Why Were Nadav and Avihu Killed?

Exegetical Approaches

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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.

Breached Boundaries

Nadav and Avihu sinned by physically coming too close to the Divine presence.

How and when? These sources offer two possibilities as to the nature of the problematic action and when it transpired:
  • 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,4 as described in Shemot 24.5  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.6
Where is "לִפְנֵי י"י"? Those who maintain that the brothers entered the Inner Sanctum point to this phrase as proof, understanding "לִפְנֵי י"י" to refer to the Holy of Holies, where Hashem's presence dwells.7  It is also possible that it refers even to the Outer Sanctuary, but due to Hashem's presence there, this too was forbidden.
"בְּקׇרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי י"י" – The emphasis in Vayikra 16's description of the sin on "when they came close to Hashem" might support this approach.  As a result, Aharon is also warned there against entering the Holy of Holies on a regular basis ("וְאַל יָבֹא בְכׇל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת").
"אֵשׁ זָרָה" – This phrase is difficult for this position since these sources posit that the problem was not in the offering itself. 
  • 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.
"אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" – This position might read this phrase as referring back to the earlier words "וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי י"י" rather than the immediately preceding words "אֵשׁ זָרָה" (the verse would thus be a מקרא מסורס).  It was the coming too close to Hashem which had not been commanded.
"הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר י"י לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" – This position could explain this phrase to mean that Hashem had said "Through those who come close, I will be consecrated".  ChizkuniVayikra 10:1-3About R. Chizkiyah b. Manoach asserts that the source of this statement is Hashem's explicit words at Sinai: "וְגַם הַכֹּהֲנִים הַנִּגָּשִׁים אֶל י"י יִתְקַדָּשׁוּ".‎8
Severity of the punishment – If the brothers actually saw Hashem's presence, their death is easily explained. This is the consequence of getting too close, as Hashem says, "לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי".‎9  Even just entering sacred space is a serious breach and deserves punishment, regardless of a person's motives.
Biblical parallels – Several stories in Tanakh recount similar punishments for breaching boundaries:
  • 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.10
The Yom HaKippurim Service – The verses which describe the service of the Day of Atonement connect it to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The Hoil MosheVayikra 10About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi asserts that the entire service was necessary to cleanse the Inner Sanctum from the impurity caused by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  Alternatively, the directives might be coming to prevent a repeat of the sin, teaching Aharon the proper protocol to safely enter the Inner Sanctum.

Problematic Procedure

Nadav and Avihu violated proper protocol when bringing the incense offering.

What protocol was transgressed? The brothers either brought an unauthorized offering (אֵשׁ זָרָה" =קְטֹרֶת זָרָה")11 or it was the flame itself which was the problem.12  The sources disagree regarding what might have been wrong with each:
  • Unauthorized offering – Commentators explain this in one of two ways:
    • Extra incense – Many of these sources13 explain that the brothers voluntarily brought their own individual incense offering.14 Since Shemot 30:9 states: "לֹא תַעֲלוּ עָלָיו קְטֹרֶת זָרָה", any extra incense offering was considered problematic.15
    • 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,16 similar to rituals of the Day of Atonement which are discharged by the high priest alone.17  SfornoVayikra 24:3About R. Ovadyah Sforno 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.18
  • Improper source of fire –  According to R"Y Bekhor Shor,19 although a priest is normally allowed to bring fire of his own ("מן ההדיוט"),‎20‎‎ on this day, Hashem had wanted the sacrifices to be consumed only via His fire21 so as to glorify His name.22  Alternatively the fire for the incense offering must always be brought from the Altar (as per Vayikra 16:12),23 but Nadav and Avihu brought it from a regular source.24  
"אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" – These commentators explain this verse in one of two ways:
  • 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.25
  • Prohibited – R"Y Bekhor Shor26 and Chizkuni instead read the verse to mean "which Hashem commanded not [to bring]",27 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.
Where is "לִפְנֵי י"י"? Most of these sources28 would likely explain that "לִפְנֵי י"י" refers to the Outer Sanctum where the brothers brought the incense on the altar.29
What motivated the brothers? The commentators offer a variety of possible motivations for the brothers, some more noble, some less so:
  • 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.30 
  • Concern for Hashem's honor – An opinion in the Sifra31 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.32  Though their intentions were positive, their actions suggested a lack of faith and led to a lessening of God's glory.33
  • 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 one34 that Hashem brought a miraculous fire35 to consume the offerings.36  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.37
  • Mistaken assumptions – Sforno 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.38  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.39
  • Arrogance – Shadal, in contrast, attributes the brothers' actions to excessive haughtiness and a desire to be honored like their father.40 Since they had not been assigned to perform any particular service, they took upon themselves one of the most prestigious rituals.
"בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" – To whom does this refer?
  • 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.41  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 RashbamVayikra 10:1-3About R. Shemuel b. Meir,42 that the term refers not to Nadav and Avihu, but to Aharon,43 who was being commanded to sanctify Hashem's name by continuing with Hashem's service rather than mourning over the death of his sons.44
Severity of punishment
  • 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.45
  • 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.46 Seeing how Hashem punished even those who were close to him, taught laymen how much more they needed to fear God.
Context – prohibition to drink wine – According to this approach, the prohibition of officiating priests drinking wine follows our story as another warning of the need to be exacting and careful (and thus unimpaired by drink) when serving in the Mikdash.

Vicarious Punishment

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.

Sins of the father – This approach maintains that sometimes Hashem punishes children for their parent's sins. Thus, even though it was Aharon who sinned, it was his children who were killed. For a full discussion of the issue and various explanations of the phenomenon, see Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins?
Why now? Or HaChayyimVayikra 10:1About R. Chayyim b. Atar asserts that before Aharon could serve as high priest in the Mishkan, his previous sins needed to be atoned for and punished.  He claims that, for this reason, the Torah links the description of the Service on the Day of Atonement to Nadav and Avihu's death; only after their death and his own atonement could Aharon serve and atone for others.48
"הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר י"י לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" – Rashi claims that Hashem made this statement when He first relayed the commands regarding the consecration of the Tabernacle in Shemot 29,49 saying: "וְנֹעַדְתִּי שָׁמָּה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִקְדַּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי".‎50  Although, at that point, the brothers had not yet done anything at all blameworthy, their deaths could already be decreed, since they were a punishment for the earlier act of Aharon.51  However, since they themselves were innocent, the brothers are called "קְרֹבַי".
Severity of the punishment – Since Aharon's actions led others to worship the Calf, a harsh punishment would seem warranted.  For a discussion of Aharon's actions and the nature of the nation's sin, see Sin of the Golden Calf
"וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי י"י אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" – This approach must explain why the verses imply that Nadav and Avihu erred, even though they themselves did nothing wrong.  It might explain that the brothers did mistakenly bring a foreign fire, but since this was not prohibited (and merely not commanded) it would not have been considered a capital crime were it not that Hashem wanted to punish their father.
Where is "לִפְנֵי י"י"? This position would likely understand this term to refer to the Outer Sanctum, where the brothers were permitted to enter.
"וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן" – This approach might explain that Aharon was silent, recognizing that the decree was his fault.

Work Accident

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.

Verses out of order – Rashbam posits that the story of Nadav and Avihu really occurred before Hashem's fire consumed Aharon's offerings as described in Vayikra 9:24, but is told only later for literary reasons.53  It is on this backdrop that he explains the rest of the story.
"כִּי הַיּוֹם י״י נִרְאָה אֲלֵיכֶם" – According to Rashbam, when Moshe tells the nation at the beginning of the eighth day of the Consecration Ceremony, that "Hashem is to appear" he is referring to a tangible expression of Hashem's presence, the fire that will later consume the offerings, described in 9:24.54  The rites of the day were to culminate with a concrete expression of Hashem's approval and presence,55 and as such, all of the sacrifices offered that day were not be burned by the priests but only by heavenly fire.56
The standard incense offering – According to Rashbam, Nadav and Avihu were not bringing an unauthorized incense, but only the regular offering brought every morning.  This itself, then, was not problematic.
"אֵשׁ זָרָה"
  • 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.57
  • 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
"אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם" – Rashbam adds the word "היום", explaining that it was only on this day that the brothers' actions were not commanded; on any other day they would have been permitted.
"וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי י"י" – Rashbam identifies this fire with the fire described a couple of verses earlier in Vayikra 9:24.58 According to him, the fire that consumed Aharon's offerings on the outer altar was the very same fire which killed the brothers.59  This fire emanated from "before God", or the Inner Sanctum, where Hashem's presence dwells.60  As such, the Heavenly fire did not come down vertically from the heavens, but rather traveled horizontally from the Holy of Holies to the Outer Sanctum (where it met the brothers), as it made its way to the Copper Altar.
"וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ" – As evidence that the fire did not descend from the heavens one might point to the language of "וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ".  Normally when Hashem reveals himself, or unleashes fire, Tanakh employs language which makes it explicit that He, or the fire, is coming downwards from heavens, saying:  "וַיֵּרֶד י״י",‎61 "‎תֵּרֶד אֵשׁ"‎62 or "וַתִּפֹּל אֵשׁ"‎63.  The language of "וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ", in contrast, is used when fire moves horizontally, as in Bemidbar 22:28 or Shofetim 9:15.64
Severity of the punishment – This approach divides in how the punishment is viewed:
  • 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,65 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.66 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.
"בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" – To whom does this refer?
  • According to T. Granot, it is understandable that the brothers are referred to as "close to Hashem" since they died without major sin.67
  • 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.
Biblical parallels – Other catastrophes in Tanakh have also been viewed by some as natural consequences rather than punishments. For example, see Mystery at the Malon for Abarbanel's reading of Moshe's near death being the result of lack of preparation for prophecy.  Netziv similarly explains the death of the "Ma'apilim" in Bemidbar 14 not as a punishment, but as the natural result of war.

Sanctified to God

Nadav and Avihu's deaths were not a punishment but rather a sanctifying of their souls to Hashem.

Sources:PhiloOn Dreams 2:67On Flight and Finding, 59About Philo, perhaps HaKetav VeHaKabbalah
"בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ" – To whom does this refer? This approach rests on the understanding that this phrase refers to Nadav and Avihu who are described as "close to Hashem".  If they are referred to as such in death, it is impossible that their actions were seen as sinful in the eyes of Hashem.  Moreover, if their deaths served to sanctify Hashem, it must not have been a punishment but some form of elevation.
"וַיַּקְרִיבוּ... אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם"
  • 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.
"לִפְנֵי י"י" – This position might explain the threefold repetition of the phrase "לִפְנֵי י"י" as coming to emphasize the brothers' desire to come close to Hashem and be before Him.
What motivated the brothers? HaKetav VeHaKabbalah quotes the Sifra that "כיון שראו אש חדשה... עמדו להוסיף אהבה על אהבה".  Upon seeing Hashem's presence and fire descend, they felt a need to reciprocate and offer something up to Him in return.
Death is not always punishment – Philo compares the brothers' death to a "whole burnt offering" which rises heavenwards.  According to him, in Nadav and Avihu's religious fervor, death would not have been viewed as a punishment, but as a sanctification of their being to God.
Biblical parallels – This approach might compare Nadav and Avihu to Chanokh, whom Hashem "took" because he "walked with God".  [See Bereshit 5:24: "וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱ-לֹהִים"].  Accordingly, in neither case should death be viewed negatively.  Rather, due to their piety, sometimes the righteous are prematurely taken to be with Hashem.
"וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם" – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah points out that since the verse states that Nadav and Avihu died, the phrase "and it consumed them" must come to teach something beyond the fact of their death.68 He suggests that the choice of verb connotes an acceptance of something with joy, and refers to the fact that Hashem accepted the brothers' souls with favor.