Narcissus and the Nazir
The legend of Narcissus is well known. As enshrined in the later Roman poet Ovid’s classic retelling, the young man selfishly spurns countless romantic suitors and friends. One such nymph, who had been cruelly rejected, turns heavenward and beseeches the Gods, “So may he himself love, and so may he fail to command what he loves.” Narcissus, in other words, ought to be punished measure for measure: he will fall in love with himself, yet, like his suitors, never see that love reciprocated. The Goddess Nemesis overhears the nymph’s just request and punishes Narcissus accordingly. The boy views his reflection in a fountain and is inexplicably drawn to his own image. Infatuated with his beauty, Narcissus is unable to tear himself away from his own reflection.
The narrator interjects, “Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain?” But it is of no avail. Narcissus cannot escape his fate. Tortured by unrequited self-love, he despairs and soon dies. By the tale’s end, as the nymphs mourn his passing and prepare the funeral pyre, “there was no body. They came upon a flower, instead of his body, with white petals surrounding a yellow heart.”
Strikingly, Hazal have their own version of this fable. After noting the danger of accepting vows that might go unfulfilled, the Gemara (Nedarim 9b and Nazir 4b; see also Tosefta Nazir 4:7) records:
אמר (רבי) שמעון הצדיק מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר טמא אלא אחד פעם אחת בא אדם אחד נזיר מן הדרום וראיתיו שהוא יפה עינים וטוב רואי וקווצותיו סדורות לו תלתלים
אמרתי לו בני מה ראית להשחית את שערך זה הנאה
אמר לי רועה הייתי לאבא בעירי הלכתי למלאות מים מן המעיין ונסתכלתי בבבואה שלי ופחז עלי יצרי ובקש לטורדני מן העולם אמרתי לו רשע למה אתה מתגאה בעולם שאינו שלך במי שהוא עתיד להיות רימה ותולעה העבודה שאגלחך לשמים
מיד עמדתי ונשקתיו על ראשו. אמרתי לו בני כמוך ירבו גוזרי נזירות בישראל עליך הכתוב אומר איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה'
(Rabbi) Shimon Ha-Tzaddik said: In all my days, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite except for one occasion. One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls.
I said to him: My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?
He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring. I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: “Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? Why are you proud of someone who will eventually be (food in the grave) for worms and maggots? (I swear by) the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.”
I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people. About you the verse states: “when a man or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord” (Bamidbar 6:2).
The parallels between this poignant rabbinic narrative and the Narcissus legend are as numerous as they are obvious. Both are religious stories concerning a strikingly handsome young man. Overtaken by his own beauty, which he sees in the water’s reflection - remember that mirrors were rare in both time periods - the protagonist becomes self absorbed at least to the brink of death. In each instance, the story’s resolution conveys an important ethical lesson.
What is more, those morals are much the same. Both fables serve as cautionary tales for the dangers of what later becomes known as narcissism. Indeed, it seems evident that the Talmudic author was familiar with some version of the Narcissus story, and refashioned it to fit rabbinic sensibilities. Beyond these overt resemblances, a close study of the Talmudic tale in light of the Narcissus story unearths less obvious similarities, sharp differences, and motifs that are absent in the Greco-Roman fable. In the end, the rabbis not only repackaged a myth of modesty, but also offered a meditation on the importance of dialogue to personal growth, and how even the most sapient sage can be transformed by an encounter with a seeking student.
Beyond the obvious, two significant similarities stand out. Both tales not only warn against selfishness, but also embrace self-awareness as essential to overcoming temptation. In Ovid’s rendition, Narcissus is tragically unaware that he is the object of his own love:
Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns. How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them! What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.
In contrast, the crux of the Gemara’s tale is the boy’s ability to honestly label the desire as external to himself. As former Knesset member Ruth Calderon put it,
Honesty is the first step in the journey of the nazir from the south. The brave act of pulling himself out of the water and out of temptation to fall in love with his image is what makes such an impression on the High Priest (A Bridge for One Night: Talmudic Tales, pg. 73).
The importance of frank self-confrontation also emerges from a careful parsing of the Gemara’s literary structure, which follows an A-B-A1-B1 organizational scheme. Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s encounter with the boy’s beauty (A) is followed by a series of utterances. First, the priest responds to that beauty (B) by asking the nazirite (“amarti lo”) why he has chosen to cut his hair. Next, the nazirite responds (“amar li”) by reframing the significance of his beauty (A1), citing his conversation with his evil inclination (“amarti lo”). Finally, the priest responds (“amarti lo”) by accepting the reframing (B1) and lauding the young nazirite. The structure implies that it is the shepherd’s difficult conversation with his yetzer that shifts the conversation’s direction. That is the moment when the nazirite seizes control of his destiny.
A second parallel concerns the protagonists’ contrasting trajectories. In Ovid’s telling, Narcissus ends up as a flower, suggesting that by spurning others and refusing to engage in introspection, he retains his beauty but forfeits his humanity. The Gemara tells the opposite story. Throughout most of it, Shimon Ha-Tzadik refers to the nazirite by the term “beni,” likely a designation of immaturity. By the end, the sage cites the verse, “when either a man [ish] or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord.” The invocation of ish implies that the nazirite is not a child but an adult. Put differently, whereas Narcissus experiences a devolution, the shepherd, from his mentor’s perspective, undergoes an evolution. Both stories make the same point from opposite perspectives. While one who falls prey to narcissism has forfeited his humanity, he who conquers desire grows by dint of that process. Here, as in regard to the importance of self-awareness, the stories are mirror images of one another.
In two respects, however, the lesson taught by the nazirite differs meaningfully from that of his Greco-Roman predecessor. The first concerns the problem of free choice. Although Narcissus possessed free choice throughout much of the story - after all, his punishment is nothing more than the logical consequence of the Adonis’ self-absorption - there is a point of no return. Once Nemesis casts his spell, Narcissus’ fate has been sealed. For the Gemara, nothing could be further from the truth. The nazirite vow represents precisely the opposite of Nemesis’ decree. For the rabbis, it is axiomatic that one can “acquire a share in the World to Come in a single instant” (Avodah Zarah 17a). That the Gemara’s protagonist is unnamed implies that this principle holds true not just for our hero, but for any penitent.
The discrepancy between the narratives’ respective portrayals of the evil inclination underscores this point. The Narcissus story does not distinguish between the individual and his source of temptation; they are one and the same. For Hazal, though, here and elsewhere, as dramatized by the boy’s strident rebuke of his yetzer, the evil inclination is seen as distinct from the person. The externalization of the evil inclination points to the Gemara’s first conceptual departure from its Greek counterpart. Precisely because the yetzer is externalized, the Gemara suggests, one is always capable of emerging victorious.
The second point of differentiation between the Narcissus myth and Talmudic tale concerns not the message’s substance, but its presentation. Whereas the Greek myth is conveyed in the negative, the Gemara’s is presented in the positive. As we will see, this may reflect their desire to uphold the relationship between the priest and boy as a paradigmatic teacher-student relationship.
The Place of Dialogue
So much for the points of agreement and disagreement between the Gemara and its mythical counterpart. But there remains one outstanding element, which is less a point of disagreement than a different set of concerns. The Narcissus tale is laser-focused on the boy. While at first glance we might similarly assume that the Gemara’s primary interest is with the nazirite, a closer reading demonstrates that the rabbis’ true concern is with the development of the priest.
To elucidate this point, it is worth further considering the Gemara’s literary structure. We observed that the narrative is built around an A-B-A1-B1 organizational scheme, in which a series of “amirot,” conversations involving the priest and shepherd, plays a pivotal role.
To this we may add that from the outset, the priest’s judgment of the boy is rife with ambiguity. Given the context, we expect Shimon Ha-Tzadik to judge the shepherd unfavorably. After all, he has previously refused to partake of any nazirite’s sin-offering. Presumably, following the Gemara’s stated concern for unfulfilled commitments, this is because he generally disapproves of the nazirite vow. Moreover, two additional textual clues suggest that the high priest initially questions his visitor’s righteousness. First, the nazirite ascends from the south, generally viewed in Talmudic literature as a place of boorishness and ignorance (see Yerushalmi Pesakhim 5:3, where Rabbi Yonatan refuses to teach Rabbi Simlai, explaining that he “has a tradition in [his] hands from his fathers not to teach agadah to Babylonians or southerners, for they are arrogant and deficient in Torah”). Second, shepherds were generally viewed with suspicion in the rabbinic period (Bava Metzia 5b).
The text heightens the tension by portraying the boy as a tantalizing amalgamation of biblical characters. He is first described as “yefei einayim ve-tov ro’i,” which is taken directly from Sefer Shmuel’s description of King David (I Shmuel 16:12), who was also a youthful shepherd. Indeed, the Yerushalmi (Nedarim 1:1) adds the word “admoni, reddish,” which appears in the same verse regarding David. We then learn that the shepherd’s locks are “arranged in curls,” echoing the depiction of the beloved in the Shir HaShirim (5:11). These are both positive references.
On the other hand, the nazirite’s precoccupation with his appearance recalls the rabbinic portrayal of Yosef as having played with the locks of his hair (see Rashi to Bereishit 37:2). Like Yosef, the boy tends to his father’s sheep. The phrase “pahaz alay yitzri” evokes Reuven, whose father Yaakov criticised him as “pahaz ka-mayim, hasty as water” (Bereishit 49:4). Finally, the boy closely resembles Avshalom, King David’s rebellious son. Avshalom, who was hanged by his hair (II Shmuel 18:9), was similarly led to his demise by way of self-affection (see Mishnah Sotah 1:8-9). Reinforcing this comparison, the rabbis depicted Avshalom as a nazirite (Sotah 4b). All these parallels, which are described through the priests’ lenses, suggests that a swirl of judgments clouded the priest’s mind as he first encountered the young man.
The priest’s first words to the young man encapsulate this tension. He invokes the word “beni, my son,” a term of endearment, while simultaneously questioning the boy’s decision to be shorn of his handsome hair. As the dialogue begins, a cloud of suspicion hovers over the boy. Instead of embracing the voluntary nazirite with open arms, as we might have expected, Shimon Hatzadik is a skeptic.
Through the amirot, though, the priest arrives at a new understanding. The apparently sinful nazirite turns out to be a hero. As a result of the conversation, moreover, it is not the boy who grows, but the priest. Indeed, the motif of appearance versus reality pervades both the Narcissus and Talmudic stories. Pools and their reflections demonstrate that not all is as it seems, and not everyone sees clearly. Narcissus entirely misjudges his situation, while the nazirite is closely attuned to his own. The priest, like Narcissus, initially misunderstands the nazirite’s intentions, but eventually becomes convinced of his righteousness and religious maturity. The boy, it turns out, is more David than Avshalom. He is an “ish,” a grown man.
In framing the story around a dialogue, and presenting the narrative through the high priest’s eyes, the Gemara recasts the Narcissus story, addressing not just the pitfalls of narcissism but especially the importance of dialogue, both internal and external. Narcissus, having rebuffed suitors and friends alike, finds himself isolated. Moreover, given the Gemara’s previous concerns regarding unfulfilled vows, Shimon Ha-Tzadik had every reason to be skeptical of the boy standing before him. Dialogue is key to both transformations.
Accordingly, while we initially assume that this is a rabbinic tale of how a seasoned mentor took a boy under his wings, the refrain “amarti lo” suggests an alternative interpretation. A willingness to engage in conversation is crucial to personal growth. It is only by confronting his yetzer that the shepherd defeats temptation, and it is only by speaking to the boy that the priest reevaluates his initial impressions. Through this encounter, roles are reversed. Instead of the older sage teaching the young mentee, it is the boy who demonstrates that by engaging in dialogue with an open mind, the sage will see clearly that a righteous nazirite can be found.