5774 - #26

Shemini / Parah 


            The story of Nadav and Avihu found in Vayikra 10:1-7 is most fascinating in its presentation of the conflicting nature of these figures as discussed in the sources. Who were Nadav and Avihu? Why did they do what they did? The answers presented seem to paint distinct and even contradictory pictures, with further questions then developing as to the exact reason for God’s powerful response in destroying these men through a fire that ate their souls.1         

            Vayikra 10:1 states that Nadav and Avihu improperly lit a fire in the service of God. T.B. Eruvin 63a, however, states that their real sin was that they rendered a halachic decision independently of their teacher, Moshe. Pursuant to this gemara, the real problem was thus not that they lit their own fires but that they made this decision to do so without asking Moshe. Before deciding what to do, they should have asked Moshe (since it was possible for them to do so). Maharsha, however, finds a problem with this for, in lighting their own fires, they were actually following the general instructions that they had already learning from Moshe,  namely that the kohanim are to light the fires of the service. Thus, they seem to have acted correctly, just doing what their teacher had taught. Maharsha then goes on to explain why what they did was wrong.    

            Torah Temima, Vayikra 10:2, note 2 wonders, however, why Maharsha must conclude that Nadav and Avihu’s halachic analysis and behavior must have been wrong to render them guilty of deciding a matter without their teacher. A student should still not render a decision in front of his teacher even if the student is correct.2 The propriety of the subsequent action has nothing to do with the issue of rendering a decision independently. As such, Nadav and Avihu being right or wrong has nothing to do with the impropriety of their rendering a decision given that they could have asked Moshe. The further problem, though, is that the verse specifically notes that the fire they lit was a foreign one, implying that it was not proper to have lit this fire. They must have thus done two things wrong: made an independent halachic decision in the presence of their teacher and, in that their conclusion was incorrect, subsequently acted improperly. But what was the essential fault -- that they lit this fire, or that they rendered a decision without Moshe?2 The verse points to the action but the gemara points to their independent behavior without Moshe.  

            There is actually a major qualitative distinction between the problem of lighting a foreign fire and the problem of rendering a decision overlooking one’s teacher. The former, most likely, flows from an intellectual mistake; the latter, most likely, reflects a character weakness. When we are told that Nadav and Avihu lit a strange fire before God, we think that they made a mistake. They somehow made a decision to do something and that this decision was wrong. In fact, both Maharsha and Torah Temima, in trying to explain the verse’s statement that Nadav and Avihu brought a strange fire, attempt to explain the faulty reasoning of Aharon’s sons. Left alone, the verse seems to be saying that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their behavior, caused by rendering a poor decision and thereby making an intellectual mistake. 

            The gemara, in raising the issue of the presence of Moshe, however, introduces the issue of character. For faulty reasoning, this punishment would seem quite harsh. A lack of respect for Moshe, coupled with a lack of humility in the brothers, would indeed further explain the punishment; the fault was not just an intellectual mistake but a character sin. The challenge is, though, that the verse itself does focus on the mind’s mistake. It may still be that this mistake was still only so punishable because of its roots in a character defect. One may wonder, though: if this character defect did not stretch to the manifestation of such an adverse conclusion, would it have been similarly punished? What is of the essence, intellectual mistake or character sin?   

            Rashi, Vayikra 10:3 introduces yet another approach in explaining the fate of Nadav and Avihu -- that they were human sacrifices offered in the dedication of the Mishkan because of their high level.3 It was not any weakness in Nadav and Avihu that led to their fate but rather it was actually a consequence of their goodness and their high level. This, obviously, would seem to be a different approach than the one presented above – but differing approaches always exist within Torah so this should not, in itself, be an issue. The problem, though, is that Vayikra 10:1,2 says explicitly that they were punished for doing something wrong. Another problem is that Rashi himself also quotes the gemara in Eruvin that Nadav and Avihu were punished for not asking Moshe. So what was the further cause of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths – mistake, sin or their exalted status? It seems somehow all – but how is this possible?

            Any investigation of Nadav and Avihu inherently always seems to lead to this paradox. There are many sources pointing to their righteousness and many sources pointing to their misdeeds. The fact is that the very lesson of Nadav and Avihu may be a lesson related most of all to the human condition and our humanity. So often, people want perspectives to be black-and-white without recognizing that the reality of the human being is the struggle of the gray. I believe that Nadav and Avihu always wanted to do the right thing and that their motivation was for the good; but there is perpetually a struggle that is within us to determine what the good actually is. Through reading about Nadav and Avihu we learn to always be vigilant about this. If accomplished and thorough individuals such as they could still be mistaken and misled by character flaws, how much more so must we be careful about this ourselves. It may actually have been through this lesson that Nadav and Avihu did indeed fully sanctify the Mishkan.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 See Rashi, Vayikra 10:5.

2 It is possible, however, to understand Maharsha’s words somewhat differently and that he was not challenging this basic idea that one, even if correct, should not render a decision before his teacher. Maharsha may have been wondering how Nadav and Avihu could be described as rendering a decision before their teacher when they were in fact just following the instructions they had already learned from their teacher, Moshe, in regard to lighting fires in the Mishkan service. The issue, though, was that the circumstances, in this particular case, were somewhat different than the circumstances assumed when this general law was first taught – there was now a fire from Heaven on the alter. Given these changed circumstances, their decision to maintain the law as they were taught it was a case of them rendering a decision anew in the presence of their teacher. The implication within the Maharsha, though, is still somewhat in line with the understanding of the Torah Temima that part of the problem for the Maharsha, in Nadav and Avihu’s rendering of a decision before Moshe was that their decision was wrong. It may be, though, that Maharsha, in the same way as Torah Temima does, is trying to explain both – that Nadav and Avihu improperly rendered a decision before their teacher and that they also brought a foreign fire.

3 This, of course, begs the question of why God would demand the sacrifice of good human beings in this sanctification process. We will, however, not be directly dealing with this question in this Insight.

4 As Rashi says, Moshe pointed this out to Aharon to comfort him through the recognition that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than their father and uncle.

Nishma 2014

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