The story of the deaths of Aaron’s two sons Nadab and Abihu is bewildering and has sparked considerably speculation concerning what they did to evoke God’s wrath and deserve such a violent end. Told succinctly (in just three verses!) the story generates far more questions than the words required to tell it.
וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when God said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10: 1-3)
Rather than provide a review of the many interpretations that have been proffered over the ages, I want to share with you just one from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 63a. The discussion has relevance for us, living as we do in a society where the wisdom of the elderly, and the opinions of teachers, scholars, experts, and figures of authority often evoke more disdain and contempt than respect.
The Rabbis are discussing the imperative to respect scholars and older teachers.
Rava said, “[A disciple] is forbidden [to render halakhic decisions] in the presence of his teacher and is liable to death [for doing so]. If he is not in the presence of his [teacher’s] presence, he is forbidden but not liable to death.”
There is no way to soften Rava’s claim. He is telling us that Heaven will cut short the life of a student of Torah who, while in the presence of his teacher, renders a legal decision that contradicts his master’s opinion; to do so while not in the teacher’s presence is forbidden, but will not result in punishment from Heaven. For Rava, countermanding one’s teacher is tantamount to undermining his authority, a breathtaking act of disrespect that Heaven will not tolerate. For us, it is Rava’s claim that is breathtaking. Let’s exhale and see where the Gemara goes.
If he is not in his [teacher’s] presence, is he not [liable to death]? Was it not taught [in a baraita]: R. Eliezer [ben Hyrcanus] says, “The sons of Aaron (i.e., Nadab and Abihu) did not die until they rendered a halakhic decision in the presence of Moses their teacher.”
Gemara asks: Are you so sure that he doesn’t warrant death just because he’s not in his teacher’s presence when he renders his contrary decision? Perhaps he deserves death even when he renders a decision at a distance from his teacher. Gemara brings a baraita that will ultimately prove Rava correct: rendering the decision in the master’s immediately presence is the far greater crime that provokes Heaven to retaliate. The baraita is attributed to R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, one of the primary disciples of the leader of the rabbinic community at the time of the destruction for the Second Temple, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. R. Eliezer sees a parallel between Rava’s teaching to the story of Nadab and Abihu: he claims they did precisely what Rava said is forbidden and that is why they died. How do we know that Nadab and Abihu intentionally undermined or ignored Moses’ authority? Talmud provides scriptural support:
What scriptural inference did they (i.e., Nadab and Abihu) make? The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar… (Leviticus 1:7). They said, “Although [it says] Fire came forth from before Adonai (Leviticus 9:24), it is a mitzvah to bring ordinary [fire].
Leviticus 9:24 says that God will bring forth fire from heaven for the altar, but Nadab and Abihu concluded on their own—without consulting Moses, and that is the primary point here—on the basis of Leviticus 1:7 that they were commanded to bring fire to the altar. Leviticus 1:7 but does not specify precisely when or how to bring fire to the altar and so the brothers brought the fire they would normally bring to the altar. The “alien fire” of 10:1 (see above) is their ordinary fire, which the Talmud understands to be in defiance of Moses’ opinion as expressed in Leviticus 9:24. Nadab and Abihu effectively render a halakhic decision that contradicts that of their teacher, Moses, who in Leviticus 9:24 stipulates that God will supply divine fire. Therefore, Heaven punished them with death.
R. Eliezer recounts an episode from his experience that reflects his interpretation of the incident surrounding the death of Aaron’s sons. He, too, suffered a student who rendered a halakhic decision contrary to his own and did so in his presence.
R. Eliezer had a disciple who rendered a halakhic decision in his presence. R. Eliezer said to his wife Ima Shalom, “I will be amazed if this one lives out the year.” [Ima Shalom] said to him, “Are you a prophet?” He said, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14), but I learned this [from my teachers]: Anyone who renders a halakhic decision in the presence of his teacher is liable to death.”
R. Eliezer speculates that Heaven will respond punitively to his student’s audacious act. His wife, Ima Shalom, unaware of the teaching that students who act in this way will be punished by Heaven, asks how he can know what will happen in the future to this student. Is he a prophet? No, he responds, quoting a famous verse from the prophet Amos, it’s not a matter of prophecy, but rather of Torah law: “Anyone who renders a halakhic decision in the presence of his teacher is liable to death.”
So extraordinary is the claim—we’re tempted to say radical or extreme—that the Talmud goes out of its way to let us know that R. Eliezer’s story was not allegorical, emphasizing that it really happened.
And Rabbah bar bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan, “That disciple’s name was Yehudah b. Gurya and he was three parasangs away from [R. Eliezer].” He was in his presence. But [R. Yochanan] said he was three parasangs away from him! Then according to your reasoning, why [did R. Yochanan say the disciple’s] name and his father’s name? Only so that you would not claim that this was merely a parable [and did not really happen].
But even more: There is reason to believe that the student, who apparently died within the year, did not render his decision in the immediate physical presence of R. Eliezer. He was three parasangs away (see n. 1: he was nearly 1.8 miles, well beyond the distance that would make him liable for death; nonetheless, Heaven saw fit to mete out the ultimate punishment. Gemara goes on to debate whether the student was three parasangs away when he rendered the decision, or lived three parasangs from R. Eliezer, but in the end, it concludes that his death confirms Rava’s statement to be true.
This interpretation of Nadab and Abihu’s death, and the story of Yehudah b. Gurya’s demise, are troubling on many levels. On the theological level: The claim that God operates in this way might well contribute to greater constraint (borne of fear) on the part of students vis-a-vis delivering legal rulings that contradict and undermine those of their teachers, but it promotes a view of God as vindictive and punitive. Moreover, although the intent of the teaching may be to promote respect of teachers, it invites speculation concerning what those who suffer an untimely death may have done to provoke the wrath of heaven, a decidedly dangerous judgmental stance to infuse into the rabbinic community.
On a historical level: This interpretation of what lies behind the deaths of Nadab and Abihu signals the Rabbis’ anxiety about their own authority, and the prospect of seeing their opinions upended by their own students. Perhaps, given the likelihood that rabbinic authority in the Jewish community at this time was not nearly as established, entrenched, and respected in the broader Jewish community as the Rabbis themselves project through their stories, Rava’s ruling and the supporting baraita reflect the attempt to construct the values and procedures for embedding rabbinic authority in the culture of the Jewish community.
This is an anxiety felt in every generation, and in every profession. It is about expertise, but also about basic respect for the learning and wisdom of those who came before.
Yes, this is about the unique quality of halakhic interpretation in the Talmudic period and the teacher-disciple relationship in the Amoraic rabbinic world. But there is also something universal about the anxieties expressed here. Those who are young fear they will not have the opportunity to spread their wings and have their opinions taken seriously. Those who are older fear they will become irrelevant, surpassed by their own students. The Rabbis provide a useful insight for any age.
One last thing: Rather than see ourselves in competition for authority, we might strive for greater cooperation and sharing. The jobs website has posted an article detailing what older and younger workers can learn from one another. While this does not address the relationship between teacher and disciple, or jockeying for authority, it is related because learning and conveying various kinds of wisdom are tied up with respect and authority. The author, Dan Woog, notes:
For the first time ever, four distinct generations share the workplace: the Silents (who are in their mid-60s on up), Baby Boomers (mid-40s to mid-60s), X-ers (mid-20s to mid-40s) and Millennials (the newest workers). The work and life experiences of each group are unique, but the divide is clearest between the two oldest generations and the two youngest.
Nonetheless, Woog asserts, each group has something to teach the other. Older workers can teach their younger colleagues how to cope with hard times and regret, the importance of loyalty, and interpersonal skills; they can share their vast experience and encourage independence and self-reliance. Younger colleagues can help older workers to learn new technology, and open their eyes to the value of diversity, the reality of job-hopping, the necessity of risk-taking, the importance of balancing work and life, and renew in them the sense that they can fulfill their dreams.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
In yet another direction, Dr. Rabbi Richard Hidary’s PhD dissertation (New York University), "," explores the extent to which Talmudic rabbis tolerated diversity in halakhic practice, a direct offshoot of halakhic decisions. From the abstract:
“By comparing dozens of Yerushalmi and Bavli parallel sugyot, we have found that the Yerushalmi generally views diversity of practice negatively, preferring a monistic view of halakha, while the Bavli takes a more pluralistic attitude. Tannaitic sources mostly tend towards a monistic view, but also include some of the most strongly pluralistic statements in rabbinic literature.
“One explanation for the split between the two Talmuds is the difference in the distribution of the Jewish population in each country. The rabbis in Babylonia were scattered in various cities and were thus able to maintain independence from each other as they legislated for their local populations. The rabbis in Palestine were concentrated in a few neighboring cities in the north such that different practices in close proximity lead to tension.
“A second and more important explanation is rooted in the intellectual culture of the rabbis in each location. The Yerushalmi sees halakha as a mimetic set of static traditions and so it seeks out the one most authentic practice. The Bavli intellectualizes halakha and so recognizes the validity of multiple views and practices that result from rational argumentation. This difference between the Talmuds corresponds to findings of previous scholars regarding the value of multiple opinions and debate.”
It would seem to me that while geographic dispersion and distance might well promote a broader spectrum of practices, given the physical impediments to travel and thereby to checking up on what others are saying and doing, that might also augur for tightening the reigns of authority in one’s own district.