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Torah Commentary
Sh'mini (April 18, 2009)

The Curious Case of the Unknown Fire

Sherry Nehmer,
Director of

oh dear,” sighed Watson, frowning at the huge text in his hands. “I find myself quite perplexed.”

“Indeed?” Sherlock Holmes put down The Times and regarded his friend with a piercing gaze. “Do elucidate, old boy.”

“You see, Holmes, I’m reading the Torah — ”

“ — As one does — ”

“Yes, and the story of Nadab and Abihu, in Leviticus — you know, the sons of Aaron — it’s utterly confounding! These poor fellows do exactly as they’ve been instructed, each taking his fire pan, laying in incense and making an offering of fire, just as they’ve done for verse after verse. But in Leviticus 10:1-3, their efforts are met with a fiery death! I say, is that fair? Why do they deserve such a fate?”

“Let us examine the evidence.” Holmes took the tome from Watson’s grasp. “Ah, Leviticus, the portion Sh’mini, and the curious case of Nadab and Abihu. Indeed, this is quite the three-pipe problem.” Holmes tapped ashes from his meerschaum pipe and placed it on the mantle. “You say, Watson, that these eldest sons of Aaron did exactly as they were told…but did they?”

“Well, in the very last line of the previous portion — you see, here — we’re told, ‘And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses.’ And there are other instances in the chapter of fire being brought as an offering — so why, I ask, is the same act here deemed worthy of death?”

“As usual,” drawled Holmes, “you see the clues before you, and yet you cannot see the forest for the trees.”

“Really, Holmes, I — ”

“I’m disappointed in you. There are clues a-plenty. Consider this: Not five verses later, the Lord speaks to Aaron, saying ‘Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages.’”

Watson let out a breath. “Are you saying Nadab and Abihu were intoxicated when they brought the fire to the Tent of Meeting? Is that why they are punished?”

“No,” replied Holmes with more than a hint of smugness. “Actually, I think it’s something of a red herring, merely a coincidence of placement of verses.” He put up a hand to quash his friend’s sputtering reply. “Let us look more carefully at the words: ‘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.’ That’s it, succinctly put.”

“‘Alien’ fire?”

“Strange fire, or unknown fire — in brief, not the holy fire required for appropriate worship. But more important, they brought fire that ‘He had not enjoined upon them.’ The offering had not been authorized by God, nor had they been commanded to bring it to the sanctuary.”

“What was their motivation?”

Holmes shrugged. “Some early Rabbis speculated that Nadab and Abihu were punished because they intended to seek glory for themselves, perhaps replacing their father and Moses in positions of leadership. Perhaps they were impatient to advance, and so they made an offering hoping to enhance their own status. In a slightly different vein, Rashi argues that rather than following protocols, they took it upon themselves to decide what to offer, how to bring the offering and when. This arrogance, therefore, is what led to their demise.”

“I see,” Watson said slowly. “They took the law into their own hands.”

“Exactly! I’ll make a detective of you yet, Watson.”

“Hmph. So are you saying one should never take the initiative?”

“Not at all! I believe the text is telling us not to bring our own ambitions or arrogance to worship, but to be humble before God.”

“Right,” muttered Watson darkly. “Good luck with that humility, Holmes.”

“In brief,” concluded Holmes, ignoring him, “we must not only worship for the right reasons and with the best intentions, but we must not put on a show or be self-aggrandizing for that renders us in service only to our own selfishness.” Holmes picked up his pipe again. “Of course, many scholars have written their own opinions and interpretations of the matter with far more scholarship and insight than I, and some have used this story to illustrate why the practice of worship should not change and grow. Whatever our conclusions, I think it fair to say that these two minor characters, given only a few sentences in Leviticus, teach a lesson that is not minor at all.”

“So, if I understand you, Holmes, it is your conclusion that although it was God who struck down Nadab and Abihu, it was really their arrogance and ambition that killed them. Which is to say — ”

“Yes, Watson,” said Holmes, lighting his pipe. “It was Nadab and Abihu…in the Tent of Meeting…with the fire pan.”

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