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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Shemini (64)

The sedra begins with a description of the day of dedicating the newly built Mishkan.

The celebration was marred by the sudden and tragic death of two sons of Aaron. We read:

Leviticus 10:1.2

"And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censor and put fire in them and they put incense thereon and offered before Hashem strange fire which He did not command them. And a fire went out from before Hashem and devoured them and they died before Hashem."


A fire went out: Rashi: Rabbi Eliezer says: The sons of Aaron died only because they rendered halachic decisions in the presence of their teacher Moses. Rabbi Yishmael says: [ They died because] They entered the Sanctuary while intoxicated with wine. You can know that this is so, because after their death [G-d] warned the survivors not to enter the Sanctuary while intoxicated by wine (See this chapter, verses 8-11). This may be compared to a [parable of a] king who had a faithful member of his household etc. as it is brought in Leviticus Rabbah.

Rashi gives us two possible reasons for the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu. What questions would you ask on this comment?

Your Questions:


One Question: Rashi supplies us with reasons for the death of Aaron's sons, but the Torah itself says "and they brought before Hashem a strange fire which He commanded them not." This would seem to be the reason for their deaths. Why does Rashi see the need to suggest other reasons?

You may remember other instances in the Torah where Rashi offers reasons for events when the Torah itself had already apparently given its reason. See the cases of Yisro's coming (Exodus 18:1) and the naming of Reuven (Bereishis 29:32). In each case, Rashi's need to comment alerts us to closely search the words of the Torah to discover subtleties which are the reason for Rashi's comment. Can you find the reason for Rashi's comment here? What's bothering Rashi? Your Answer:


An Answer: The Torah verse is awkward. If you read it carefully you will see that it is hard to make sense of. The verse says: "And the sons of Aaron took ...and they offered before Hashem a strange fire which He had not commanded them." What do these latter words mean?

Do they mean:

1) Hashem had not commanded them to bring this offering? If so, this would hardly seem to be reason for punishing them. or:

2) Hashem had not command them not to bring the offering? Then certainly this is no reason for punishing them!

With this in mind, how does Rashi's comment deal with this difficulty in the verse? Your Answer:


An Answer: Both of the two options above leave us wondering why Aaron's sons were punished. Rashi's comment comes to answer that question. Rashi gives us two possible explanations, drawn from the Sages' interpretations.

Questioning the Midrash

On what basis do you think that Rav Eliezer concluded that their sin was deciding the halacha without consulting Moses?

Hint: Look carefully at the verse. Your Answer:

Understanding the Midrash

An Answer: The Torah says "Hashem had not commanded them to bring." The extra word "them" implies that Hashem had commanded someone else to bring this fire, but not them. The fact that they did bring the fire, nevertheless, shows that they decided on their own to bring it. This, in effect, is to decide a halachic matter without consulting the leading authority of the generation (of all generations, for that matter !), Moses, their teacher.

See above 1:7 (parashas Vayikra) where it says that sons of Aaron are to put fire on the altar. There Rashi notes "Even though fire would come down from heaven it was nevertheless a mitzvah for 'profane' fire to be brought [by the priests]." So it seems that Nadav and Avihu weren't doing anything wrong. However, since Moses had not ordered them to be the ones to bring this fire, they had acted out of turn.

The reason for Rav Yishmael's interpretation is clear. Rashi himself says that the fact that immediately after this tragedy, G-d commanded Aaron not to enter the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine. This leads one to conclude that intoxication was the reason for Nadav and Avihu's death, as the parable points out.


But you should have a question on this interpretation of Rav Yishmael. Your Question:

A Question: If G-d only forbade entering the Sanctuary in a state of intoxication after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why were they punished. At the time they brought the strange fire there was as yet no prohibition [sic!].

Your Answer:


An Answer: Common sense and common decency would dictate - even without a divine edict - that one should not enter such a holy cite while under the influence of wine. They should have understood this themselves. They are no less responsible for their irresponsible behavior just because they were not told of this prohibition explicitly. But, once G-d saw that they could ignore this elementary act of decency, He found it necessary to make the law abundantly clear. So afterwards He made a formal declaration to Aaron of the laws of decorum when serving in the Sanctuary.


When Rashi cites a midrash which seems to duplicate what the Torah itself had said, there's cause for reflection and deeper analysis.

Shabbat Shalom

Avigdor Bonchek

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