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Shemini describes the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its altar, during which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die as a result of offering ‘strange fire’. The Torah then describes the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of purity.

Another voice

Shemini by Yuval Keren :: 5771

Yuval Keren is the Rabbi of Hendon Reform Synagogue. He was born and raised in Israel. He started attending Limmud 12 years ago, an event that shaped his decision to study for the Rabbinate at the Leo Baeck College. He is a regular contributor to the Limmud Chavruta project.

Often the Torah gives us an abbreviated account of events, and leaves us with the task of filling in the gaps between the words. Often, the power of the narrative lies not only in what it contains, but also in what is spared from us, and is left for our own understanding and interpretation. Parashat shemini contains such narrative—the enigmatic death of Nadav and Avihu, the two elder sons of Aaron.

After months of hard work under the supervision of the two chief architects, Bezalel the son of Uri and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach, and with active participation of the rest of people of Israel, the work on God’s dwelling place is complete. This completion is marked with eight days of ordination.

On the eighth day, the altar in the Tabernacle was to be used for the first time for public sacrifice. This day was no ordinary day. According to the Talmud (Megillah 10b), on that day there was rejoicing before the Holy One, blessed be He, as there was on the day first day of creation.

Yet, on that significant, elevated and jubilant day, disaster strikes. “The two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan and placed fire in it. They placed incense on it and they sacrificed before God a strange fire (‘esh zara) that he had not commanded them. Fire came from before God and consumed them, and they died before God.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

The Torah here does not provide much explanation for the events that led to the death of Aaron’s sons. Although the story itself has echoes in a number of places in the Tanakh,[1] no further light is shed on this tragic event. No meaning is given to the phrase ‘strange fire’, and it is not clear whether Nadav and Avihu committed a deliberate act or whether it was an innocent mistake.

In the absence of explanation, much scope is left for midrashic interpretation and commentary. In Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 20) the reason given for their death is that they were drunk as they stood before God. This conclusion is deduced by the juxtaposition of this episode and the instruction to the priests to avoid wine and other intoxicants as they enter the Tent of Meeting. (Lev 10:9)

A Midrash in Sifra (Shemini Parasha 1) claims that they failed by paying too little respect to their elders and teachers. They ignored Aaron their father, they did not take advice from Moses their teacher, and they did not even consult one another. Nadav and Avihu were filled with good intentions when they came to sacrifice before God, yet they did not take advice from those who could and would help them. They failed not because they ignored the advice given to them, but because of not taking it in the first place. Sifra is careful to emphasise that they did not die because of lack of faith. They saw the new fire that descended from heaven and they were filled with joy. Nadav and Avihu wanted to “add love to love” by matching the Heavenly fire with their own fire. They died because they added to the ritual something that God had not commanded.

The message of these Midrashic interpretations is that in our daily lives, in our performance of mitzvot, and in our prayers, we should act not just on our inner drives and not just on external motivators. Wherever possible we should act ‘leshem shamayim’ (for the sake of Heaven). To uncover the true meaning of ‘leshem shamayim’ we should consult good texts, our traditions, and most importantly, those who can be our teachers. We might still choose not to accept this advice, yet we must do it with open eyes, open ears and a heart willing to receive.

[1] Leviticus 16:1, Numbers 26:61, I Chronicles 24:2


More by Yuval Keren

Another voice by Taste of Chavruta Team

Jeremy Tabick and Frank Adam are both long-term Limmudniks and chavruta enthusiasts. Between Frank's background in history and as a local councillor and Jeremy's experience on the Limmud Chavruta and Limmud On One Leg teams, they worked to bring this online chavruta project into a reality.

Chavruta is one of Conference's oldest traditions—hundreds of people studying in pairs themes from both Jewish and secular sources, first thing every morning. If this were a right-hand page from the internationally produced Chavruta book, it might look a bit like this...

Leviticus 10:1-3

  1. The two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan and placed fire in it. They placed incense on it and they sacrificed before God a strange fire that He had not commanded them.

  2. Fire came from before God and consumed them, and they died before God.

  3. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what God meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent.

Points to consider

What does dying "before God" mean? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

In what ways does Moses's explanation change your understanding of this event? It is a satisfactory explanation?

What is the significance of Aaron's silence?


More by Taste of Chavruta Team

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 5769 (Adina Judy Bernstein)
  • 5769 (Tuvit Shlomi)
  • 5770 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5770 (Hannah Kaye)
  • 5773 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Sarah Snyder)
  • 5774 (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Denise Handlarski)
  • 5775 (Peter Sevitt)