Parashat Shemini: The Sin of Nadab and Abihu

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Apr 1, 2009

Parashat Shemini: The Sin of Nadab and Abihu

Leviticus 10:1-3a (JPS translation) states:

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the L-RD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the L-RD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the L-RD. then Moses said to Aaron,
“This is what the L-RD meant when He said:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And assert My authority before all the people.”And Aaron was silent.

Numerous explanations have been attempted through the ages regarding the specific sin of Nadab and Abihu. (Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, zatzal, in his Torah Shelemah, Parashat Shemini, Volume 28, pp. 2-10, lists many of them). Perhaps the reason each of the proponents of the various explanations rejected the others and searched for a more meaningful and a more persuasive explanation is that they were attempting to discover an interpretation that would might highlight not merely a specific act of the two sons of Aaron, but a general character trait, of which the offering of an alien fire would only be an expression. The Sifra (Midrash Halakhah on Sefer Va-Yiqra) remarkably, writes that the two sons of Aaron wish to “add love to their love.” What can be meant by these enigmatic words?

Nechama Leibowitz, in her Studies in Va-Yiqra [Leviticus] (Hebrew version, pp. 102-04; English version, pp. 66-68), writes that this Sifra is the key to the approach that stresses that the sin of Nadav and Abihu was indeed not the act of bringing the fire per se but rather the ideological assumptions that lay behind it. The first thoroughly explicit expositors of this approach, which focused on Nadab and Abihu’s predilections vis a vis mitzvoth, were Naftali Hertz Wessely (1725-1805, the author of the Bi’ur to Sefer Va-Yiqra), and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808 –1888), in his commentary on Sefer Va-Yiqra. According to their understanding, the sin of Nadab and Abihu lay in their religious subjectivism. That is to say, they felt that they could determine the proper manner to worship God. It did not matter, in their view, if God had not commanded them to bring the particular fire and incense that they brought. They simply wanted to worship God in that matter (out of love!) and they decided to do so!

The harsh lesson of the Torah is that such an approach is not acceptable for Judaism. God decrees not only that He should be worshipped, but how He should be worshipped as well. Nadab and Abihu had to pay for that lesson with their lives.

What was the response of Aaron, the father of Nadab and Abihu, to their deaths?

Leviticus 10:3b states: And Aaron was silent. R. Obadiah Sforno adds in his commentary (ad loc.): “He was comforted by the Kiddush Hashem that occurred through their deaths.”

This philosophical notion is expressed in the mussar literature s well. For example, many people have heard the following well-known application of the Torah’s admonition against religious subjectivism that R. Haayim Shmuelevitz, zatzal presented. (I heard the following notion over twenty years ago in R. Hayyim Shmuelevitz’s name by R. Moshe Dimmitman) It explains the sequence of verses in Deuteronomy 4:2-4. The Torah states: You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the L-RD your God that I enjoin upon you. You saw with your own eyes what the L-RD did in the manner of Ba‘al Pe‘or; how the L-RD your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Ba‘al Pe‘or; but you, who held fast to the L-RD your God, are all alive today.

Verse 2, of course, is the famous prohibition of “Ba‘al Tosif,” that injunction against adding mitzvoth. Why, however, the proximity of that law with verse 3 and 4, which present a reminder of the idolatry of Ba‘al Pe‘or?

Here is where the notion of religious subjectivism comes into the picture. One can add a mitzvah out of the noblest of reasons, out of love of God, out of the desire to “add love to love,” which may indeed have been the reason for Nadab and Abihu’s action. Through the proximity of this injunction not to add mitzvoth with the reminder of the horrific sin of idolatry entailed in the worship of Ba‘al Pe‘or, the Torah is admonishing the children of Israel not to follow the path of radical subjectivism. Because once one begins to travel down that road, once one’s own intellectual proclivities and not the divine command becomes the touchstone of religious observance, anything becomes possible, God forbid, even the heinous and deviant idolatry of Ba‘al Pe‘or. God, in His infinite wisdom, warned us against that incorrect path, just as He demonstrated that the service of Nadav and Abihu were unacceptable. As Rav Hirsch concludes (cited in Studies in Va-Yiqra: English version, p. 68), “Only by observance of the precepts of the Torah can the priest of Israel remain true to his principles.”


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  1. Title: The proper context
    Author: martin levine ,

    EXo 24:10 not LEV 24:10

  2. Title: the proper context
    Author: martin levine ,

    The reasoning of changing the rules raises the issue of the Torah's lack of detail (left to interpretation).  If Aaron skips when entering the Holy of Holies, is that making it up as you go along?  Where is the line drawn that divine punishment is determined for a redefinition of worship.  What is redefinition and what is change?
    They were punished for “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died” (Lev 16:1).  This is the response to “and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity” (Lev 24:10),  punishable by death, which was delayed. They were clearly warned twice.
    In the Torah Nadab and Abihu are always grouped separately from the other 2 sons.  I am not Hebrew literate but, I believe, the grouping and use of the vav and use of the et indicate that Nadab and Abihu were predestined to be set apart.
    The reason for all this is punishment to Aaron for not doing enough during the incident of the golden calf.   “And Aaron was silent”
    Please refer to Rashi’s commentary Exo 24:10

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