The Torah’s Account of the Sin of Aharon’s Sons

And the sons of Aharon – Nadav and Avihu – each took fire-plates and put in them fire and placed upon them incense. And they offered an alien fire that He did not command them. (Sefer VaYikra 10:1)

1. The brevity of the account and its implications

Parshat Shemini describes the events of the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. After the fabrication of the Mishcan was completed, it was assembled by Moshe. For seven days Moshe performed the daily services in the Mishcan. Aharon and his sons, who would eventually assume responsibility for performance of the services in the Mishcan, did not participate in the services these first seven days. Instead, they observed Moshe and prepared for the day they would become responsible for the services Moshe performed. After these seven days – on the eighth day – Aharon and his sons assumed their duties. Moshe stood aside and on this eighth day the Kohanim – Aharon and his sons – became fully responsible for the services in the Mishcan.

On this day, for the first time, a flame descended from the heavens and consumed the sacrifices on the altar. This miracle demonstrated Hashem’s acceptance of the service and sacrifices offered in the Mishcan. However, the joy of the day was marred by tragedy. Two of Aharon’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – were tragically killed. The Torah is somewhat vague in its explanation of how Nadav and Avihu died and the reason for their death. The Torah only states that a fire went forth from Hashem and consumed them and that they sinned in offering a strange or alien fire before Hashem that they were not commanded to offer.

Rasbam and others suggest that the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu was the same fire that consumed the sacrifices on the altar.[1] Most of the commentators agree that they sinned in burning incense that they had not been commanded to offer or in deviating from the specific requirements of the offering.

It is notable that the Torah provides only a brief and very general account of the incident. The Sages and commentators offer varying views regarding the motives of Nadav and Avihu and they dispute other details of the incident that are not stated in the passages. However, the exclusion of these issues and details from the text of the Torah indicates that the account is complete in itself and that the brevity of the account is intended to direct our attention to the most salient elements of the incident. If this is the case, then the message of the account can be summarized in one concise sentence. Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the fire sent from Hashem to consume the sacrifices of the eighth day because they offered incense in some unspecified manner that deviated from the requirements of the law. Why they chose to offer such a sacrifice and specifically how their offering deviated from the required standards are not treated by the Torah as essential elements of the incident.

2. Nadav and Avihu’s punishment and the question of its justice

This raises an important issue. The implicit message of this account of the incident is that the harsh punishment received by Nadav and Avihu was not a response to the severity of their deviation from the standards of halacha. Implied also is that their motive was not relevant. Regardless of whether their motive was pure or somehow tainted the punishment was justified. Put in the simplest terms, the Torah seems to be telling us that even if their action was well-intended and their departure from halacha only minor, their punishment was appropriate. However, this conclusion is antithetical to our sense of justice! Certainly, the degree of their departure from halacha and their motive should be relevant!

And Hashem was very angry with Aharon – to the point of destroying him. And I prayed also for Aharon at that time. (Sefer Devarim 9:20)

3. The relationship between Nadav and Avihu’s death and Aharon’s sin

Rashi quotes a comment from the midrash that seems to confirm this interpretation of the Torah’s message. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe recounts the incident of the Egel – the Golden Calf. The incident is described in some detail in Sefer Shemot. Moshe ascended Sinai to receive the Torah and the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue. He was on the mountain for forty days and nights. The people became alarmed and imagined that Moshe would not return. They demanded that Aharon create some substitute for Moshe that would lead the nation through the wilderness. Ultimately, this resulted in Aharon’s involvement in the creation of the Egel. In Moshe’s review of the incident, he describes his intervention with Hashem on the nation’s behalf and his success in securing some degree of forgiveness. He adds that his intervention was also necessary on behalf of Aharon. Rashi comments that Moshe’s prayers on Aharon’s behalf were only partially successful. Two of Aharon’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – were killed and two were spared.[2]

These comments confirm the impression created by the Torah’s account of their death. The Torah’s spare account of the incident is consistent with Rashi’s comments. Their motives and the severity of their departure from halacha were not the essential issues dictating their punishment. However, the midrash’s suggestion that they were killed because of Aharon’s shortcomings is difficult to accept. Why should they be punished for their father’s complicity in the sin of the Egel? Furthermore, Hashem does not administer punishments in an arbitrary manner. Divine retribution corresponds with the sin it punishes. Why was Nadav and Avihu’s death an appropriate punishment for Aharon’s involvement in the sin of the Egel?

4. Moshe’s decision to shatter the Luchot

In order to better understand Rashi’s comments, it will be helpful to consider another element of the incident of the Egel. When Moshe descended from Sinai to respond to the nation’s sin, he was carrying the Luchot. When he observed the nation engaged in the worship of the Egel, he threw the Tablets to the ground and shattered them. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra and others explain that Moshe understood the Luchot to constitute written testimony to the covenant between Hashem and the people. With their descent back into the idolatry of Egypt, the nation rejected this covenant. The agreement expressed by the Luchot was thereby nullified. Moshe’s destruction of the Luchot reflected the nation’s abandonment of the covenant they expressed.[3] However, Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve seems to suggest another explanation for Moshe’s behavior. He explains that the generation that stood at Sinai was still very attached to the attitudes and sensibilities of the idolatrous culture from which it had just emerged. The people awaited the Luchot with anticipation and eagerness. The Luchot formed by the hand of Hashem would provide a tangible indication of His existence and interaction with the nation. This need for some tangible, material object to which to relate, ultimately, expressed itself more fully in the creation of the Egel.[4]

These comments suggest an alternative explanation for Moshe’s shattering of the Luchot. The nation was struggling with overcoming its idolatrous attitudes and perspectives. It had succumbed to these attitudes in creating the Egel. Now, Moshe was bringing the people Luchot formed by the hands of Hashem. If the nation could adopt as a deity an idol formed by human hands, how might they respond to Luchot carved by Hashem? Moshe feared that these Luchot become the focus of worship and replace Hashem. He shattered the Luchot rather than allow them to be defiled as an object of adoration and worship.
It is clear from Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve’s description of the nation’s attitude towards the Luchot that despite their sanctity and spiritual character, the Luchot were actually a potential distraction and spiritual determent to the people. Before they could receive the Luchot, they were required to confront their idolatrous attitudes and advance spiritually. In other words, idolatrous attitudes and perspectives exercise a perverse influence. The most sacred and exulted can be twisted and subverted into the profane.

5. The rigid structure of sacrificial worship

This idea is expressed in Maimonides’ treatment of sacrifices. Although some aspects of Maimonides’ position regarding the role of sacrifices are controversial, one element is simply an extension of the Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve’s thesis. Sacrifices are designed as a means of serving Hashem. However, sacrificial worship is also a fundamental element of idolatry. Therefore, in order to assure that our sacrificial worship is completely free of idolatrous elements, the Torah specifically regulates all aspects of the service.[5] In fact, no area of Torah law is discussed with more detail in the Torah. Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer are discussed in a few sentences. Sacrifices and related issues are the primary subject of much of Sefer Shemot and Sefer VaYikra. It is only through this remarkable degree of regulation that halacha assured that the sacrifices offered in the Mishcan would not experience the same fate Moshe feared awaited the Luchot. Without this regulation, sacrificial service would quickly become profaned through the introduction of idolatrous elements. In short, sacrificial service can be compared to a delicate medical procedure. If properly performed, the procedure will save the patient’s life. However, if performed improperly, the patient will die. Sacrifices have the potential of bringing the worshiper closer to Hashem. However, if they are not properly regulated, that may not only fail to accomplish this end but they may lead the worshiper away from Hashem, and back to the idolatry from which we were rescued.

6. The flame that consumed Nadav and Avihu and the nature of their sin

Now, Nadav and Avihu’s sin can be better understood. At a very critical moment – the initiation of sacrificial worship – they abandoned the regulations of halacha and instead followed their own preferences and sensibilities. Their decision undermined the entire institution of sacrificial worship. Their action was fundamentally contrary to the Torah’s concept and design of sacrificial worship and it threatened the foundations of the institution. Therefore, the most severe response was necessary! There is an irony and an important message in the manner in which they died. The same flame that descended from haven and consumed the sacrifices that were properly placed on the altar consumed them as well. This flame represented Hashem’s acceptance of the sacrifices. But that acceptance was predicated upon the rigid structure of the institution of sacrificial worship. Because Nadav and Avihu undermined that structure, the flame took their lives.

Furthermore, the sin of Nadav and Avihu was not dissimilar to their father, Aharon’s error. He was complicit in the idolatry of the nation. His sons – Nadav and Avihu – unwittingly and unintentionally continued along the same path. They created a potential avenue for the perversion of sacrificial service into an idolatrous function. They were not punished for their father’s sin. They were punished for not learning from it and exercising more prudence and better judgment.

1. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 10:2-3.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 9:20.
3. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 32:19.
4. Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve, Kuzari, part I, section 97.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 32.