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 Parshas Shemini - Vol. 2, Issue 22

Vayikchu b’nei Aharon Nadav v’Avihu ish machtaso vayitnu bahen aish vayasimu aleha ketores vayakrivu lifnei Hashem aish zarah asher lo tzivah osam vateitzei aish milifnei Hashem vatochal osam vaymusu lifnei Hashem (10:1-2)

            The tremendous joy of the inauguration of the Mishkan was marred by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Although the Medrash offers numerous opinions as to the nature of their sin, the Torah tells us only that they erred by bringing an offering which they weren’t commanded to do. What lesson is the Torah teaching us by emphasizing this as the cause of their tragic deaths?

            The Medrash relates that before giving the Torah to the Jews, Hashem first offered it to all of the other nations of the world. Each of them asked what is written in it. Hashem responded with the mitzvah which would be most difficult for that nation to observe. Not surprisingly, they all declined. Some commentators question why Hashem didn’t similarly test the Jews by presenting them with the mitzvah which would be the most difficult for them to observe.

            The Chiddushei HaRim suggests that Hashem also challenged the Jews in their weakest spot. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 19:12) to set boundaries for the people around Mount Sinai, warning that anybody who attempted to touch the mountain would be killed.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the core of every Jewish soul yearns for spirituality. As it was created next to Hashem’s Throne of Glory, it pines to come as close to its source as possible. The notion that a Jew should be limited in his spiritual ascent, being told that there are boundaries to how close to Hashem he may come, is anathema to his very essence. Nevertheless, the Jews passed this test, recognizing that true closeness to Hashem comes only from fulfilling His will. Approaching the mountain against His instructions may have felt holy, but would in reality have been spiritually vacuous.

When the Imrei Emes assumed the position of Gerrer Rebbe, he decreed that his disciples must be careful to recite the morning prayers at the proper time. This was a landmark enactment, as for decades they had been accustomed to spend hours spiritually preparing themselves for a sublime and awe-inspiring prayer experience.

One of the Gerrer Chassidim came to the new Rebbe to complain. He argued that since he began obeying the new rule, he lacked the necessary time to properly ready himself to pray. The quality of his prayers had declined and lacked the uplifting feeling of closeness to Hashem that he had once enjoyed.

The sagacious Rebbe responded that the Talmud teaches that if honey was added to the incense mixture, its smell would have been wonderful. If so, why does the Gemora rule that adding honey to the incense invalidates it? Although its smell may have seemed out-of-this-world, it would have been missing one critical ingredient: Hashem’s instructions to do so.

Similarly, elaborate preparations for prayer may seem to result in an improved experience, but if the experience takes place outside of the time that Hashem allotted for the prayers, the perceived spiritual closeness doesn’t find favor in Hashem’s eyes.

            Nadav and Avihu were overwhelmed by the inauguration of the Mishkan, a place where Hashem’s presence was palpable. In their excitement to come closer to Him, they forgot the most critical prerequisite to doing so: a Divine commandment to perform this action.

We live in a generation which actively promotes “spiritual” experiences. Temporary highs may seem tempting, but the lesson of Nadav and Avihu is that there are no shortcuts to closeness to Hashem, which comes only from fulfilling His will.


Vayikchu b’nei Aharon Nadav v’Avihu ish machtaso vayitnu bahen aish vayasimu aleha ketores vayakrivu lifnei Hashem aish zarah asher lo tzivah osam vateitzei aish milifnei Hashem vatochal osam vaymusu lifnei Hashem (10:1-2)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (52a) tells that while Moshe and Aharon were leading the way at Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu followed behind them and wondered aloud to one another when Moshe and Aharon might die so that they could assume the mantle of leadership. Hashem replied, “We’ll see who will bury who.” Rashi explains that the Gemora is coming to teach that it was for this act of seeking power that they died prematurely. This is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, the Torah gives an alternate reason for their death (10:1-2): they brought an offering which they weren’t commanded to bring. Second, nowhere do we find that the pursuit of power is a capital crime.

The Steipler beautifully resolves these questions based on a Gemora in Rosh Hashana (17a-b). The Gemora teaches that if a person acts humble and unassuming, Hashem overlooks his sins and gives him time to repent. In light of this, he explains that the Gemora in Sanhedrin doesn’t mean to say that Nadav and Avihu were put to death for seeking honor. Rather, it is bothered that Hashem normally allows a person an opportunity to repent and doesn’t punish him on the spot. Why were Nadav and Avihu immediately killed for their erroneous actions?

The Gemora answers that almost one year previously, they expressed their jealous desire for power. As a result, they didn’t receive Divine mercy to give them time to repent. The actual cause of their deaths was the foreign sacrifice, as the Torah explicitly says. The reason that Hashem judged them so strictly was because they invited it upon themselves by coveting the leadership.

Based on the Steipler’s explanation, we may now resolve an apparent difficulty in àì÷é ðöåø, the prayer said at the end of Shemoneh Esrei. Seemingly, the most important requests contained therein are that Hashem should open our hearts to His Torah and help us pursue the performance of mitzvos. If so, why don’t we begin the paragraph with these petitions?

The aforementioned Gemora in Rosh Hashana mentions that there is one other way to merit Divine leniency: to overlook wrongs done to us and not respond to insults. If Hashem grants our request to help us excel in our Torah study and mitzvos but judges them strictly, we don’t stand much of a chance. Many times they are performed without full concentration or for ulterior motives. We first ask for help in obtaining the two keys to eliciting Hashem’s mercy: to those who curse me, let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Only after we have the tools to merit Hashem’s compassionate judgment are we able to continue with our primary request.


Vateitzei aish milifnei Hashem vatochal osam vaymusu lifnei Hashem (10:2)

Rashi quotes the opinion of Rav Yishmael, who maintains that Nadav and Avihu were killed for entering the Mishkan and attempting to offer a sacrifice while drunk. How could they be held responsible for violating a prohibition which was only taught after their deaths (10:9)?

The Mishmeres Ariel and Yad Av answer that we see from here that even if he wasn’t commanded not to do so, a person is held responsible for sins which he “should have known better” than to commit. Although there wasn’t yet a commandment forbidding a person to offer a sacrifice while under the influence of alcohol, the concept that a person shouldn’t serve Hashem with light-headedness and frivolity should come naturally.


Vayiktzof al Elozar v’al Isomar b’nei Aharon hanosarim leimor madua lo achaltem es hachatas bim’kom haKodesh (10:16-17)

            The Rambam rules (Hilchos Deios 6:7) that a person who sees his friend transgressing or engaged in inappropriate behavior is required to rebuke him and explain to him the error of his ways. The Rambam adds that this must be done in a soft voice and gentle manner, making it clear that the criticism emanates solely from a pure desire to assist and benefit his friend. In fact, Rav Chaim Volozhiner is quoted as maintaining that a person who is only able to deliver rebuke in an angry, rude manner is exempt from the mitzvah based on the requirement of the Rambam.

A beautiful hint to this concept is found in our verses. The Torah tells us explicitly that Moshe was angry at what he perceived as an incorrect judgment on the part of Aharon and his sons. Nevertheless, the first letters of the words of his actual criticism spell out malei ahava – full of love – hinting that even as Moshe carried out what he perceived to be his Divine obligation to protest their actions, he did so in a way which demonstrated his love for them and his pure motivations in doing so!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Moshe instructed Aharon to offer a bull as a sin-offering (9:2). Rashi explains that the purpose of the bull was to effect atonement for Aharon for his role in the sin of the golden calf. How can this be resolved with the Talmudic maxim (Rosh Hashana 26a) that ein kateigor na’aseh saneigor – an accuser (i.e. the instrument by which one sinned) cannot become the instrument for one’s defense? (Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, Kehillas Yitzchok, Zahav Sh’va, Shiras Dovid, M’rafsin Igri)

2)     Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that the fire which consumed Nadav and Avihu (10:2) was one of 12 fires which descended from heaven at various times. Six represented Divine satisfaction and came to indicate the acceptance of sacrifices, and six exacted punishment as an expression of Divine anger. How many of the 12 can you name?

3)     A number of opinions are given by Chazal to explain for what sin Nadav and Avihu were killed. Is there any underlying common theme between the various explanations, and if so, what is it? (Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 2 pg. 144)

4)     After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe called (10:4) Mishael and El’tzafan – who were Levites – to come remove their bodies. As a Kohen is permitted to become impure via contact with the body of his close relatives (21:11), why weren’t Elazar and Isamar, the brothers of the deceased, instructed to remove their remains? (Ramban, Daas Z’keinim, Paneiach Raza, Rav Yosef Engel, Pirkei Torah, Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha)

5)     Are non-kosher species (11:1-47) physically unhealthy for people to consume? (Ramban, Derashos HaRan, Abarbanel, Toras Chaim, Derech Sicha)

6)     The Gemora in Pesachim (3a) derives that a person should always speak in “clean” language from the Torah’s usage (Bereishis 7:8) of eight extra letters to refer to the non-kosher animals entering Noach’s ark as “not tahor” instead of “tamei.” Why in Parshas Shemini does the Torah repeatedly refer (e.g. 11: 4) to non-kosher animals as “tamei?” (Taam V’Daas, Derech Sicha)

7)     One of the species of birds ruled non-kosher by the Torah is the “chasidah” (11:19). Rashi explains that its name is derived from the fact that it displays kindness (“chesed”) by sharing its food with others. If it is so merciful and compassionate, why does the Torah forbid its consumption? (Chiddushei HaRim, Taam V’Daas, Even Meira, Matamei Yaakov)

8)     The Gemora in Berachos (53b) derives from 11:44 the requirement to wash one’s hands at the end of a meal (mayim acharonim). If a person doesn’t have water available for this purpose, may he do so using other liquids such as oil, milk, or wine? (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 181:9, Mishnah Berurah 181:20, Shu”t Avnei Yashpeh 34, Shu”t Vay’varech Dovid 30, Shulchan HaTahor 4, Bishvilei HaParsha)

9)     The Gemora in Berachos (53b) derives from 11:44 the requirement to wash one’s hands at the end of a meal (mayim acharonim). Are women obligated in this mitzvah? (Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach quoted in Halichos Bas Yisroel Chapter 3 footnote 11, Shu”t Salmas Chaim 119 and 3:3?, Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 181:5, Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 4:23, Terumas HaDeshen quoted in Leket Yosher pg. 49, Mor U’Ketzia 181:1?, Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos 1:174 or 2:174?, Shu”t Shevet HaKehasi 1:93, Piskei Teshuvos 181:1 Bishvilei HaParsha)

10)  Parshas Shemini concludes by stressing the importance of keeping the laws of kosher food in order to become holy and pure (11:44-47). If a person is required to consume non-kosher food for the sake of his health, does it still cause him spiritual impurity? (Toras Chaim, Shu”t Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 1:83, Derech Sicha)

© 2007 by Oizer Alport. Permission is granted to reproduce and distribute as long as credit is given. To receive weekly via email or to send comments or suggestions, write to


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