Weekly Torah portion: Shemini
In parashat Shemini we read of the mysterious death of Aaron’s sons: “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. 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 Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 9:24 – 10:3).


In the haftarah we read about another perplexing death: “But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. And David was incensed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah; and that place was named Perez-uzzah, as it is still called. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can I let the Ark of the Lord come to me?’So David would not bring the Ark of the Lord to his place in the City of David; instead, David diverted it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his whole household. It was reported to King David: ‘The Lord has blessed Obed-edom's house and all that belongs to him because of the Ark of God.’ Thereupon David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David, amid rejoicing” (II Samuel 6:6-11).


The midrash explains: “Of three things Israel complain and would say they bring evil, and they are: the incense and the Ark and the staff. They said the incense is evil because it caused the death of Nadab and Abihu…therefore Israel learned that it brought repentance, as it says: ‘He put the incense and made expiation for the people’ (Numbers 17:12). They said the Ark brings evil, for it killed Uzzah…therefore they learned that it brought blessing, as it says: ‘The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his whole household…” (Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael – Masekhta DeVayisa 6).


The Talmud addresses the conduct that led to Uzaah’s death: “And he died there beside the ark of God. R. Johanan said: Uzzah entered the World to Come, as it is stated ‘beside the ark of God’ — as the ark endures for ever, so Uzzah entered the World to Come” (Sotah 35a).


But if there was nothing wrong with Uzzah’s conduct, why did he die? Robert Alter explains: “The Ark, as God’s terrestrial throne, is invested with awesome divine power (compare I Samuel 6). To touch it, even in an effort to keep it from slipping off the cart, is to risk being consumed by its indwelling mana, as when one come in contact with a high-voltage electric core. God’s wrath against Uzzah triggers an answering wrath (the same verb in Hebrew) on the part of David, frustrated in his purpose and now wondering whether he will ever manage to bring this symbol and earthly focus of God’s power to his newly conquered capital” (Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel).


  1. How did Aaron’s sons sin? What was Uzzah’s sin? Is it possible that they did nothing wrong? Is it possible, as Ibn Ezra suggests in his commentary to the words “at the instance of the Lord”, that Nadab and Abihu “believed they were doing what God desired”?
  2. Prof. Alter, who explains that “This is an archaic story that defies later ethical categories,” explains Uzzah’s death as a result of the Ark’s inherent power. Can a similar explanation be given in the case of Nadab and Abihu? Is Alter correct in his assumption that the story of Uzzah is inconsistent with biblical morality? Does the approach of the Talmud, which appears to deem Uzzah a tzaddik, strengthen or weaken Alter’s assumption?
  3. In the verse immediately preceding the story of Nadab and Abihu, the words “fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed” describe a wondrous event. Two verses later, the exact same words describe the death of Aaron’s sons. Does the Mekhilta suggest a possible explanation for this parallel?
  4. Following the death of his sons, Aaron is silent. Later in the parasha, Aaron refuses to partake of the sacrifices, explaining: “See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" Are there any similarities between Aaron’s reaction and David’s reaction to Uzzah’s death?


Iyunei Shabbat is published weekly by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, The Masorti Movement and The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel in conjunction with the Masorti Movement in Israel and Masorti Olami-World Council of Conservative Synagogues.


Chief Editor: Rabbi Avinoam Sharon


פרסום ראשון: 04.17.09, 08:08
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