“Using, Not Abusing, a Sanctified Substance”
(updated and revised from Shemini 5763-2003)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, opens at a most auspicious event, on the eighth and final day of the inauguration ceremony of the newly erected Tabernacle. The calendar date is the first of Nissan, also the day that Aaron and his sons were to be consecrated into the priesthood to serve as priests–Kohanim.

This day, for Aaron, was the day he had dreamed of for his entire life.

Aaron’s life had not been easy. Alone, he had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the early days of the enslavement period. After Moses returned to Egypt from Midian, Aaron had served faithfully at his brother’s side, confronting Pharaoh and demanding that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt to worship for three days. He tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the newly freed people from worshiping the Golden Calf. Now, finally, after all his efforts and much grief, Aaron was to be installed as the High Priest of Israel. Even more satisfying was the fact that his four sons were going to serve alongside him.

Describing the consecration ceremony, the Torah, in Leviticus 10:1, reports, 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 fire pan and placed fire on it, and placed incense on the pan, and sacrificed the incense before G-d with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded. Suddenly, in the midst of the consecration ceremony, a fire comes forth from G-d and consumes Nadav and Abihu.

Moses tries to console his brother concerning the young men’s death, recalling to Aaron that G-d had said to him (Leviticus 10:3): בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ , “I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me!” He explained to Aaron, that through death, G-d had sanctified and elevated Nadav and Abihu. Aaron’s reaction to the tragedy is then recorded (Leviticus 10:3): וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן –total silence.

The young men’s bodies were then removed from the Tabernacle, and the Torah immediately instructs the remaining children of Aaron, Elazar and Ithamar, regarding the limitations of priestly mourning. This instruction is then followed by the law prohibiting priests to be in a state of inebriation when performing the sacred service.

While the deaths of Nadav and Abihu were a tragedy for the entire Jewish nation, the event was truly heartbreaking for their father, Aaron. At the moment of his highest joy, he loses two of his precious children. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing that can be said by a parent, or to a parent, who loses a child.

The rabbis, who are perplexed by the lack of clarity regarding the cause of this tragedy, provide a host of reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. Perhaps, say the rabbis, the boys were among those who, after the revelation at Sinai, were arrogant and irreverent on the mountain (Exodus 24:11). Perhaps, it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be that instead of using the vessels of the Tabernacle (as suggested by the language of the verse), they brought their own fire pans? The Midrash Rabbah (Leviticus 20:10), suggests that the sin of Nadav and Abihu was that they refused to marry and have children because they felt that no woman was good enough for them. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 52a, states that Nadav and Abihu showed a lack of respect for Moses and Aaron, even saying publicly: “When will these old fellows die, so that we may take control of the community?”

Other commentators disagree, arguing strongly that there is no evidence to support the claim that Nadav and Abihu were sinful. To the contrary, they claim that Nadav and Abihu were exceedingly righteous. The Midrash Tanchuma (Leviticus 6:6), maintains that the fact that the Torah emphasizes that they brought an אֵשׁ זָרָה , a strange fire, indicates that they might have been misguided only in this one matter, but otherwise they were entirely pure, and guilty of nothing else. Other commentators say that though they used the wrong means to bring the Divine Presence into the Tabernacle, their motives were noble, and inspired by love and joy. Even their punishment implies that they had attained a high spiritual level. That is why G-d slew them with a pure fire, their clothes remaining intact. In fact, suggest the rabbis, the Al-mighty grieved over Nadav and Abihu more than their own father, Aaron.

Whatever the reason for the deaths of the two young men, the juxtaposition of Leviticus 10:8-11 concerning priests not drinking intoxicants before they perform the service in the Temple, establishes the prohibition of drinking at the forefront of the reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. While on duty, intoxicants are strictly prohibited.

The severe punishment meted out to the sons of Aaron leaves us with compelling reason to carefully study the Jewish attitude toward intoxicants and drugs. In Numbers 6, the Bible teaches about Nazarites, people who dedicate themselves to G-d by refusing to cut their hair, not coming in contact with the dead, and abstaining from drinking wine. The mighty Samson and the Prophet Samuel, were two of the most noted Nazarites.

The case of the Nazarite is the only case in the Bible where drinking is prohibited. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. In fact, the Psalmist writes in Psalm 104:15: וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ , that wine cheers the hearts of men.

Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used in the sanctification of the Sabbath and the Holiday Kiddush, at Havdalah–the closing Shabbat and holiday service, and, of course, during the marriage ceremony.

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 the studies indicate that those who are involved in Jewish life on a regular basis, those who adopt the traditional customs and rituals associated with Jewish tradition, are not subject to intoxication to the same extent as those who have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Hence, wine never becomes “forbidden fruit,” and is therefore drunk in moderation in most Jewish homes that observe these traditional rituals. Among secular Jews, however, who have given up the value system associated with traditional customs, the incidence of alcohol abuse is more common.

A paraphrase of the German quip, “Wie est sich christelt, so judelt sich”–as the Christians do–so do the Jews, very well describes the current Jewish community’s situation with respect to alcohol and drug abuse. Jews are subject to the same blandishments and temptations of the general populace, and abuse of alcohol and drugs is clearly on the rise. The fact that in the Jewish community, traditional Jews don’t hide or forbid intoxicants from their children, but instead teach them about it in a socially acceptable way, has proven to be quite effective. A good example of this is that on the festive holiday of Purim, which was observed last month, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) states that a person is required to drink עַד דְּלָא יָדַע , until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. But, we may not drink beyond the point where we are no longer capable of discerning the difference between Haman and Mordechai.

Alcoholism and drug abuse are serious business. They are not something that can be ignored. The Jewish community needs to make certain that our Sabbaths, festivals and celebrations are not marred by unacceptable practices of wanton drinking. Wine is a divine gift, and plays a key role in Judaism. We need to make sure that it is treated with respect, and used as a special gift.

May you be blessed.