Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Parah,   Shemini 5765/ April 2, 2005

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Were Nadab and Abihu Twins?

Yonah Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible and HaKeter Rabbinic Bible Project


It is a well-known principle in the Hebrew language that subject and predicate must match in number and gender.  The verse dealing with the death of Nadab and Abihu is no exception to this rule:  “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took [va-yiqhu pl.] 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).

This grammatical accord, however, is problematic since it contradicts a general rule in biblical exegesis which says that when a spontaneous action is performed by two (or more) persons, Scripture hints at the inordinate responsibility of those involved by matching the predicate to just one of them.  Thus, in the story of Noah getting drunk:   “But Shem and Japheth took [ va-yiqqah, sing.] a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they [pl.] covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness” (Gen. 9:23).  Likewise in the description of the way Rachel and Leah reacted to Jacob’s desire to leave Laban:  “Then Rachel and Leah answered [va-ta’an, sing.] him, saying [pl.], ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house?’” (Gen. 31:14).  Likewise regarding the complaint about Moses’ Cushite wife:   “Miriam and Aaron spoke [va-tedabber, sing.] against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married:  ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Num. 12:1).

Grammar and Meaning

Two of the narratives provide evidence in support of the idea of a connection between this way of writing and the degree of responsibility that falls on the first-mentioned of the two subjects, for the retribution for the action is not equal:   in the story of Noah, Shem receives a considerably more significant blessing that Japeth (the latter being described there as dwelling in the shade of Shem), and in the story of the Cushite woman only Miriam is punished with leprosy and not Aaron. [1]   In the story of Nadab and Abihu, however, the punishment given them is identical:  “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Lev. 10:2), from which we conclude that they bore equal responsibility for the sin.   This has been noted in Sifra (Aharei Mot, ch. 1.1, s.v. va-yedaber Hashem):

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron (Lev. 16:1) – what does this teach us?   From the verse (10:1) “Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan,” we learn:  “Aaron’s sons” – they did not act on the advice of Aaron, “Nadab and Abihu”-- they did not act on the advice of Moses, “each took his fire pan”-- indicating that each one acted individually, not consulting one with the other.  Whence do we learn that since their committed the same sin they died in the same way?  From Scriptures saying, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron.”

Simeon and Levi

Nevertheless one wonders how two individuals could have acted in the identical way when the circumstances offered such a wide range of possible responses?

Indeed, we can point to another two brothers who acted in seemingly identical fashion:   “On the third day, when they were in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males” (Gen. 34:25). [2]   But the story of Simeon and Levi is different, because several factors could have brought both brothers to the same thought and the same action:  1)   Scriptures attests that all the sons of Jacob were distressed by the outrage that had been committed against Jacob’s daughter (Gen. 34:7);  2) all the sons of Jacob had been party to the deceit of demanding circumcision as a condition for marrying Dinah (Gen. 34:13); and 3) considerable time passed between the rape and the decision to kill the residents of Shechem by the sword.  For the entire duration of that time Dinah remained captive in the rapist’s hands, and it is reasonable to assume that during this time the brothers stirred up the sense of outrage, anger and frustration among each other.  Hence it is not surprising that two of them should reach the same conclusion – that the problem should be solved by the sword.

Nadab and Abihu

The case is different when it comes to Nadab and Abihu.   Even if they felt compelled to offer fire that had not been commanded, because the fire that they expected had not come down from heaven, as a homily of the Sages says, nevertheless it remains surprising that two people would spontaneously decide to take the same initiative in spur-of-the-moment circumstances which they could not have anticipated or planned for in advance.  During seven days of consecration the dedication ceremonies proceeded without mishap and so too on the eighth day, until the moment that fire was expected to come down from on high.  Furthermore, we must ask why one of them did not take fire and light the wood that was laid on the large bronze altar in the courtyard, since that was what they had expected, rather than offering incense on the smaller gold altar in the inner sanctum? [3]

If we take the line that Nabad and Abihu were motivated to act as they did not by the problem of fire failing to descend from on high, but rather by their frustration at not having been given a more significant role in the ritual, after they had drawn as close to the presence of the Lord as Aaron during the Theophany at Mount Sinai, [4] then another question arises:  there were other opportunities for the bothers to express their lofty status: Nadab and Abihu could have sprinkled the blood, cut up the sacrifice, carried the parts to the top of the altar, offered the meal-offering and blessed the people.   How did it happen that both of them chose to take action in exactly the same way and at exactly the same time in order to make their presence felt?

Even if we assume that Nadab and Abihu did not want to compete with their father, and therefore they chose an action that he himself had not performed on that day, they still had other options:   kindling the lights in the lampstand, laying out the shewbread, or even offering an additional sacrifice in order to enrich the ceremony. Why did one of them not think in a different direction?

A likely explanation

It seems to me to be that Nadab and Abihu acted the same way because they were twins; for it is a known phenomenon that twins read each other’s thoughts with great accuracy and act in amazingly similar ways.

Support of this hypothesis can be found in the way Scripture refers to them:   their names always appear together, [5] and even when they are mentioned along with their other brothers their names are grouped together; a conjunctive vav joins their names, [6] but no conjunctive vav links the two pairs of brothers:  “Aaron took to wife Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nabad and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar” (Ex. 6:23). [7]

The way the names appear cannot be ascribed to the requirements of rhythm or other stylistics elements, since in the same list as the four brothers’ names another four brothers are mentioned, but these are not presented in pairs but rather in a string:   “The sons of Kohath:   Amram, and Ihzhar, and Hebron, and Uzziel” (Ex. 6:18).  In contrast, wherever the names of the sons of Aaron appear in a similar context to the verse that mentions the sons of Kohath, even there they are listed as two pairs of brothers:  “The sons of Aaron:  Nadab and Abihu; Eleazar and Ithamar” (I Chron. 5:29). [8]

The fact that the brothers suffered the identical fate is not in itself sufficient to explain their appearance as a separate group, [9] for two other brothers who also found their death in a similar way, and who both died childless, are strung together with other brothers in the list of genealogies by the conjunctive vav:   “Judah’s sons:   Er and Onan, and Shelah, and Perez, and Zerah – but Er and Onan had died in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 46:12). [10]

Hence one can argue that style of presenting Nadab and Abihu indicates that they were bound together by especially close ties, greater than the usual bond between brothers – aphenomenon that has been observed between twins and written about.   It appears that in Aaron’s family Nadab and Abihu stuck together and acted identically both because they were aware of each other’s views due to their constant closeness and because they were twins. Indeed, neither in life nor in death were they parted.


[1] In the case of Rachel and Leah, it can be assumed that Rachel, Jacob’s beloved, was the leader in the movement to separate from Laban, and not Leah, the rejected wife.  The story of Rachel’s stealing her father’s idols possibly can be seen as illustrating the extent of the rift between Rachel and her father, so great that she did not hesitate to lay hands on that which was dearest to him of all.

[2] The Midrash interprets their acts in like manner to the sons of Aaron:   Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons – since it says ‘Simeon and Levi’ we know that they are ‘Jacob’s sons,’ so [the words] ‘Jacob’s sons’ tell us that they did not consult Jacob; and ‘Simeon and Levi,’ that they did not consult each other” (Gen. Rabbah [Vilna ed.], ch. 84.10).

[3] In the volume on Leviticus in the series Olam ha-Tanahk,   Barukh Levine and Meir Paran both   interpret that the incense was offered on the outer bronze altar. However they do not pay attention to the repeated emphasis on their act having been performed “before the Lord” (both in the narrative of the event and in Numbers 3:4 and 26:61), or to the definition of their action as “when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord” (Lev. 16:1).  Furthermore, their bodies were carried “away from the front of the sanctuary [Heb. kodesh]” (Lev. 10:4); and Aaron, in the wake of their death, was cautioned:   not to come at will into the Shrine [Heb. kodesh] behind the curtain” (Lev. 16:2).  The least that can be assumed is that they offered the incense on the incense altar.

[4] They were called to ascend Mount Sinai after the conclusion of the covenant:   “Then He said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar” (Ex. 24:1), “Then Moses, and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended” (Ex. 24:9).

[5] Their dying together, childless, is emphasized in the genealogical list both in the Torah: “But Nadab and Abihu died by the will of the Lord, when they offered alien fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they left no sons” (Num. 3:4); and in the Writings:   Nadab and Abihu died in the lifetime of their father, and they had no children” (I Chron. 24:1).

[6] The names of Eleazar and Ithamar are also connected here by a conjunctive vav, however they are mentioned elsewhere separately from one another, unlike Nadab and Abihu.

[7] A formulation quite close to this can be found in Numbers 26:60:  “To Aaron were born Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.”  

[8] In a verse of similar structure we have:  “You shall bring forward … Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron” (Ex. 28:1); “These were the names of Aaron’s sons:    the first-born Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar” (Num. 3:2).  Also Chronicles has genealogical lists in which brothers appear in a series, as in “sons of Asaph:   Zaccur, and Joseph, and Nethaniah, and Asarelah (I Chron. 25:2 [here and elsewhere the New JPS Translation does not always include the conjunction “and” that appears in the Hebrew; it has been added in this translation to illustrate the author’s point].  Another style characteristic of Chronicles is to refrain almost entirely from using the conjunctive vav in genealogical lists:   Heman – the sons of Heman:  Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth” (I Chron. 25:4 and elsewhere).

[9] This is the approach taken by Mark Brettler under Nadab in ABD.

[10] Similarly in I Chron. 2:3:  “The sons of Judah:   Er, and Onan, and Shelah; these three, Bath-shua the Canaanite woman bore to him.  But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life” ( Onan’s death is not mentioned).   Their death is also mentioned in Numbers 26:19, but there they are not mentioned in the same verse with the rest of the sons of Judah.