Context & Questions: Sanctuary Sobriety

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Unlocking the Torah Text - Vayikra
08 Apr 2010


In the shadow of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death, God turns to their father, Aharon, and commands:

Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverage, you and your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; this is an eternal decree for your generations. In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure, and to teach the children of Israel all of the statutes that God has spoken to them through Moshe.

While the text seems to clearly prohibit the consumption of any alcoholic beverage during the Kohen’s fulfillment of his functions as priest and educator, the Talmud, after extensive debate, limits the full biblical prohibition to the ingestion of “intoxicating amounts” of wine. In further discussion, many halachists delineate additional, less severe penalties both for the consumption of other intoxicating beverages and for smaller amounts of wine. Finally, most scholars extend the requirement of sobriety during the teaching and application of the law to all teachers and not only to the Kohanim.

Moving beyond the technical aspects of the law, numerous commentaries focus on its potential motivation. The Torah’s concern, they say, centers on the debilitating effects of alcohol. An individual who is inebriated to any degree will neither be able to properly execute the Sanctuary service nor appropriately engage in halachic discussion and decision making. The Torah therefore prohibits the consumption of wine as a safeguard against possible intoxication.


Why are these commandments necessary?

Given the intricate detail of the Sanctuary service; given the clear repeated divine warnings concerning the potential consequences of error in that service; given the overwhelming specter of Nadav and Avihu’s death as an apparent result of ritual deviation; given the fact that proper halachic decisions clearly require one’s full faculties; why would anyone assume that these functions could be performed in a state of intoxication? Why must the Torah state the obvious?

To go one step further, if the Torah’s fundamental concern is potential error in the Sanctuary service or in halachic deliberation, why frame the prohibition as a ban upon alcoholic beverages? Why not simply reiterate a general warning that these disciplines must be approached with awe, reverence and caution?

Finally, if this law is based on the potentially debilitating effects of alcohol, why is a difference drawn in the Talmud between wine and other intoxicating beverages? Shouldn’t all substances that could potentially lead to inebriation be equally prohibited?

This new feature presents questions on the weekly parsha for your consideration excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book, Unlocking the Torah Text on Vayikra.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.