Parashat Shemini

Boundaries, Sanctity, And Silence

Although we can attempt to understand the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we are ultimately limited and often feel powerless in the face of God.

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Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism , the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

Parashah Overview

  • Aaron and his sons follow Moses' instructions and offer sacrifices so that God will forgive the people. (9:1-24)

  • Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer "alien fire" to God. God punishes these two priests by killing them immediately. (10:1-3)

  • God forbids Moses, Aaron, and his surviving sons to mourn but commands the rest of the people to do so. Priests are told not to drink alcohol before entering the sacred Tabernacle and are further instructed about making sacrifices. (10:4-20)

  • Laws are given to distinguish between pure and impure animals, birds, fish, and insects. (11:1-47)

Focal Point

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 Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Adonai. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what Adonai meant when God said: / Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / and assert My authority before all the people." / And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Your Guide

The death of Aaron's sons seems to be a punishment for some transgression. Did they know that they had done something wrong? Without a clearer sense of "due process," how is God's holiness and glory manifested in this instance?

The phrase lifnei Adonai (usually translated as "before God" or "in God's presence") appears three times in this passage. Can this phrase be understood as something other than direct divine intervention? Is it possible that the deaths of Nadab and Abihu merely occurred "in God's presence" and were not necessarily a punishment? What other reasons could be cited for their deaths?

Moses addresses Aaron with an explanation of God's reasons for what happened. However, the text itself does not cite any specific explanation by God. Are Moses' words merely his own interpretation of the tragedy? If so, what are their implications?

After the deaths of his sons, Aaron was silent. Was this an appropriate response? What might he have said and to whom?

By the Way…

Nadab and Abihu were religious personalities and far be it for them to maliciously transgress the word of God. But out of a superabundance of joy, they lost their heads and entered the Holy of Holies to burn incense, which they had not been commanded by Moses but which they had done of their own accord.... These two figures did not transgress any explicit prohibition but merely exceeded the bounds of morality and modesty, and this was punished by death because of their elevated position (Biur in Studies in Leviticus by Nehama Leibowitz).

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Rabbi Cary Kozberg

Rabbi Cary Kozberg is director of spiritual care at Wexner Heritage Village in Columbus, Ohio.