“Substance Abuse in Judaism
(Revised and updated from Shemini 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat 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 Abihu, each took their firepan and placed fire on it, and they placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before G-d 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 Abihu.

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 G-d meant when He said, “I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me,” as if to say that in their death, G-d 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 Abihu 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 Abihu. 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 Abihu 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 Abihu 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 Abihu 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 G-d slew them with a pure fire, leaving their clothing intact, and that G-d 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 Abihu 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 Abihu, 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.

Extensive studies of Jewish intoxication, indicate that Jews drink about as much as non-Jews and are subject to the same vagaries as all drinkers of intoxicants in the United States. What is unusual, is that those who are involved in Jewish life from youth, and those who later on in life adopt traditional Jewish rituals, customs and the value system associated with Jewish tradition, are subject to alcohol abuse much less frequently than those who were raised without tradition or have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Wine, then, never becomes a forbidden substance, and is therefore, usually drunk in moderation in most Jewish homes that practice these rituals. Among secular Jews, however, who have given up the value system associated with traditional customs, the incidence of intoxication is far more frequent.

As regular readers know, I’ve suggested many times, that American Jews are highly subject to many of the same vagaries and blandishments of non-Jewish citizens of the United States of America, and that Jewish abuse of alcohol and drugs in America is certainly on the rise. The practice of traditional Jews who do not hide intoxicants from the little children, but rather teach them about the proper use of these substances in moderation, in a socially acceptable environment, has proven to be quite effective. Even on the festive holiday of Purim, which we recently celebrated, the Talmud, Megillah 7a,advises that a person is required to drink עַד דְּלָא יָדַע , until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, underscoring that one may not drink beyond the point where we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.

Alcoholism and drug abuse is serious business. It is not something to be ignored. When the issue is not properly addressed, the entire community is at risk. We need to make certain that our festivals and our celebrations, as well as our inaugurations, are not marred by dangerous practices involving liquor.

Wine is a Divine gift which plays a key role in Judaism. We must be certain that it is properly used as a gift, and not abused.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.