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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 Deborah Blausten :: 5773

Deborah is the Young People’s Educator at Finchley Reform Synagogue and is studying for an MA in Education and Technology at the Institute of Education.

A confession. I said yes to writing about this parasha because I already knew I wanted to write. Knowing that Shmini is the parasha in which we read many of the dietary laws, I was armed with jokes about fences around the law and whether they get in the way of free-range farming. Thanks to the fact I opened my Rashi commentary a page too early, that isn't quite what you're about to read.

The parasha begins, not with the aforementioned dietary laws, but with Moses’ instructions to his brother Aaron and his nephews and the elders of Israel about bringing sin offerings; sacrifices to atone for sins that the community might have committed. After Aaron makes the requisite offerings two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu, make their own offering. We are then told of a fire which ‘came forth from the Lord and consumed them’, killing both sons.

The explanation that Rashi offers for this is that they took the halachic decision into their own hands, deciding that they were able to decide what offering to bring, and for this, they were punished. Leviticus Rabbah (20:8) offers explanations of a similar vein; that Nadav and Avihu died because they made an offering they were not commanded to offer, and for acting with their own initiative rather than taking counsel from one another. This is why my pre-conceived neatly constructed drash came unstuck.

The notion of responsible autonomy is integral to the way that I understand law. As a Reform Jew, I buy into a religious ideology that holds informed decision making as a core value and urges people to engage in their own halachic process. The conversation I had in mind around kashrut centred on the ways that we might engage with the laws of kashrut as a progressive (small p) entity, understanding and engaging with the relationship between the rabbinic laws we live by, the biblical text they are based on, and the values that underpin it. I wanted to ask how we can stop the fences around the law being fences in our mind when we approach kashrut in the 21st Century.

Discussing Nadav and Avihu, Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “Their sin was not consulting their father ultimately making themselves the highest authority and disregarding the tradition of their elders”. It’s pretty clear to me, that Hirsch would consider my approach to Halacha in the same vein as their actions. For Hirsch, acting out, beyond the rule of law and of religious leaders, undermines the sanctity of community. Some might go as far as to call the actions of Nadav and Avihu, and indeed anyone who believes they have the right take upon themselves the task of interpreting Jewish ritual outside halachic boundaries, to be self-aggrandising and arrogant.

Our parasha tells us that Nadav and Avihu’s offering was אש זרה , a strange or alien fire. All we really know from the text is that they died because they brought this fire. The Torah does not tell us why bringing a strange fire is problematic.

What kind of example were Nadav and Avihu setting to the rest of the community? One reading might argue that by acting out of turn they undermined Aaron, and the rule of law. If leaders act out of turn, what can we expect from the rest of the community?

I prefer a second reading. Nadav and Avihu do not explain to anyone what they are about to do. It’s not Nadav and Avihu’s autonomy that is the issue; it’s the lack of responsibility.

I think Hirsch and Rashi both have valid points, total Jewish anarchy and blind arrogance are legitimate concerns, but that doesn’t mean we cannot exercise religious autonomy. It means that those of us who engage with Halacha as a continually evolving and non-binding entity have a responsibility to study and to articulate why we behave in such a way.

Study and engagement is at the heart of Judaism. What is strange or alien about the fire that Nadav and Avihu bring? It’s not that they decided to take observance into their own hands. It’s that learning is absent.


More by Deborah Blausten

Another voice by Sarah Snyder

Sarah Snyder works with the Cambridge Interfaith Programme, bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims around Scripture. She chairs a biblical think tank called the Jubilee Centre, and is currently setting up a new centre for reconciliation at Rose Castle in the North of England.

What is striking about this episode are the unanswered questions. Why would God choose this particular day – a high point for the people and a time of celebration – to allow such a gruesome death? Nadab and Abihu had been prepared for this moment throughout their childhood (Exodus 24:1-2; 28:1) and only recently consecrated as priests along with their father, Aaron (Leviticus 8-9). Their spontaneous and joyful worship is understandable. What did they do so wrong that it cost them their lives?

And what was so “strange” about their fire? Moments before, God sent fire as a symbol of His blessing on the people and His acceptance of their sacrificial offering (9:22-24). Now it brought rejection and destruction – a curse, not a blessing – and the peoples’ joy was turned to sorrow. Furthermore, Aaron and his surviving sons were not allowed to grieve. They continued their priestly duties whilst the dead bodies were moved outside the camp (10:4-7). And Aaron, we are told, was silent. Why? What kind of father is that? Was he simply dumbfounded? Grief stricken beyond words? Or did he recognize and honour God’s absolute authority to act as He wills? It is easy to become complacent in our worship of God, to think even that He exists for us, rather than us for Him.

Shortly after this incident God spoke directly to Aaron, the only time recorded in Leviticus. He commanded him to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane, clean and unclean and to teach the people all His laws (10:10-11). Still today, God calls us to respect places and things that are holy, but more than that He calls us to be holy. In Leviticus 11:45 God declares: “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” To declare God as holy is to recognize that he is set apart, pure and perfect. How can we consider ourselves in any way holy? Through His Word, God has taught us how to lead a life that is worthy of Him - how to conduct our daily lives in ways that “set us apart” from those who do not worship or respect God. Today, as in Aaron’s time, we need to be distinctive in a world that increasingly rejects the God who made each one of us. Our God, then, now and forever, is a Holy God. He is set apart – He the Creator, we the created.

Nadab and Abihu’s spontaneous offering to God was not fit for purpose, though we do not know why. Matthew’s gospel records Jesus teaching: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24). He implies that our relationship with God is impacted by relationships with our brothers and sisters. To be reconciled with God, we must first be reconciled with our neighbour, especially one we have wronged. Perhaps like Cain, it was the state of heart or mind in which Nadab and Abihu worshipped, not the act of worship itself, that contributed to God’s rejection of them?


More by Sarah Snyder

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)
  • 5771 (Yuval Keren)
  • 5771 (Taste of Chavruta Team)
  • 5774 (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Denise Handlarski)
  • 5775 (Peter Sevitt)