Shemini, opens with the historic ceremony marking the consecration of Aaron and his sons as כֹּהֲנִים–Kohanim–priests. This ceremony, which took place on the first day of the Hebrew month Nissan, was the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremony celebrating the newly erected Tabernacle.
This day was, particularly for Aaron, the day for which he eagerly awaited. Aaron had faced many challenges during his life. He had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the brutal enslavement period. And, despite helping Moses bring the ten plagues, resulting in the people’s exodus from Egypt, his efforts as well as Moses’, were not always appreciated by the people. Aaron also tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade the people from worshiping the Golden Calf. And now, finally, after all his efforts and much grief, Aaron was privileged with the great honor of being selected by the Al-mighty to serve as the High Priest of Israel. And even more, his four sons were going to serve at Aaron’s side.
The Torah, in Leviticus 10:1 records, וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי השׁם אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם, And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took their firepan and placed fire on it, and they placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before God with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded them. At that moment, in the middle of this resplendent consecration ceremony, a Divine fire comes and extinguishes the lives of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu.
Moses tries to console his brother upon the death of his sons by saying, Leviticus 10:3, הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה׳ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד, this is what God meant when He said, “I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me,” as if to say that in their death, God had sanctified the boys. Aaron’s reaction to all this is: וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן , total silence!
The terrifying account of the deaths of Aaron’s eldest sons is followed in the Torah by laws affirming the limitations of priestly mourning. These statutes are followed by the Torah’s instructions to Aaron and his sons that priests are forbidden to drink wine while performing the Temple service.
While the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a tragedy for the Jewish people, their passing was truly heartbreaking for their father Aaron. He had longed for this very day, and at the highest moment of personal joy, he suffered this profound and wrenching loss from which he would likely never recover. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing meaningful that can be said by a parent, or to a parent, who loses a child.
The rabbis offer a host of speculative reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Perhaps, suggest the rabbis, these boys were arrogant and irreverent at Mount Sinai, a time which demanded uncompromised reverence. Perhaps it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be because they didn’t use the vessels of the Mishkan, the sanctuary, and instead (as is suggested by the language of the verse) brought their own firepans? There are even those who maintain that the reason Nadav and Avihu were punished is because they refused to marry and have children, feeling that no woman was good enough for them. Some rabbis suggest that Nadav and Avihu showed a lack of respect for Moses and Aaron, and would often be overheard saying: “When will these old fellows die so that we may take control of the community?”
On the other hand, there are commentators who insist that Nadav and Avihu were entirely righteous, in fact, bringing the foreign fire was their only offense. Despite the fact that they meant well, their actions were wrong, and they were punished for them. The fact that the Torah emphasizes אֵשׁ זָרָה , a strange fire, indicates that they were guilty of nothing else. Other commentators suggest that though they used the wrong means to bring down the Divine Presence, their motives were noble, inspired by love and joy. Their punishment, in fact, implies that they had attained an especially high spiritual level, which is why God slew them with a pure fire, leaving their clothing intact, and that God grieved over them even more than Aaron did.
Despite the wide range of possible reasons, the most widely accepted reason for the death of Nadav and Avihu is that they officiated while in a state of inebriation. This may explain the sudden juxtaposition of the prohibition cited in Leviticus 10:8-11, concerning the priests drinking intoxicants before or during the Temple service.
From the tragic account of the deaths of Nadav and vbihu, we, today, should take a few moments to focus on the Jewish attitude toward intoxicants and drugs.
In Numbers 6, the Bible speaks of people called, נְזִירִים, Nazarites, who thoroughly dedicate themselves to G-d: they refuse to cut their hair, avoid contamination with the dead, and abstain from drinking wine. Mighty Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite.
With the exception of the Jewish fast days, and mourners during the most intense stage of mourning, the case of the Nazarite is the only instance where Jewish law prohibits drinking. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. After all, as the Psalmists says in Psalms 104:15, וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ , wine cheers the hearts of men.
Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used for the Kiddush–the sanctification prayer on Shabbat and holidays, for Havdalah–the closing Shabbat and festival ritual, and of course, at Jewish weddings.