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Parashat Shemini: The Death of Nadab and Abihu

We read in Parashat Shemini of the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aharon’s older two sons, who brought an incense offering upon the altar. The Torah (10:1) emphasizes, “Asher Lo Siva Otam” – that Nadav and Abihu were not commanded to bring this offering. It seems clear from the Torah’s account here that Nadab and Abihu were punished for bringing this offering which they were not instructed to bring.

Earlier in the Humash, however, we find a different reason for why Nadab and Abihu were punished. Towards the end of Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 24:11), we read that Nadab and Abihu “ate and drank” as they beheld the revelation of G-d at the time of Matan Torah, and G-d “did not send His hand” against them. Rashi explains that they deserved to die for irreverently indulging in food and drink as they beheld G-d’s revelation, but G-d decided to delay their punishment rather than kill them at the festive occasion of Matan Torah. This clearly indicates that the sin for which they were punished was not offering incense, but rather brazenly eating and drinking at the time of the Revelation. How can we reconcile these two accounts?

One explanation is that the incense offering brought by Nadab and Abihu was not actually forbidden. The Torah, as mentioned, emphasizes the point that they were not commanded to offer this incense; this does not necessarily imply that it was forbidden. The reason for this emphasis is that it explains how G-d was able to kill Nadab and Abihu at this time, when they brought an offering. There is a famous rule that “Sheluheh Misva Einam Nizokin” – a person is not harmed while involving himself in a Misva (unless he puts himself in an especially dangerous situation in the process). We might wonder, then, how Nadab and Abihu could be harmed while serving G-d in the Mishkan. If a person is guaranteed protection while performing a Misva, then how could Nadab and Abihu be killed while bringing an offering to G-d? The Torah’s answer to this question is “Asher Lo Siva Otam” – they were not commanded to bring this offering. Involvement in a Misva guarantees protection only in situations of “Mesuveh Ve’oseh” – when a person fulfills a Misva which he is obligated to perform. If a person voluntarily accepts a certain Misva upon himself, the Misva will not necessarily ensure his protection from harm. Therefore, Nadab and Abihu were punished for their disrespect at the time for Matan Torah, but what allowed this to happen at the time of their incense offering was the fact that “Lo Siva Otam” – that they were involved in a Misva which they were not commanded to perform.

Interestingly, there is an unusual cantillation note underneath the word “Lo” in the phrase “Asher Lo Siva Otam,” a note called “Mercha Kefula.” This note appears very rarely in the Humash, and we customarily refer to it by the name “Tereh Ta’ameh.” The expression “Tereh Ta’ameh” means “two reasons.” It is used here to allude to the fact that Nadab and Abihu’s death at this time resulted from a combination of two different reasons – their irreverence at Matan Torah, and their bringing a voluntary incense offering. The note is placed underneath this phrase – “Asher Lo Siva Otam” – to allude to the fact that there was also a second factor contributing to their punishment, namely, the disrespect they showed at the time of the Revelation.

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