Torah Portion of the Week: Deadly Deviation From Protocol

Parashat Shemini: Although Aaron's Nadab and Abihu seek to be closer to God, they deviate from protocol and hence die instantly.

'The Two Priests are Destroyed,' by James Tissot (c. 1896-1902).
Wikimedia Commons

The eighth day, for which this week’s Torah reading, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), is named, was supposed to be the climax of Leviticus and the Torah in general. However, it is transformed from a holiday to a day of mourning, from a joyful event to a very sad one.

As we make our way into the Book of Leviticus, God has already begun to dwell in the Tabernacle built in his honor. In Parashat Vayikra, the book’s first reading, he passed on to Moses the laws of sacrifice. At the end of last week’s reading, Parashat Tzav, God issued instructions for the sanctuary’s inauguration ceremonies, including the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests. Moses’ words to the designated priests, spoken a week before the majestic eighth day, can be seen retrospectively as a hint that all does not bode well for the future: “And at the door of the tent of meeting shall ye abide day and night seven days, and keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not; for so I am commanded” (Leviticus 8:35).

Moses and Aaron then assembled the nation on the eighth day for the divine revelation that officially and festively marked the initiation of the priests’ engagement in divine worship in the sanctuary. Aaron and his sons had followed God’s instructions punctiliously – sacrificing the purification offering and burnt offering precisely as commanded. Moses and Aaron blessed Israel, whereupon God’s glory was seen by all. Fire erupted in the sanctuary, consuming the sacrifices: “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat” (Lev. 9:24). The nation responded with joy tinged with fear: “And when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24).

Then disaster occurred. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered a “strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Lev. 10:1). In his commentary on Leviticus (in the “Jewish Study Bible”), Baruch Schwartz explains that the two want to use the fire that has just consumed the sacrifices for lighting the incense in their censers. But the embers they use are not taken from the altar: they are from a “strange fire.” Furthermore, the official inauguration was not supposed to include this act, which God “had not commanded them.”

The results are immediate and tragic: The same fire that consumed the sacrifices erupts once more, but this time consumes Nadab and Abihu: “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2).

This episode could be read as a tale about the sanctuary’s incredibly unjust and rigid bureaucratic nature. It favors no one because it is eternally impartial. It is not the Almighty who causes the death of Aaron’s two sons, but rather the flames that emerge automatically. Although Nadab and Abihu seek to be closer to God, they deviate from protocol and hence die instantly. This is the meaning of the continual warnings about the potentially lethal nature of the laws of both the sanctuary and the priesthood: Sadly, Nadab and Abihu do not heed them.

Nonetheless, this narrative, which demonstrates the absolute nature of ritual law, also includes an attempt to display humanity in the face of such impersonal death. Turning to his older brother, who has just become a bereaved father, Moses tries to give meaning to the death of Aaron’s two sons: “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Lev. 10:3). Through the punishment of those who are close to him but who try to get too close, God is sanctified and glorified in the nation’s eyes.

We do not know whether Moses’ words comfort Aaron, since the text is cryptic: “And Aaron held his peace” (Lev. 10:3). Aaron maintains silence, neither justifying God’s actions nor expressing any objection to them. Words will not bring his sons back to life, nor will they add to or detract from God’s glory and holiness. Aaron himself is the mediator between the nation and the divine force dwelling in the sanctuary, and must therefore identify totally with God’s holiness. He says nothing and God is also silent.

Although God meticulously plans the inauguration ceremonies, he does not prepare Moses and Aaron for what ends up happening. Moses understands that he must allow the celebration to continue, but he cannot simply ignore the death of his two nephews. He instructs Mishael and Elzaphan, relatives who are not priests, to “carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp” (Lev. 10:4). While the holiness has generated death and death has given rise to ritual impurity, the holiness cannot tolerate the impurity; thus, the bodies must be immediately removed from the sanctuary’s grounds.

Now Moses approaches Eleazar and Ithamar, later referred to as Aaron’s “remaining sons” (Lev. 10:12), forbidding them to practice the customs of mourning: “Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that he be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled. And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you” (Lev. 10:6-7).

Fearing that God’s wrath will grow, Moses seeks to prevent the death of Aaron’s surviving sons and to protect the nation. The priests are now in the middle of the process of sanctification, and that process must not be suspended; the consecration must continue.

Moses’ words “be not wroth” refer to God, unlike the distancing phraseology God himself uses in another context: “that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel” (Numbers 1:53). God does not say he would be wrathful, and instead uses the phrase “that there be no wrath” – as if the wrath, the divine rage, emerges on its own and is not a product of any divine decision. And when Moses describes the disaster that occurs during the inauguration, he calls it the “burning which the Lord hath kindled,” thus deviating from the earlier description in the text: “And there came forth fire from before the Lord.” Despite the automatic nature of the divine fire erupting from the sanctuary, Moses insists on identifying God himself as the one who sets fire to Aaron’s sons.

Although Moses prohibits the bereaved brothers to mourn, he does come up with a plan that offers some solace. The nation will mourn instead: “but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.” As the nation’s representatives before God, the priests serving him in the sanctuary are in constant mortal danger, a potential danger that becomes a reality here. For this sacrifice on their part, they deserve the gratitude of the nation, which will mourn on their behalf because they themselves are prohibited from doing so.