Shiur #23: Crime and Punishment Vayikra Rabba 20:5-7

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 20:5 is a brief petichta which continues the theme of the injustice of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The petichta verse comes, once again, from the book of Job.


R. Acha and R. Ze'ira opened their discourse with the text:

“At this also my heart trembles, ve-yitar out of its place” (Job. 37:1).

What is the meaning of ve-yitar?

‘It leaped’;

as you read, “Wherewith to leap (le-natter) upon the earth” (Lev. 11:21).


This is a good example of a case in which peshat and derash coalesce. The midrash seeks to understand the meaning of the obscure term ve-yitar at the end of the verse. It cites another usage of the verb natar from Vayikra, in which the meaning is clearly to leap. The procedure that the midrash follows here is no different from that of the medieval pashtanim. Indeed, Rashi and Metzudat Tzion both paraphrase this line of the midrash in their comments on this verse. This interpretation is similarly adopted by modern translations and interpreters.


Placed in the context of the death of Aharon’s sons, this verse from Job suggests the shock and horror of this tragic event. Once again, the midrash presents these deaths as an inexplicable happening that deserves our sympathy, if not our outrage. The midrash now contrasts the deaths of Nadav and Avihu with two other events, in order to highlight the injustice of their deaths. The first event occurred only a few years after their deaths:


Elihu said:

Shall the sons of Aharon not be even like his rod which entered dry and came out full of sap?


This refers to the incident described in Bemidbar 17:16-24. After the quashing of Korach’s rebellion, God instructs Aharon, along with the heads of the other tribes, to place his staff in front of the Ark of the Covenant. The next day, all of the other staffs remain as they were but Aharon’s staff has sprouted flowers. This is a miraculous sign that Aharon and his sons had been chosen to serve God in His sanctuary.


In this incident, presence before God in the Mishkan is a life-giving experience. Aharon’s staff enters as a piece of dry, dead wood and is transformed into a living branch which has sprouted flowers. Why, the midrash asks, should the sons of Aharon suffer such a different fate than Aharon’s staff? They enter the Mishkan very much alive and soon find themselves dead.


            The Soncino translation, above, cites this statement in the name of Elihu, the figure from the book of Job who speaks the petichta verse.  It is a little strange that the midrash would place such a challenge to God’s justice in the mouth of Elihu, who in the book of Job actually attempts to justify God’s ways. Other versions attribute this accusation against God to Job. However, the vast majority of manuscripts and editions attribute this statement to none other than the Holy One, Blessed Be He! It is as if God is challenging Himself! This reading would seem to be in line with the image we encountered last week of God grieving for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is as if the God who killed Nadav and Avihu was somehow disconnected from the God who is devastated by their deaths. I do not have a theological explanation of how this works. It is important to remember that the rabbis of the midrash and aggada were not systematic thinkers like Maimonides and other great medieval theologians. As we have noted before, the rabbis were comfortable with contradictions and paradoxes, especially when it comes to discussing God. Still, this passage is most puzzling.


Now the midrash turns to an event much later in Jewish history:


The wicked Titus entered the interior of the Holy of Holies with his sword drawn in his hand.

He cut into the curtain and his sword came out full of blood.

He entered in peace and departed in peace, yet the sons of Aharon came in to offer incense and came out burnt,

as is borne out by the text,




In the year 70 CE, the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus led his forces into Jerusalem, destroying the city and the Temple. This famous aggada tells of how he entered the Temple and despoiled it. Despite his blasphemous activities, Titus emerged from the sanctuary unharmed. The midrash here implicitly challenges the justice of God’s action (or inaction) in both the case of the sons of Aharon and that of Titus. The sons of Aharon enter the sanctuary intending to make a sacrifice and they are killed. Note that the midrash makes no reference to the fact that the Torah says that sons brought an esh zara, “a foreign fire,” and that there was apparently something inappropriate about their sacrifice. Rather, the sons are portrayed as blameless innocents whose death at the hands of God is inexplicable, no less than Titus’s ability to act with impunity is similarly inexplicable. (It should be noted that there is a well-known aggada which describes how God did in fact punish Titus with a cruel and unusual death after he returned to Rome.)


Finally we come to the last petichta in this parasha:


R. Berechya opened his discourse with the text: “To punish the innocent is surely not right” (Proverbs 17:26).

Said the Holy One, Blessed Be He, even though I punished Aharon and took from him his two sons, “not right,” rather -

“Or to flog the great for their uprightness” (ibid).

Thus it is written, “After the death of Aharon’s two sons.”


This petichta is as cryptic as it is short. It consists of little more than the citation of the petichta verse, with a brief gloss connecting this verse to the death of Aharon’s sons. In the translation of these lines (this passage is missing from the Soncino translation as I have it), I have used the JPS translation of the Proverbs verse, in which the verse condemns the baseless punishment of the righteous. Clearly, however, the midrash understood this verse differently.  Here is my tentative understanding of the petichta.


First, the midrash reads the words “lo tov” (“not right”) rhetorically - “is it not right?” Second, the second half of the verse lehakot nedivim al yosher – which JPS translates as, “Or to flog the great for their uprightness” is also read differently. The term nedivim is understood as “princes,” a reference to Nadav and Avihu, the two princes of the priestly line. Al yosher is understood not as “for their uprightness,” but rather “with just cause." The key section of the petichta might thus be paraphrased as follows:


God said, Even though I punished Aharon by taking his sons,

was this wrong?

Rather, I smote the princes for just causes.


In other words, while it is true that Aharon was blameless, and did not deserve to suffer the loss of two of his sons, God’s actions were nevertheless justified. Nadav and Avihu had sinned and deserved their punishment.


Until this point in the parasha, the midrash has consistently portrayed the sons of Aharon as blameless and their deaths as a paradigmatic example of the suffering of the righteous in this world. Now, for the first time in the parasha, the midrash seeks to justify God’s actions. The sons of Aharon deserved to die as a result of their deeds. In the remainder of the parasha, the midrash will expand on this theme, investigating the exact nature of the brothers’ sin.


As I mentioned previously, this is the last petichta in this parasha. We now begin what is known as the gufa, or the “body” of the parasha, which goes on to interpret the passage at hand without the constraints of the petichta form:


R. Eliezer taught,

The sons of Aharon only died because they issued halakhic rulings in the presence of their teacher Moses.


R. Eliezer specifies the sin for which Nadav and Avihu were punished. They had the audacity to rule on halakhic issues when Moses himself was available to give judgment. This interpretation is most striking because it does not seem to have any basis in the text of the Torah. Rather, R. Eliezer appears to be motivated by his desire to address a contemporary concern. In the Torah, and in most of the midrashim, Nadav and Avihu appear as priests, whose main business is working in the Sanctuary. Hence, their sin is generally perceived as relating to their behavior while engaging in the divine service. In contrast, R. Eliezer transforms Nadav and Avihu into rabbinic scholars, not unlike R. Eliezer, his colleagues and their disciples. Their sin is portrayed as related to their status and activities as rabbis and halakhic experts rather than as priests.  The story of Nadav and Avihu thus becomes particularly relevant to R. Eliezer and his world. The prohibition against ruling in the presence of one’s teacher is aimed at the younger generation of scholars. It is meant to protect the hierarchy in which elders maintain their authority over their students even after the students have gone out on their own.  Nadav and Avihu become paradigms of insubordination among the young generation of rabbis.


In line with my theory that in this case the rabbis were more interested in addressing a contemporary issue than with interpreting the Biblical text, the midrash continues by discussing the applications and implications of the prohibition against ruling in the presence of one’ s master in their own day:


It happened that a student once ruled in the presence of his master, R. Eliezer.

[R. Eliezer] said to his wife Ima Shalom: Woe to the wife of this man,[*]he will not live out the week.

Before the week was out, he died.

The sages came to him and said: Are you a prophet?

He said to them: “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14)

Rather, thus have I received [from my teachers].  Whoever rules in halakha before his master, is liable to die.


In this story, R. Eliezer applies the prohibition against ruling in front of one’s teacher to a contemporary situation rather than to a biblical narrative. One of R. Eliezer’s own students once ruled in front of him. R. Eliezer remarked to his wife that this man would die within the week. Indeed, the man died within the week. At this point, the basis of R. Eliezer’s prediction is not clear. This is especially so if we read this story in isolation from its context. In that case, we do not even know that there is such a prohibition against ruling in front of one’s teacher. It would seem that R. Eliezer has some supernatural ability to predict the future. Perhaps he is even responsible for the student’s death. His statement could be understood not as a prediction but as a curse.


In order to resolve this ambiguity, the rabbis come and ask R. Eliezer directly. On the surface, R. Eliezer’s response clarifies the basis of his knowledge. He has received a tradition from his own teachers that one who rules in front of his master is liable to die. R. Eliezer insists that he has no privileged knowledge or abilities beyond his mastery of the halakhic tradition. However, R. Eliezer’s answer is hardly complete. Just because a person deserves death does not necessarily mean that he will die, and certainly not within the week. We are left with the impression that R. Eliezer does, in fact, have some special abilities which, along with his knowledge of the halakha, allow him to predict, or perhaps even cause, a person’s death. We should note that in the famous story of tanur shel Achanai, in the Bavli, Bava Metzi’a (59a-60a), precisely such destructive powers are attributed to R. Eliezer.


A note on the role of women in this story: In the text as it appears in the printed editions, there are references to two women – R. Eliezer’s wife and the student’s wife. Though they take no active part in the story, I would argue that they open up a certain feminine space within it. The overall story is one of male relationships, between the student and R. Eliezer and between R. Eliezer and the other rabbis. It is a story of crime and harsh punishment, whose events are dissected dispassionately by the rabbis. It is only in the lines referring to women that these events are presented as a human tragedy. It is a woman who suffers and a woman who is apparently meant to empathize with her sister’s situation.  The women’s presence thus creates a certain moral balance in the story, by revealing the human plight created by divine justice.


     Next, the midrash turns to explicating the halakhic details of this prohibition. How far away can a student be and still be considered “in the presence” of one’s master? The midrash explains:


R. Eleazar learned: It is forbidden for a disciple to give a legal decision in the presence of his master until he is twelve mils away from him, this being the extent of the camp of Israel,

as may be inferred from the text, “And they pitched by the Jordan, from Beth-Yeshimot even unto Avel-Shittim” (Num. 33:49).

How far apart were these places? Twelve mils.


The midrash cites R. Eleazar’s teaching on this matter.  R. Eleazar specifies that one is considered in one’s teacher’s “presence” so long as he is within 12 “mil” of him. (A “mil” is equal to 2000 cubits or about a kilometer.) From whence does R. Eleazar get this measurement? He explains that this was the size of the encampment of Israel when they wandered in the wilderness. He derives this measurement from the verse in Bemidbar which states the geographic parameters of the encampment.


The midrash now tells yet another story about a student who ruled in the presence of his master:


R. Tanchum son of R. Yirmiya was at Chefer.

They consulted him on various points and he gave his decisions.

Said they to him: 'Did we not learn in the beit midrash as follows:

It is forbidden for a disciple to give a legal decision in the presence of his master within a distance of twelve mils?

And R. Mani your master dwells at Sepphoris, does he not?’

He said to them: 'May [evil] come upon me if I knew it! '

From that moment he gave no further legal decisions.


This story needs to be read as both a halakhic and an aggadic text. From a halakhic perspective, the story adds important information. Until this point, of the two individuals who are reported as saying that it is prohibited to rule in the presence of one’s master, the first is R. Eliezer. R. Eliezer did not represent the rabbinic mainstream of his day. Indeed, he was excommunicated and his rulings were rejected.  In this story, however, this same ruling is cited not in the name of an individual, marginalized rabbi, but in the name of the “beit midrash” in general. In many manuscripts, this ruling is attributed to none other than R. Yehuda Ha-nassi, the editor of the mishna and the greatest rabbi of his time. This would appear to be a normative ruling as reflected by the fact that R. Tanchum unhesitatingly accepts the ruling. This story thus clarifies that despite the fact that this ruling originates with R. Eliezer, it is, in fact, binding.


From an aggadic perspective, this story teaches a moral lesson through its literary form. This story is fundamentally ironic. In the opening scene we find R. Tanchum answering halakhic questions from the people gathered around. It seems that he is the wise one who dispenses his knowledge to his relatively ignorant disciples. But then, suddenly, the tables turn. It turns out that the people are aware of one important ruling that R. Tanchum is not. Now R. Tanchum is the student and they are the teachers. Moreover, the ruling they transmit undermines all of R. Tanchum’s rulings, since it now turns out that he had no jurisdiction to make them. However, the story does not end here. R. Tanchum admits his ignorance and commits to abide by the ruling. In the end, R. Tanchum is wise because he is willing to learn from anyone, even his own students. This willingness to admit mistakes and to make changes in his behavior is R. Tanchum’s real wisdom and it more than makes up for any lacunae in his scholarship.  


[*] This line is absent from the manuscripts