of heaven sustain no loss. Perushim [literally: those who are separated, detached] is the name given to scholars who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the Torah; they are called in the language of the Mishnah perushim and in the language of the Bible nezirim—and this detachment [from worldly affairs] leads to purity.”

From this definition it is evident that this institution in France has nothing in common with the ascetic movement of the “Mourners of Zion,” ‘abele siyon, that several centuries earlier had been widespread in the Near East, and above all in Palestine. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela still found remnants of it in Jerusalem in the twelfth century.

The origin of the perushim is, rather, connected with the religious enthusiasm that gripped France in the twelfth century, finding expression in the Jewish milieu as well as in the surrounding Christian world, including the reform movements and their religious heresies.

Naturally, the very choice of words already reflects the spirit of asceticism that characterized the period. These perushim took upon themselves the “yoke of the Torah” and completely detached their thoughts from the affairs of this world. They did not engage in commerce and sought to attain purity.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 229.