Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini 5769/April 18, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Midrash : Homily or Explanation?

Dr. Michael Avioz

Department of Bible


This week’s reading describes the sin of Aaron’s sons:   “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them” (Lev. 10:1).  Immediately afterwards their punishment is described:   “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Lev. 10:2).   The main difficulty in this brief passage is to define what sin Nadab and Abihu committed that was so grave as to require that they be put to death.   Examining other places in the Torah where this sin is mentioned (Lev. 16:1; Numbers 3:4, 26:3) does not help resolve the difficulty.   Exegetes, ranging from the rabbinic Sages to modern-day commentators, are not of one mind in explaining the sin committed by Nadab and Abihu and offer a variety of explanations. [1]   In this article we shall investigate the factors that have led commentators to suggest such a broad spectrum of views on the mystery of Nadab and Abihu’s death. [2]

Among scholars of midrash several approaches are taken as to the proper methodology for studying the homilies of the Sages.  In their recently-published book, Menahem Ben- Yashar, Isaac Gottlieb, and Jordan Penkower [3] suggest that in approaching the homiletic literature of the Sages, one should seek out specific difficulties in the Biblical text. They believe the motivating force behind the creation of the homilies is interpretive:  the homilists perceived certain difficulties arising from the words of the text and sought to resolve them with the aid of homily.   Other scholars, however, hold that one should investigate the historical context in which the commentator lived and the current problems of his day in order to understand the homily properly.   Exemplifying this historic approach is Ephraim Elimelech Urbach.   In his opinion, the events that had an impact on the Sages and their homilies include, among other factors, Hellenism, the Hasmonean revolt and the destruction of the Temple.   Following this line, Moshe David Herr writes that the Sages’ homilies are primarily about “ethics and ideology, wisdom of life and questions of faith, current social and political issues and metaphysical problems.” [4]

These approaches are not necessarily contradictory, provided we do not insist on a single and exclusive explanation of what motivated the Sages’ homilies.  Examining the various homilies on the episode involving Nadab and Abihu reveals that only a few were concerned with expositing the text, while most used this episode as an anchor for expressing views and beliefs on educational, ethical and didactic subjects.

Homilies relating to the context

Leviticus Rabbah 20 explains that the sin of Aaron’s sons was that “they were drunk with wine.”  This is deduced from the juxtaposition of this story to the text that continues, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant” (Lev. 10:9).  This interpretation draws on the immediate context, therefore we can identify it as being motivated by exegetical concerns.  The explanations that say Nadab and Abihu were naked, or had entered the holy precinct without having washed their hands and feet, also appear to be attempts at interpreting the text and not necessarily using the episode to remark on more distant subjects, even though they do not cite proof-texts from Leviticus, but rather from Exodus:  “They [the Priestly robes] shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die” (Ex. 28:43); “they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die” (Ex. 30:21).

The contextual approach applies especially to the explanation presented in Pesikta de- Rav Kahana, that “they brought fire from the stove,” rather than waiting for a heavenly flame to descend, which is apparently the plain sense of the text and the primary reason for their severe punishment (compare the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, and Milgrom on this text).

Homilies used by the Sages to convey educational values

One group of homilies focuses on aspects of Nadab and Abihu’s personalities:  “They taught halakhah in the presence of their teacher Moses” (Lev. Rabbah 20, Eruvin 63a, and Yoma 53a);    “They did not consult one another” (Lev. Rabbah 20);  “They did not beget sons” (ibid.);   “They did not marry” (ibid.);   they were waiting for Moses and Aaron to die:   “When will these two old codgers die?” (Sanhedrin 52a).   Common to all these interpretations is their omission of any mention of alien fire or of the expression, “which He had not enjoined upon them.”   They are also united by their educational bias.  In these explanations for the sin of Nadab and Abihu, the Sages sought to find substantiation for the messages that they wished to convey to the people of their day. We will go into some detail now for several of these.

“They taught halakhah in the presence of their teacher

Leviticus Rabbah 20.7 explains that Nadab and Abihu died because they taught halakhah in the presence of their teacher Moses.  Eruvin 63a and other sources explain that Nadab and Abihu said:   “Even though the fire comes down from heaven, we are commanded to bring it from a common source.”   This homily deals with the relationship that should pertain between disciples and their rabbi.   It is patently clear here that no attempt was being made to resolve an exegetical difficulty in the text, since the subject in the biblical story is not Moses but the divine command.   It seems that the objective of the homilist was to warn against disciples giving halakhic rulings before their rabbis.  Thus we have such statements as:  “Anyone who challenges his rabbi is as if he were challenging the Divine Presence” (Sanhedrin 110a), and the story in Pesikta de Rav Kahana:   “Once a certain disciple taught halakhah before Rabbi Eliezer and R. Eliezer said to Ima Shalom his wife: 'This student will not live to see the end of the Sabbath’."

They did not marry

The Sages dealt with the importance of marriage in several places.  They were opposed to the way of the Tanna Ben-Azzai, who so much wished to devote himself to studying Torah that he never  married (Yevamot 63b), and they discussed the age at which a man ought to take a wife. [5]   Thus we are taught (Kiddushin 30a): 

A   baraitha by the school of Rabbi Ishmael:   The Holy One, blessed be He, waits up to twenty years for a man to take a wife.  When he reaches twenty and has not yet married, He says:   May his bones rot...   Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah discussed the matter, and one of them said:  from age sixteen until age twenty-two.

The homilists use the fact Scripture tells us Nadab and Abihu “left no sons” (Num. 3:4) to conclude that they never married.  Thus the story of Nadab and Abihu is exploited for a polemic against those who decide to put off marrying and remain single. [6]   In truth, the fact that they had no sons to inherit them does not necessarily imply that they did not wish to have sons or that they did not wish to marry.  Rather, the Bible simply explains the continuation of the family line after their death:  since they died at a young age and had not left any heirs, the rights of inheritance of the priesthood passed to their brothers Eleazar and Itamar.

In this group of homilies it is quite noticeable how the Sages ignore the exegetical context and clearly take the path of homiletic interpretation.  The homilists are more concerned with addressing the present and the future than with understanding what took place in the Tabernacle in the time of Moses.   They seek to derive from the story contemporary moral lessons, relevant to their times. [7]   Thus we see that in studying the motivating forces behind the creation of homiletic interpretation, we must examine whether the homilies are related to the immediate context or whether they go far afield and offer explanations for the Scriptural passage that do no not arise directly from the text but rather are appended to it incidentally.



[1] For an overview of the commentaries, see J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 (Anchor Bible), New York 1992, 633-635.  Milgrom also presents source that view the death of Nadab and Abihu in a positive light, such as Sifra Shemini, 22 and 32.

[2] The principle sources treating Nadab and Abihu’s sin in the homiletic literature of the Sages are:  Sifra (Torat Kohanim) Shemini 32; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana; Leviticus Rabbah 20.  Parallel variants to these source can be found in Eruvin 63a; Tanhuma Aharei Mot 6; Sifre Numbers 44.   See A. Shinan, “ Hata’eihem shel Nadab ve-Abihu be- Agadat HazalTarbiz 44 (1979), pp. 201-214.

[3] M. Ben- Yashar, I. Gottlieb, J. S. Penkower, Ha-Mikra be-Farshanut Hazal:  Asuppat Derashot Hazal al Nevi’im u- Ketuvim mi-Tokh Sifrut ha-Talmud ve-ha- Midrash, Hoshea, Ramat-Gan 2003 [English title: The Bible in Rabbinic Interpretation: Hosea].

[4]Mahutah shel ha- Aggadah,” Mahanaim, 100th edition, on Judaism and faith, edited by M. ha-Cohen, 1966, pp. 63-69.  See the above, “ Tefisat ha-Historia etzel Hazal,” Proceedings of the 6th World Congress on Jewish Studies, Part 3, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 129-142.  Also compare the bibliography in Brachah Elitzur, Al Megamot be-Drashot Amoraei Eretz Yisrael ha-Oskot be-Ishei ha- MikraIdeologia, Leumiyut, Hevrah u- Fulmus (Doctoral dissertation), Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan 2006.

[5] O. Schremer, Zakhar u- Nekevah Bera'am:   ha-Nisuim be- Shilhei Yemei ha- Bayit ha-Sheni u-ve- Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 2004.

[6] D. Biale, Eros and the Jews:   From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America, New York 1992, p. 49.

[7] The homily that says Nadab and Abihu “did not consult one another” ostensibly is connected to what is said in this week’s reading:  Nadab and Abihu ought to have consulted one another before offering alien fire. The fact that they did not is deduced from an exegetical difficulty: the grammatical mismatch in number between the predicate va-yikhu [=they took, plural] and the subject ish [each, singular].   However, this homily as well contains an educational message regarding the appropriate degree of cooperation that disciples should have among themselves.  Likewise, there is not really a syntactic mismatch here, for the noun ish is often used in Scripture as a collective noun meaning “people.”