Shiur #24: A Multiplicity of Sins Vayikra Rabba 20:8-10

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

This section continues the attempt to identify the sin for which Nadav and Avihu were punished. Bar Kappara lists no less than four sins for which the brothers died:



Bar Kappara in the name of R. Yirmiya b. Elazar said:

Aharon’s sons died on account of four things:

for drawing near to the holy place,

for offering,

for the strange fire,

and for not having taken counsel from each other.


‘For drawing near,’ since they entered into the innermost precincts of the sanctuary.

‘For offering,’ since they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to offer.

‘For the strange fire’: they brought in fire from the kitchen.

‘And for not having taken counsel from each other,’ as it says, “Each of them his censer” (Lev. 10:1),

implying that they acted each on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another.


Bar Kappara identifies these four sins on the basis of his reading of the accounts of the death of Nadav and Avihu in Vayikra 10:1-2 and 16:1.  First, he focuses on the very act of entering the sanctuary. Vayikra 16:1 states that the sons of Aharon died “when they drew [too] close before God.” Bar Kappara understands this as meaning that they entered the Holies of Holies without being invited, a capital offence. Next, he understands from the use of the term va-yakrivu (10:1) that they offered a sacrifice, presumably an animal, which God never commanded.   The brothers also used a “strange fire”, which Bar Kappara understands as a common fire taken from a household oven. According to peshat the object of the term va-yakrivu is, in fact, the strange fire and there was no other sacrifice. Bar Kappara’s reading allows him to add yet another sin to the brothers’ roster by adding the sacrifice.


Finally Bar Kappara derives from the phrase, “Each of them his censer” that the brothers did not consult with each other before acting. The nature of this sin is not entirely clear. Why should they have consulted each other about a wrong doing? I think that the idea of the brothers not consulting one another is meant to convey the enthusiasm and initiative with which both brothers undertook the sacrifice.  This, at the very least, compounds their sin. Mirkin, on the other hand, suggests that had they talked thing over before hand, the brothers would have had second thoughts and not gone through with the sacrifice. As Mirkin himself points out, if this interpretation is correct, the rabbis here were probably motivated more by ideological concerns- the desire to teach the importance of consulting with other before acting- than by textual and interpretive concerns.


Bar Kappara not only knows the sin for which Nadav and Avihu died, he finds evidence of multiple sins in the verses. R. Yirmiya b. Elazar and R. Elazar of Modi’in, in contrast, seek to limit the brothers’ sin:


R. Yirmiya b. Elazar said:

The death of Aharon’s sons is mentioned in four places, and in every one of them their offence is also mentioned.

Why all this?

To inform you that they were guilty of no other iniquity but this one alone.


R. Elazar of Modi’in said:

Come and observe what concern was felt by the Holy One, blessed be He, at the death of Aharon’s sons.

On every occasion when He mentions their death, He also mentions their offence!

Why all this?

To acquaint you with the facts, so that people might have no pretext for saying that they had been acting corruptly in secret and that it was on account of this that they died.


In addition to the two places in Vayikra in which the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are mentioned, there are also two references to them in the book of Bemidbar (3:4, 26:61). R. Yirmiya and R. Elazar both note that in each of these instances the reason for their deaths is noted. What they do not point out is that while in three of these verses the Torah clearly states that the brothers were liable for bringing a “strange fire” to the Sanctuary, in Vayikra 16:1, the Torah simply states, that they “drew [too] close before God.” As we have seen, Bar Kappara understands this verse as referring to a sin which is distinct from the bringing of the strange fire. In contrast, these rabbis understand this verse in light of the other accounts of the brothers’ sin, as also referring to the strange fire. The Torah’s emphasis on this sin is designed not to malign the brothers but rather to make clear that the bringing of the strange fire was their only sin. This position is half-way between the two we have seen thus far. It does not present the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as an example of the inexplicable suffering of the righteous. On the other hand, it does not seek to aggrandize their sins either.



This section further develops the approach of Bar Kappara, seeking to multiply the sins of Nadav and Avihu. This section goes even further. It searches for their sins well beyond the passages of the Torah that portray their deaths. It is as if the midrash here has agenda to find as many sins as possible to attribute to Nadav and Avihu:


R. Mani of She’av, R. Joshua of Sikhnin, and R. Yochanan in the name of R. Levi said:

The sons of Aharon died for four things,

in connection with each of which death is mentioned.


Because they had drunk wine,

and in connection with this death is mentioned, as it says,

“Drink no wine nor strong drink... that you die not” (Lev. 10:9).


Because [while officiating] they lacked the prescribed number of garments,

and in connection with this death is mentioned, as it says,

“And they shall be upon Aharon, and upon his sons...

that they bear no iniquity and die” (Ex. 28:43).

What did they lack?

The robe,

in connection with which death is mentioned, as it says,

“And it shall be upon Aharon to minister... that he die not” (ib. 35).


Because they entered the Sanctuary without washing hands and feet; for it says, “So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not” (ib. 30:21),

and it also says,

“When they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not” (ib. 20).


The first sin identified, drunkenness, does, in fact, have a textual basis. The prohibition against drinking wine before entering the Sanctuary comes directly after the Torah’s main account of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in Chapter 10 of Vayikra. The midrash assumes that this juxtaposition is not coincidental. It understands that there is a direct relationship between the two passages. God chose to reveal this law at this point in order to warn other priests not to make the same mistake as Nadav and Avihu.


The next two sins however, not wearing the robe and not washing hands before entering the Sanctuary, are not hinted at in any way by the verses describing the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. These are simply two sins related to the Sanctuary about which the Torah says that priests will die if they violate them. The midrash here seems to have an agenda to find as many sins as possible for Nadav and Avihu. Any prohibition for which a priest might be killed in the sanctuary is assumed to have been violated by the brothers.


The sin of the missing robe requires further attention. The first verse quoted, Shemot 28:43, refers to the garments worn by the priests in the sanctuary. If any of those garments is missing, the priest is liable to die. The midrash then asks “which garment was missing?” and responds that it is the robe. As mentioned in 28:35, failure to wear the robe can lead to the death of the priest (This is the gemara’s interpretation of the verse, cited by Rashi ad loc., but see Rashbam). The only problem is that the robe is worn only by the High Priest. Why should Nadav and Avihu have been liable for not wearing Aharon’s garments? I would presume that this is based on the midrash’s earlier assertion that Nadav and Avihu went into the Holy of Holies. The robe (more specifically the bells on its hem) was meant to protect the High Priest specifically as he entered the Holy of Holies (“before the Lord”). Hence, if Nadav and Avihu wanted to enter there, they too would have needed to wear the robe.


The next sin is more rooted in the text,


Because they had no children,

and in connection with this death is mentioned. Thus it is written,

“And Nadav and Avihu died... and they had no children” (Num. 3:4).


The verse does indeed state that Nadav and Avihu both died childless. However, this statement comes in the context of a presentation of the genealogy of Aharon. The reason why the Torah informs us of the brothers’ lack of children is clearly to explain why their bothers Elazar and Itamar succeeded them in the priesthood. Had there been children, we would have expected them to take over.


The question remains, why should the brothers have died for being childless? Even the High Priest need only be married - he does not necessarily need to have children. Clearly, the midrash understands that the brothers were childless by choice, not by force of circumstance. Further, the Midrash saw such an act as a capital crime. Normative halakha does not prescribe death, either at the hands of man or at the hands of heaven, for such behavior. However, in an aggadic context, the failure to have children is condemned in the strongest of terms. In Bereishit Rabba 34:14 (also Yevamot 63b) Ben Azzai declares, “Whoever neglects the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, scripture equates him with one who spills blood.” To which the sages respond, “you have spoken well!”  Thus, neglecting to have children was seen as a very serious failing, worthy of the most extreme punishment.


Thus, the midrash has attributed a sin to the Nadav and Avihu that bears no relation to their entry into the sanctuary with the strange fire. Once again, it seems that the midrash has identified the brothers as “bad guys” upon whom they seek to heap as much liability as possible. However, there may be a more integral connection between this sin and the brothers’ priestly vocation. Perhaps the brothers remained childless because they practiced the most effective form of birth control, abstinence. They felt that as priests they had to be beyond bodily pleasures and worldly concerns in order to devote themselves fully to the service of God. Such is the approach of other religions. However, in Judaism such asceticism is deemed wrongheaded and even arrogant. In this interpretation, the brothers were punished for overreaching, taking on activities and services that were beyond their station. Hence, they abstained from creating families and they also entered the Holy of Holies, uninvited, with a strange fire.


Finally, Abba Chanin adds one more sin:


Abba Chanin says it was because they had no wives,

for it is written,

“And [he shall] make atonement for himself, and for his house” (Lev. 16:6),

and ‘his house’ signifies his wife.


This suggestion picks up on two themes that we have seen previously in this section. Most obviously, the idea that the brothers did not marry is very close to the previous suggestion that they did not have children. Once again, I would like to suggest that in attributing a celibate life style to Nadav and Avihu, the midrash is engaging in an implicit polemic against the Christian approach to priesthood and holiness. Jews and their priests are meant to attain holiness by engaging in the world, not by separating from it.


Second, the midrash has once again applied the standards of the High Priest to Nadav and Avihu.  The requirement of marriage applies only to the High Priest while he is undertaking the Yom Kippur service, as is famously detailed in the first chapter of Mishna Yoma. Once again, it seems that since the brothers sought to enter the Holy of Holies like the High Priest on Yom Kippur, they were held to the same standards.


This section develops in full force the notion that far from being blameless martyrs, Nadav and Avihu were serial sinners. The midrash often seeks to heap negative descriptions upon the “bad guys” of the Bible and positive ones on the “good guys.” Nadav and Avihu are here defined as bad guys. As a result, the midrash uses every tool in its position, be they textual or ideological, to come up with more wrongdoings to attribute to these nefarious brothers.




The first part of this section picks up on the theme of the last part of the previous section: The allegation that Nadav and Avihu were punished because they never got married.


R. Levi says that they were arrogant.

Many women remained unmarried waiting for them.

What did they say?

‘Our father’s brother is a king,

our mother’s brother is a prince,

our father is a High Priest,

and we are both Deputy High Priests;

what woman is worthy of us?’

R. Menachma in the name of R. Joshua b. Nechemya quoted:

“Fire devoured their young men” (Ps. 78:63).

Why had “Fire devoured their young men”?

Because “Their virgins had no marriage-song” (ib.).


This midrash explains why it is that the brothers failed to get married. They saw themselves as members of an extreme elite. They were part of Israel’s “first family” which controlled the political, spiritual and cultic leadership of the Jewish people.  From their perspective any marriage offers that they might accept would be a step down for them. This argument is somewhat different from the suggestion that I made that the brothers did not marry because they sought to remain celibate for spiritual reasons. Nevertheless, both reasons suggest that the brothers had an exaggerated view of their position in the world and sought to separate themselves from the common life of the people.


Two short notes on this passage: First, the word translated here as “unmarried” is in fact agunot, literally “chained.”  This is the same term used in halakhic literature to refer to women who cannot remarry because the husband’s whereabouts and status cannot be determined or because the husband is unable (or in modern usage: unwilling) to deliver a divorce. It is interesting that the midrash should use the same term here. It is as if the brothers were somehow preventing these women from marrying others.


Second, the sons’ soliloquy about their vast family connections exactly parallels the description of Elisheva’s accomplished relations at the end of section two of this parasha. However, the description of Elisheva is meant to elicit sympathy for her when she suffers the death of her two sons. This monologue from the brothers is presented to illustrate their arrogance. The repetition of motifs and forms at different points in the parasha is part of the artistic development of the midrash. It might be compared to the reappearance of a theme from an earlier movement in a symphony in a latter one, reworked in a different key.


The midrash now presents an exegetical basis for its claim that Nadav and Avihu refused to marry. It cites the verse from Tehillim 78:63: “Fire devoured their young men, their virgins had no marriage-song.” Taken on its own, this verse might reasonably be interpreted as referring to Nadav and Avihu. What other young men were devoured by fire in the Bible? The failure of the virgins to marry might then be seen as the reason for the young men’s death. This would seem to be a simple example of the rabbis giving a historical context to a poetic verse from Tehillim or other such biblical literature. However, this chapter of Psalms is different from most others. It is one of the “historical psalms” which traces the Jewish history from the Exodus to the establishment of the Davidic dynasty. This verse is set in the generation between the destruction of Shilo and the anointing of David.  In asserting that this verse refers to Nadav and Avihu, the rabbis are not contextualizing the verse but re-contextualizing it. This is an example of what we might call radical midrash. The midrash does not simply fill in meaning that is absent from the simple reading of the text, it actually subverts the simple reading, replacing it with a different meaning.  


Further, from the context in Tehillim it becomes clear that the rabbis have reversed the causality of the verse. According to peshat, it is the death of the young men that leads to the young women not marrying. The verse depicts the terrible destruction that was wrought upon Israel during this period. Many young men were killed and, as a result, the women had no one to marry. According to the midrash it is the failure of the women to get married that leads to the young men’s death. Nadav and Avihu refused to accept offers of marriage and as a result they were punished with an early death.