Friday, April 09, 2010

Shemini (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to thsi blog at, as well as April 2007, March 2008, and April 2009.

Why Did the Sons of Aaron Die?

This week’s parashah contains one of the strangest stories of the Torah: the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offered “strange fire” in the Sanctuary. Moreover, this tragic event happened on what was to have been one of the happiest days in the history of Israel—the erection and dedication of the Sanctuary.

In a sense, no explanation of their death is necessary beyond that provided by the Torah itself, at Lev 10:1: “Eeach of them took his brazier, and placed thereon fire, and put upon it incense, and offered before the Lord a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to do.” But the aggadah seeks a deeper, more fundamental reason for this bizarre and frightening death: “and fire came forth before the Lord and consumed them,” and the equally enigmatic comment made by Moses immediately thereafter: “This is what the Lord said: by those who are close to me I shall be sanctified, and before all the people I shall be honored” (בקרובי אקדש ועל-פני כל-העם אכבד). Thus, the Talmud at b. Eruvin 63a offers one explanation:

Rabbi Eliezer said: The sons of Aaron did not die until they taught [or: ruled] halakhah in the presence of Moses their teacher. What did they expound? “And the sons of Aaron the priest shall place fire upon the altar” (Lev 1:7). They said: Even though fire descends from heaven [i.e., as described prior to this, in Lev 9:24, where the initiatory burnt offerings were consumed by fire from Heaven: “And all the people saw, and shouted with joy, and fell on their faces”], one is required to bring fire from an ordinary person.

At stake here is the principle of authority, of the natural deference of disciples to their mentors and masters. Hazal assume the existence of a strictly hierarchical social order (which to this day exists in traditional religious society to a far greater degree than in secular Western society)—one which applies even in the Study House. Even after one has become a learned man in one’s own right, one must know one’s place; specifically, while there may be free discussion and even argumentation over the matters being studied, in the end a certain respect and deference must be shown to established Torah authorities. Indeed, this was the original idea behind the medieval Ashkenazic semikhah (i.e., that process of rabbinic ordination that developed after the fall into disuse of the old chain of “laying on of hands”)—that one who had reached a certain level of intellectual mastery of the tradition received permission from his master to serve as a halakhic authority in his own locale. Nadav and Avihu, by contrast, are portrayed here as rash young men, who brazenly criticize Moses for his alleged halakhic error in not placing fire on the altar.

Rabbi Eliezer had a certain disciple who ruled halakhah in his presence. Rabbi Eliezer said to his wife, Imma Shalom: I would be surprised if he lives out the year —and he did not live another year. She said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied to her: I am not a prophet, nor am I a son of a prophet, but I have received a tradition: Whoever rules halakhah before his master is culpable of death.

This is followed immediately in the gemara by the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s own student, as a living example of this principle. The tone in which it is told is not vindictive in any personal sense, but matter-of fact: as if to say, it as a law of nature/ of Divine retribution that this is how things are in the world—one who is so arrogant as to teach Torah in the presence of his teacher (in the narrow sense of deciding an halakhic question, what we call paskening) is punished from heaven, and swiftly.

A second explanation is that they were drunk when making this offering. At the end of a lengthy discourse on the dangers of alcohol in Leviticus Rabbah 12.5, we read:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: The two sons of Aaron died because they entered drunk with wine into the Tent of Meeting.

This act was one that was explicitly forbidden by the Torah a few verses later, perhaps because it exhibits an attitude of disrespect and frivolity towards the sacred service; a further implication is that their intoxication caused them to do things which (presumably) they would not have done otherwise. In any event, this explanation is based on a classical textual move: semikhut parshiyot, the adjacency of the rule that a priest may not drink wine while serving in the Sanctuary (Lev 10:8-11) to the incident of Nadav and Avihu. A corollary of this is that the kohanim may not recite the priestly blessing in synagogue if they have so much as tasted wine (viz. the custom not to recite this blessing at Musaf of Simhat Torah). Similarly, rabbis may not rule on halakhic matters after they have drunk wine—a rule inferred from the reference to the teaching function of the ancient priests in this same passage.

To sweeten the bitter pill, our midrash concludes on a more upbeat note:

The Holy One blessed be he said: As in this world wine serves as a stumbling block, in the future I shall make it into joy, as is written, “And it shall come to pass, that in that day the mountains shall drip with sweet wine” (Joel 4:18).

A third passage deal with the difficult verse mentioned earlier, in which the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are associated with the sanctification of God’s name. The context is a discussion of a verse preliminary to the Giving of the Torah, in which a boundary is set around Mount Sinai that even the priests are barred from crossing. The question addressed here is, to whom does this refer: the first-born, who until that time had served as priests, or the sons of Aaron, specifically Nadav and Avihu, who from that day on assumed priestly duties? b. Zevahim 115b:

It was a tannaitic dispute, as they taught: “and even the priests who draw close to the Lord shall be sanctified” (Exod 19:22). R Joshua b Korhah said: This refers to the separation of the first-born. Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: This refers to the separation of Nadav and Avihu. [The verse] is consistent with the one who says that it refers to the separation of Nadav and Avihu, as is written, “This is what the Lord said, saying: By those who are close to me I shall be sanctified” (Lev 10:3), but if one says that this alludes to the separation of the first born, where is it [i.e., the setting aside of Nadav and Avihu] alluded to? As is written, “And I shall make myself known there to the sons of Israel, and it shall be sanctified with my glory” (Exod 29:43). Do not read “With my honor” (bikhevodi) but “by those whom I honor” (bemekhubaday). The Holy One blessed be He said this to Moses, but he did not understand it until the sons of Aaron died. Once the sons of Aaron died, he said to him: Aaron my brother, your sons died in order to sanctify the name of the Holy One blessed be He. Once Aaron realized that his sons were familiar with the Omnipresent, he was silent and received reward for it, as is said “and Aaron was silent” (Lev 10:3).

This is a very difficult concept. Does it imply that the sons of Aaron did not sin at all, but their death was somehow a gratuitious act of Kiddush Hashem? If so, in what sense is this so? Ordinarily, the sanctification of the Name refers to heroic acts, demonstrations of loyalty to God’s unity, refusal to transgress even under threat of death as a sign of ultimate devotion to Torah. How does this apply here? There is something arbitrary, frightening and puzzling in the image of God implied here. The lesson of the Akedah, the Binding of Yitzhak, was that human sacrifice is not desirable. Is this passage reintroducing that same idea through the back door? Does He desire the death of His holy ones, perhaps not in the sense of deliberate slaughter, but as a mysterious, mystical kind of Kiddush Hashem?

Alternatively, the Torah Temimah suggests that this passage complements the earlier ones, which speak of the two as having committed various sins: God is sanctified specifically by a more exacting, demanding standard being applied to the righteous, the “honored ones” or “sanctified ones,” who are punished harshly, even to the point of death, for a relatively minor sin. This teaches that the service of God, that closeness to Him, is no light matter, to be performed in a slipshod or haphazard manner, but demands great reverence and care. Thus, our sugya, after a digression, concludes:

… And this is what R. Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yohanan: What is meant by the verse, “Awesome is God from Your sacred place” (Ps 68:36)? Do not read “from Your sacred place” but “by those who are sanctified by You.” When the Holy One blessed He passes judgment over His sanctified ones, He is feared, and exalted, and praised.


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