Commentators struggle to understand why Nadav and Avihu were deserving of death. The vast majority of exegetes assume that such a fate must have been a Divine punishment for sin. Several Midrashic sources assert that the brothers erred in coming too close to the Divine, while others point to problematic ritual procedures and their bringing of an unauthorized offering or flame. An opinion in Vayikra Rabbah, in contrast, suggests that Nadav and Avihu suffered a vicarious punishment for Aharon's role in the Sin of the Golden Calf.
A minority of commentators propose that Nadav and Avihu were not particularly blameworthy and their death should not be regarded as a punishment. R"T Granot, elaborating on Rashbam, asserts that, as the brothers performed their normal daily service, they found themselves in the path of Hashem's fire and were killed in a tragic accident. Philo goes even further to suggest that Nadav and Avihu's actions were actually laudable, as they offered their entire beings to Hashem. Their death was thus the ultimate sanctification of His name.
Punished for Sin
Nadav and Avihu were killed as a Divine punishment for a sin.
Nadav and Avihu sinned by physically coming too close to the Divine presence.
- Entered Holy of Holies – An opinion in the Sifra, Bar Kappara in Vayikra Rabbah, and Abarbanel all fault Nadav and Avihu for entering the Inner Sanctum which was forbidden to all except the high priest on the Day of Atonement. As this was where Hashem's presence was most strongly felt, unauthorized entry was not only prohibited but also dangerous.
- Saw God – One opinion in Vayikra Rabbah, Tanchuma, Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan), and Rashi assert, instead, that Nadav and Avihu were punished not for their actions on the eighth day, but for having "seen God" ("וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל") at Mount Sinai,3 as described in Shemot 24.4 One could similarly explain that the problem was "seeing God" on the eighth day itself; as God's presence had descended and filled the entire Tabernacle, it is possible that the brothers encountered it upon their entry.5
- Those who suggest that the sin occurred on the eighth day might suggest that since the brothers were unauthorized to enter the Inner Sanctum/Tabernacle, any offering they brought there would be considered "foreign".
- Those who say that they were punished for seeing Hashem at Sinai might suggest instead that Nadav and Avihu did sin by bringing a foreign fire, yet this sin was not serious enough to warrant a punishment of death were it not for the fact that it followed their earlier offense.
- Revelation at Sinai – In Shemot 19, Hashem repeatedly warns the nation not to get too close to the mountain, telling them "כׇּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהָר מוֹת יוּמָת".
- Uzza and the ark – In Shemuel II 6, Uzza touched the Ark to ensure that it did not fall. Despite his good intentions, this resulted in his death.9
Nadav and Avihu violated proper protocol when bringing the incense offering.
- Unauthorized offering – Commentators explain this in one of two ways:
- Extra incense – Many of these sources12 explain that the brothers voluntarily brought their own individual incense offering.13 Since Shemot 30:9 states: "לֹא תַעֲלוּ עָלָיו קְטֹרֶת זָרָה", any extra incense offering was considered problematic.14
- Took Aharon's job – Abarbanel, instead, explains that the brothers were unauthorized to bring the offering, because on the eighth day Aharon alone was supposed to perform all aspects of the service,15 similar to rituals of the Day of Atonement which are discharged by the high priest alone.16 Seforno goes further in suggesting that throughout the forty years in the Wilderness only the high priest was allowed to bring incense (or perform any other services in the sanctuary) due to Hashem's constant presence in the Tabernacle.17
- Improper source of fire – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor,18 although a priest is normally allowed to bring fire of his own ("מן ההדיוט"),19 on this day, Hashem had wanted the sacrifices to be consumed only via His fire20 so as to glorify His name.21 Alternatively the fire for the incense offering must always be brought from the Altar (as per Vayikra 16:12),22 but Nadav and Avihu brought it from a regular source.23
- Not commanded – According to the Biur and R. Hirsch, the phrase explains why an "אֵשׁ זָרָה", even if not explicitly prohibited, is problematic. The fact that the fire or incense offering was not commanded is sufficient reason for it to be viewed as wrong. R. Hirsch emphasizes how there is no such thing as subjectivity in sacrificial service; a person cannot act on their own individual desires, but only on the commands of Hashem.24
- Prohibited – R"Y Bekhor Shor and Chizkuni instead read the verse to mean "which Hashem commanded not [to bring]",25 pointing to the prohibition in Shemot 30:9 against bringing a "foreign incense offering". The brothers were violating an explicit command and were therefore punished.
- Love of God – According to the Biur, R. Hirsch, and R. D"Z Hoffmann, Nadav and Avihu brought an extra sacrifice out of a desire for closeness to Hashem.28
- Concern for Hashem's honor – An opinion in the Sifra29 states that when the brothers saw that Aharon had finished his service but Hashem's presence had not descended, they worried and decided to bring fire of their own to help it along.30 Though their intentions were positive, their actions suggested a lack of faith and led to a lessening of God's glory.31
- Concern for Aharon's honor – According to Hoil Moshe, due to Aharon's sin with the Golden Calf, he was not worthy of meriting a miracle on the eighth day of the Consecration Ceremony, and thus it was only after Moshe intervened to pray for one32 that Hashem brought a miraculous fire33 to consume the offerings.34 Nadav and Avihu felt that Moshe's intervention sent a message to the nation that only Moshe's service (and not their father's) was pleasing to God. As such, they decided to bring the incense to prove that Aharon's family, too, was worthy of serving Hashem.35
- Mistaken assumptions – Seforno suggests that Nadav and Avihu assumed that just like incense is burned after the Daily Offering to honor the arrival of Hashem's presence, so too an incense offering was called for at the Mishkan's inauguration after Hashem's fire descended and His glory was revealed.36 According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, too, the brothers actions were based on a misunderstanding. They simply did not realize that Hashem did not want them to bring of their own fire on this day.37
- Arrogance – Shadal, in contrast, attributes the brothers' actions to excessive haughtiness and a desire to be honored like their father.38 Since they had not been assigned to perform any particular service, they took upon themselves one of the most prestigious rituals.
- Nadav and Avihu – R"Y Bekhor Shor, the Biur, R. Hirsch, R. D"Z Hoffman and the Hoil Moshe, all read the term "קְרֹבַי" as referring to Nadav and Avihu, who, despite their error, were still considered close to Hashem.39 Hashem was sanctified through them, since the nation realized that if such holy individuals could be punished, they certainly needed to be fastidious in their own observance so as to avoid similar punishment.
- Aharon – Those who read the brothers less positively might explain, as does Rashbam, that the term refers not to Nadav and Avihu, but to Aharon, who was being commanded to sanctify Hashem's name by continuing with Hashem's service rather than mourning over the death of his sons.40
- Serious sin –Those who view the sin as relating to an unauthorized incense might suggest that this was a serious sin, especially since a "קְטֹרֶת זָרָה" is explicitly prohibited. In the story of Korach, too, unauthorized incense offerings result in death.
- High expectations – The Biur, R. Hirsch, and the Hoil Moshe, nonetheless, assert that the brothers were punished so severely only due to their stature; Hashem is always more exacting with His loved ones.41
- Lesson to others – Those who assert that the sin was simply doing a "not commanded" action have a harder time explaining the punishment. R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ralbag maintains that it needed to be severe to teach the nation the importance of being exacting in observing the laws of sacrifices.42 Seeing how Hashem punished even those who were close to him, taught laymen how much more they needed to fear God.
Aharon's sons died, not for their own crime, but as a punishment to Aharon for his participation in the Sin of the Golden Calf.
Nadav and Avihu's actions alone would not have warranted their death, but their being in the wrong place at the wrong time caused them to be consumed by Hashem's fire.
- According to Rashbam, the brothers' mistake was in bringing "foreign fire" rather than waiting for the Heavenly fire to consume the incense. As above, although a priest is normally allowed to bring fire of his own ("אש מן ההדיוט"), during the Mishkan's consecration, Hashem had wanted to glorify His name by having all of the sacrifices be consumed via Divine fire. It is not clear from Rashbam, though, whether the brothers were aware of this, and it is possible that they simply made an understandable and unintentional error.53
- R. Granot suggests, instead, that the brothers were impatient for Hashem's revelation and tried to "hurry the end". According to him, this alone was not a severe enough sin to deserve capital punishment
- Necessary for Sanctification of God – According to Rashbam, the brothers' bringing of their own fire contravened Hashem's will as it would have taken away from the entire point of the day - Hashem's revelation through Divine, not human, fire. Since their actions would cause a desecration of Hashem's name,61 especially given that the entire nation was waiting outside for Hashem's glory to appear, Hashem allowed the Divine fire to consume them on its route to the Bronze Altar.62 It is not clear from Rashbam, however, if he views the brothers' death as a punishment, or simply a necessary measure.
- Work Accident – T. Granot, in contrast, explicitly posits that the fire that killed Nadav and Avihu was not intended to punish them at all, but only simply to consume Aharon's sacrifices. Unfortunately, the brothers happened to be in the way and suffered the natural consequences. In other words, their death was a tragic accident rather than a punishment. This variation must contend with the question of why Hashem allowed such an accident, rather than waiting to bring the fire when no one was in the way. It could respond that since the brothers had sinned, albeit erroneously, they were not worthy of a miracle to save them.
- According to T. Granot, it is understandable that the brothers are referred to as "close to Hashem" since they died without major sin.63
- Rashbam, however, suggests that the term refers not to Nadav and Avihu, but to Aharon, who was being commanded to sanctify Hashem's name by continuing with Hashem's service rather than mourning over the death of his sons.
Sanctified to God
Nadav and Avihu's deaths were not a punishment but rather a sanctifying of their souls to Hashem.
- Philo reads this fire metaphorically to refer to the passion of Nadav and Avihu's love for God which they offered up to Him with their whole being. It is referred to as a "foreign" fire because it was "foreign to earthly existence since it belonged to the realm of God".
- More simply, the verse could mean that Nadav and Avihu offered a non-obligatory, or voluntary, sacrifice. It was called foreign because it had not been commanded. According to this reading, the phrase "אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" comes to explain the term "אֵשׁ זָרָה". It does not have a negative connotation, but rather comes to highlight the brothers' desire to give even more to Hashem than He had required.