Sh’mini (Eighth)

Sh’mini – (Eighth) – Leviticus 9:1 to 11:47

When multiple subjects are presented in a single parsha, they almost always have a connection. This week two topics are presented:

  • First – The eighth day of the Tabernacle’s dedication … a happy occasion, until the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons!
  • Second – The dietary laws.

I believe these two, seemingly unrelated topics, are related…. In this week’s comments I will show why.

After reading chapter after chapter about the Tabernacle in Exodus …then, two full parshot about the sacrificial offerings for the Tabernacle … this week’s parsha brings us to the final day of the Tabernacle’s dedication with the appropriate sacrificial offerings. “On the eight day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: ‘Take a calf of the herd for a purgation offering and bring them before the Eternal. And speak to the Israelites, saying ‘Take a he-goat for a purgation offering ….This what the Eternal commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Eternal may appear to you.’” (Lev. 9:1-7)

Nadab and AbihuNext we read of those moments that literally STOP us on the page! “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 Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.”


Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Eternal meant by saying:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”

“And Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10:1-3)

And Aaron – the high priest’s two oldest sons were dead…. Why? …. Or did the event even happen? Like most of Torah, we shouldn’t look at it as history. If we did, we would see a God that would kill two over-zealous young priests because they were too enthusiastic…. But, if we look at this incident as a story – or fable – and then look at what the story is trying to teach us, we can gain much insight from it…. So, let’s look and see what we can learn from this event.

Back in Exodus, parsha T’teveh, we read about the furnishings of the Tabernacle including the following: “You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood…. Overlay it with pure gold…. Place it in front of the cover that is over the Ark of the Pact – in front of the cover that is over the pact – where I meet with you. On it Aaron shall burn aromatic incense; he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps – a regular incense offering before the Eternal throughout the ages. You shall not offer alien incense on it or a burnt offering or a meal offering.” (Ex. 30:1-9)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th Century, founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism) combines the death of Aaron’s sons and the Exodus instructions for the use of the incense altar. “He states that the laws and commandments bind the community together as a sacred people. When individuals act out their own zeal to change the law or order of things, they end up disrupting the community expectations and unity. He states that Nadab and Abihu may have been dedicated priests, but their action involving ‘alien fire’ damaged the community’s discipline and trust in the Eternal.” (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, v.2, p.115) So, we are told that we should follow God’s instructions… even if we don’t understand them, or think that we have a better plan. This is especially true of the priests. They are supposed to set the example for the community.

Then when you look at the words that Moses spoke to Aaron:
“Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”

The words are a bit confusing. First, I don’t recall the Eternal ever stating these words … or any words like them. It must have happened when Moses and God were alone…. Maybe, with these words, Moses wasn’t referring to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, but the way those alive react to a given situation. We must understand that all God’s actions are holy whether they are understood or not. Then, those who are “near” to God must accept God’s actions, even in time of crisis, and retain faith and remain “holy.” The effects of these “holy” actions will “gain glory” in the eyes of the people.

Or in other words, Aaron’s sons die. Aaron doesn’t curse God or lose his faith. He remains silent and continues his priestly duties. He remains “holy” and “gains glory” and stature before all the people. Aaron becomes an example of faith by his behavior.

Then, right after this incident, the dietary laws are presented. Because these laws immediately follow the death of Aaron’s sons, I feel that there is a connection. Even though these laws may not be fully understood, like the actions involving Aaron’s sons, we are told that by following these laws the Israelites will become more holy.

Now I have used the term “holy” and “holiness.” These terms are often, not fully understood. In Torah, these terms imply separateness…. a separation between the factors of God’s realm … and the secular, everyday world. …. Shabbat is an example. It is a “holy” day, while the rest of the week is not…. Actions dealing with ritual matters are “holy,” while actions in the everyday world may not be considered so…. The ritual instructions presented in Torah are holy, while the “alien fire” presented by Nadab and Abihu are not commanded by God and considered not holy.

The dietary laws also create a holy separation. God commands certain foods can be eaten while others may not. Like Aaron, the people may not understand why the commandments were given. But the laws are God’s instructions and are to be followed in order to create a “holy” people … and a “holy” community in which God will reside. If the laws are not followed, the Israelites believed that God would not reside in their midst. This made these laws very important to the Israelites. Now, these dietary laws have continued to be important to the Jewish people throughout the ages. The reasons for this is a whole different subject which I will comment on next week.

Earl Sabes

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