Shiur #26: Cover-Up Vayikra Rabba 20:11-12

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

The final two sections of parasha 20 of Vayikra Rabba move away from the focus on the reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  Section 11 further investigates the verse from Bemidbar cited earlier in the parasha:


“And they had no children” (Num. 3:4).

R. Ya’akov son of Avin in the name of R. Avin, who had it from R. Acha, said:

If they had had children these would have taken precedence over Elazar and Itamar,

for we have learned elsewhere:

Whoso takes precedence as regards inheritance takes precedence as regards rank, provided only that he conducts himself after the manner of his forebears.


Previously, the midrash had understood that this comment about Nadav and Avihu’s lack of children served to reveal the sin for which the brothers were punished.  Now, the midrash takes a more peshat oriented approach.  As we noted before, the passage in Bemidbar presents a brief genealogy of Aharon’s family.  In this context, the report of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, comes to explain the disappearance of the two elder sons of Aharon from the scene, and the emergence of the younger two sons, Elazar and Itamar, as priests.  So too, the midrash explains, the mention of Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness comes in order to account for the ascendance of Elazar and Itamar.  Had Nadav and Avihu had sons, those sons would have inherited the priesthood and not Elazar and Itamar.  The midrash backs up its argument with a beraita which states that social and religious status is passed down from father to son, in the same manner as property, provided that the sons prove worthy of the position. 


The midrash moves on the analyze the end of the verse, which tells of Elazar and Itamar’s rise to the priesthood:



“And Elazar and Itamar ministered in the priest's office in the presence

of Aharon their father” (ib.).

R. Yitzchak said it means during his lifetime,

while R. Chiyya b. Abba said, at his death.

The opinion of R. Chiyya b. Abba who maintains that it means at his

           death, [presumes the following analogy]:

The expression ’The presence of (penei)’, is written in our passage,

and in another context it says,

“And Avraham rose up from before (penei) his dead” (Gen. 23:3);

as in that other context the expression signifies at death,

so in the present passage it signifies at death.

The opinion of R. Yitzchak who maintains that it means during his lifetime

           [presumes the following analogy]: The expression ’In the presence of (al

           penei)’ is used in the present passage,

and it says in another context,

“And Haran died in the presence of (al penei) his father Terach” (ib. 11:28);

as in that context the expression signifies in his lifetime,

so in the present passage it signifies in his lifetime.

           If uncleanness befell Aharon, then Elazar ministered;

if it befell Elazar, then Itamar ministered.


This passage recounts a debate over the meaning of the preposition “al penei” literally “on the face of”, which is used in the verse to describe the relationship between Elazar and Itamar’s service and their father Aharon.  According to R. Yitzchak, this term means that the brothers served while Aharon was still alive, while according to R. Chiyya, they served only after Aharon’s death. 


On the surface it would seem clear that the term “al penei” should be translated as “in the presence of,” clearly implying that Aharon was still alive at the time of his sons' service.  What, then, motivates R. Chiyya’s position that the term means “after the death of”? R. Chiyya does bring a midrashic proof for his position from the verse in Bereishit that describes Avraham mourning for Sara.  But it is hardly convincing from a simple linguistic perspective.  In this verse as well, the term “al penei” means “in the presence of” that is, “in the same time and place as."  It does not mean “after."  It would seem that R. Chiyya’s reading of the verse in Bereishit was motivated by some pre-existent conviction that “al penei” means “after the death of."


In order to understand R. Chiyya’s motivations we must re-examine the verses in Bemidbar.  The verses speak of a succession of priests.  First Nadav and Avihu and then, following their deaths, Elazar and Itamar.  Yet, the simple reading of the verses in the beginning of Vayikra is that Moshe anointed all of Aharon’s sons before the dedication of the Mishkan.  How, then, can the verses in Bemidbar state that Elazar and Itamar only became priests after their brothers died?


Apparently in response to this issue, the midrash assumes that these verses refer to Elazar and Itamar’s ascension not to the “regular” priesthood, but to the High Priesthood.  (See the debate between Ibn Ezra and Seforno on this very point).  Now it is R. Chiyya’s position that appears more logical.  It makes sense that Elazar and Itamar served as High Priests only following the passing of their father.  It is R. Yitzchak’s position that now requires explanation.  Why would Aharon, Elazar and Itamar have all served as High Priest simultaneously? The midrash answers that according to this opinion, the three did not serve at the exact same time.  Rather, Aharon was the primary High Priest.  Elazar and Itamar were his first and second “understudies” respectively.  They filled in the event that Aharon (and in the case of Itamar, Elazar as well) became ritually impure and was not able to serve in the Mishkan.


Now that the midrash has mentioned the possibility of an alternate filling in for the High Priest, it goes on to tell a story about just such a substation during the Second Temple period:


It is related that Shimon the son of Kimchit went out to talk with an Arabian king, and a jet of saliva from the latter's mouth was spurted on to his garments and defiled him.

His brother Judah entered and ministered in the office of the High Priesthood in his stead.

On that day their mother beheld two of her sons officiating as High Priests.


It may be relevant to note that during most of the Second Temple period the High Priest served not only as a Temple functionary but as a political leader.  This trend came to its peak under the Hasmoneans, who served simultaneously as High Priests and kings of the Jewish State.  As such, it is not surprising to find in this story, the High Priest leaving the Temple to attend to affairs of state and to meet with foreign leaders.  Indeed, we might even see this story as illustrating the tension between the High Priest’s two roles during that period.  On the one hand, the High Priest needed to retain his purity in order to serve in the Temple.  On the other hand he needed to go out into the world to engage in his political responsibilities.  This involved, among other things, coming into contact with Gentile kings and their impurity.  Ultimately, these two roles come into conflict with each other and the High Priest must be relieved of his ritual duties and replaced with a substitute.


Within the context of this passage in Vayikra Rabba, this story comes to illustrate the principle that an impure High Priest can and should be temporarily replaced with a pure one.  However, the thrust of the story itself is in another direction.  It emphasizes the good fortune of the two High Priests’ mother, Kimchit, who was lucky enough to witness her two sons serving as High Priest on the same day.  As it turns out, Kimchit had an even longer run of good fortune regarding her sons and the High Priesthood:


It was said: Kimchit had seven sons, and all of them served in the

           office of the High Priesthood.

The Sages sent to her the following enquiry:

'What good deeds have you to your credit?’

‘The beams of my house,’ she said to them,' have never beheld the hair of my head nor the seam of my undergarment.’

They remarked: ‘All flours (kimchaya) are but ordinary flour, but the flour of Kimchit is fine flour,’ and they applied to her the text, “All glorious is the king's daughter within the palace” (Ps. 45:14).


This story is a prime example of an aggadic text which has found a place within the halakhic discourse.  The narrative, as it appears here and in numerous other sources throughout rabbinic literature, is what I call a non-normative exemplum.  That is, it is a story which highlights the deeds of an outstanding individual, but does not suggest that his or her behavior needs to be widely imitated.  Kimchit’s behavior reflects the absolute heights of commitment to the ideal of feminine modesty.  She meticulously covers herself from head to toe on all occasions, even when she is alone in her own home.  Kimchit’s extraordinary behavior is rewarded with an unprecedented privilege - all seven of her sons merit serving as High Priests.  The rabbis recognize Kimchit’s achievements, comparing her to the finest and most pure of flour and applying to her the well-known verse from Psalms: “All glorious is the king's daughter within the palace,” as indeed Kimchit’s greatest achievements took place in the privacy of her home.  (The Meiri further suggests that the second half of the verse - “her dress is embroidered with golden mountings” - refers to the golden robes of the High Priest). Though the women of Israel should perhaps be inspired by Kimchit’s actions, the story does not seem to be a call to women to imitate her extreme practices.


Since the Middle Ages, the Talmud Bavli has been the most authoritative and widely known of rabbinic texts.  As such, the most historically significant version of this story is the one found in the Bavli, Yoma 47a. 


There are two differences between this version and the one found in Vayikra Rabba.  First, the Bavli only mentions Kimchit’s stringency in covering her hair, omitting the reference to the hem of her garment.  As a result, the Bavli’s version does not portray an all-inclusive commitment to modesty from head to toe, but rather focuses on Kimchit’s specific practices in covering her hair.


Second, the Bavli version relates Kimchit’s behavior to the general practice of other women.  It notes: Many women have done [like Kimchit] but it did not help them.” The Bavli states that indeed many women had imitated Kimchit’s example.  However, it does not endorse this practice.  Indeed, it warns that those who imitate Kimchit in the hopes of receiving a similar divine reward will likely be disappointed. 


Not surprisingly then, the story of Kimchit does not appear in the medieval halakhic literature of the rishonim.  However, with the end of this era, no less a figure than Rema (R. Moshe Isserlis, 1520-1572) in his commentary on the Tur, Darkhei Moshe, states that while covering all of one’s hair in one’s house is not required, “there is modesty in this behavior… as we find in the case of Kimchit, who merited from this.”  The Rema suggests that imitating Kimchit’s behavior, while not required, is a preferred behavior for women.  Following the Rema, two of the leading halakhic decisors of the modern era, the Mishna Berura (75:14) and R. Moshe Feinstein (Even Ha-ezer 1:48), both rule that it is preferable for women to cover their hair like Kimchit.[1]  Thus, an initial inspirational aggadic text, meant to describe the unique behavior of an extraordinary individual came to be understood as normative text, which prescribed preferred behavior for all women. 


Finally, the midrash returns to the main concern of the section, the dispute between R.  Yehuda and R. Chiyya as to when Elazar and Itamar served as High Priests:


According to the opinion of R. Chiyya b. Abba, who holds that the

           expression signifies at his death,

           when Aharon died Elazar ministered, and when Elazar died Itamar



According to R. Chiyya, the way in which all three men served as High Priest is clear cut.  They did not serve all at once, but rather in succession, each one succeeding the other after his death. 


This section is essentially, as we have noted, a digression from the parasha’s main concern with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  However, we may see this section as implicitly addressing Nadav and Avihu’s sin.  As we have seen, Nadav and Avihu are consistently faulted for being arrogant and overreaching, and therefore unworthy of serving before God in the Sanctuary.  Kimchit might be seen as a foil to the brothers.  She acts with extreme modesty and, as a result, all of her sons serve in the sanctuary as High Priests.


The final section of the parasha places the deaths of Nadav and Avihu into a very different context:


R. Abba b. Avina enquired:

For what reason was the section recording the death of Miriam placed in close proximity to that dealing with the ashes of the Red Heifer?

Simply this, to teach that as the ashes of the Heifer effect atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement.


R. Yudan asked:

For what reason was the death of Aharon recorded in close proximity to the breaking of the Tablets?

Simply this, to teach that Aharon's death was as grievous to the Holy One, blessed be He, as the breaking of the Tablets.


R. Chiyya b. Abba stated:

The sons of Aharon died on the first of Nisan.

Why then is their death mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement?

It must be to teach that as the Day of Atonement effects atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement.

Whence do we know that the Day of Atonement effects atonement?

From the fact that it says,

“For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you” (Lev. 16:30).

 And whence that the death of the righteous effects atonement?

 From the fact that it is written,

“And they buried the bones of Saul and Yonatan his son (II Sam. 21:14),

           and it is also written,

“After that God was entreated for the land” (ib.).


In this section, the midrash returns to an approach that we saw at the beginning of the parasha, namely the understanding that Nadav and Avihu were righteous and did not die for their sins.  The midrash now proposes a new interpretation of these deaths, that the death of the righteous atones for the sins of the nation.  This does not necessarily justify the deaths of the righteous, but it does put those deaths into a larger perspective.  Most people associate the idea that one individual can die to atone for another’s sins with Christianity.  In fact, this idea has a solid pedigree in rabbinic sources.   


This concludes our study of parasha 20 of Vayikra Rabba.  As we have seen, it is a remarkably unified parasha, dealing almost exclusively with the topic of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The parasha presents contrasting evaluations of the brothers.  In the first part of the parasha Nadav and Avihu are presented as entirely righteous.  Their deaths are used by the midrash to explore the age-old problem of why bad things happen to good people and, particularly, why the good die young.  The midrash offers a range of approaches to this issue.  Then, the midrash switches gears and begins to take for granted that Nadav and Avihu did in fact die for their own sins.  The midrash sets out to identify this sin or sins and comes up with an extensive list of possibilities, from the technical to the metaphysical.  One thing that many of these sins have in common is that they portray Nadav and Avihu as being arrogant and overreaching.  Finally, the section ends on a solemnly optimistic note, placing Nadav and Avihu alongside their father, aunt and the first king of Israel, all of whom died the death of the righteous. 



[1] The Chatam Sofer (OC 36) rules that total hair covering is a requirement.