Why Were Nadav and Avihu Killed?



An Undefined Sin

Parashat Shemini opens with a description of the joyous occasion of the eighth day of the Tabernacle's consecration.  However, just as the service is completed and Hashem's glory descends upon the Mishkan, the climactic moment is marred by the tragic act of Nadav and Avihu and their resulting deaths (Vayikra 10:1-2):


(א) וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי י"י אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם. (ב) וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי י"י וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי י"י.

(1) And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. (2) And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.

The verses attribute the brothers' deaths to bringing "foreign fire", but do not explain to what this refers or why it was problematic. If Nadav and Avihu simply brought incense, a commanded daily offering, why is it called "foreign"?  Moreover, why would such an action be punished as a capital crime, especially in the midst of celebrating the inauguration of the Mishkan?

"By My Close Ones I Will be Sanctified"

After the tragedy, Moshe tells Aharon: "הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר י"י לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" ("This is what Hashem said: by those close to me, I will be sanctified").  The statement is ambiguous. To whom does the phrase "my close ones" refer?  How was Hashem to be sanctified through them?  If Nadav and Avihu are the subject of these words, it suggests that even in death they were considered holy.  If so, though, why were they punished so severely?  Should they be considered sinful or beloved?

Additionally, when was it that Hashem said this?  Nowhere prior to this incident is there explicit evidence of any such comment.  Is it just to be assumed, or are Hashem's words hinted to elsewhere?1  If the latter, how might the original context of Hashem's remarks shed light on Nadav and Avihu's actions?

Additional Questions

  • "אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" – This phrase appears redundant, describing the fire as both "foreign" and "not commanded".  Are these two not one and the same?  Does the doubling suggest that perhaps one of the two terms needs to be reinterpreted?
  • Description of the death in Vayikra 16 – In speaking of Nadav and Avihu's death in Vayikra 16, there is no mention of a foreign fire, only that they died "בְּקׇרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי י"י" (when they approached before Hashem).  What does this say about the brothers' sin?  Was the problem in their offering or in their coming (too) close?
  • Threefold mention of "לִפְנֵי י"י" – Within the span of two verses, the phrase "לִפְנֵי י"י" appears three times, in connection to all of: the bringing of the incense, the death of the brothers, and the fire that consumed them.  Does the term mean the same thing in each of its appearances?  Does it refer to a specific geographical location or more generally to being in God's presence?  If the former, to which space does it refer?