Sermons and Parsha'iot                   Parshat Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47                                   


The ritual was visibly successful because when Aaron does as he is told, God’s fire appears, consuming the burnt offerings before the people. “And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:24). But Chapter 10 begins with a tragedy: Aaron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, offer “strange fire” in the mishkan without being instructed to do so by God. They are instantly consumed by heavenly fire. Moses then tells Aaron and his remaining sons that because the anointing oil of the priesthood was upon them, they could not mourn in public. Our sages connected Nadav and Avihu’s behavior to the fact that the Torah then spells out a detailed set of rules concerning intoxicants which the kohanim are not to drink before performing any official duties (actual alcohol? … or the “intoxication” of spiritual ecstasy, … or were Nadav and Abihu carried away by a sense of their own self-importance?) This is because they must always be able to distinguish between things that are clean and unclean, holy and ordinary. Leviticus 11:1-11:23 deals with the laws of kashrut, describing the animals, birds, fish and insects that may and may not be eaten (kosher means “proper or fit”). Leviticus 11:24-7 discusses what must be done if a person comes in contact with the dead bodies of forbidden creatures. “proper or fit”). Leviticus 11:24-7 discusses what must be done if a person comes in contact with the dead bodies of forbidden creatures.


Some people believe that the laws of kashrut were originally created to protect people from illness. Since ways to preserve meat and refrigeration have existed for many years and since there are government regulations pertaining to the slaughter of animals, these laws would not need to be followed anymore if they were only to keep people from becoming sick. Yet many Jews continue to observe the laws of kashrut. Actually, kashrut is not based on sanitary, medical or scientific reasons. (Indeed, the first person to make this argument was Maimonides who lived more than 2,000 years after the Torah was given!) The laws of kashrut fall into the category of hukim, laws for which there are no apparent rational explanations. These laws have a spiritual essence. They are given to us so that by observing them, we become holy before God. Remember that the original meaning of the shoresh “quf-dalet-shinmeans separate or different. Can you think of other ways that we can be kadosh (in both senses of the word)?

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Our rabbis have problems with the death of Nadav and Avihu; their punishment seems too severe. Think of some reasons our rabbis might have provided for their punishment.

  2. Because they were anointed and serving as priests, Aaron and his sons were forbidden to show natural human signs of mourning. Has there ever been a moment in your life when your professional role prevented you from responding personally in a family situation? How did you manage?

  3. What two laws of behavior for the priests can you deduce from this parasha? In Israelite society, the priests were a select and elite group of leaders. Why might God have written a separate code of conduct for the priests? Are there people in our society today who serve as leaders in our communities who have their own rules? Are different sets of behaviors for people with different roles necessary or desireable?

  4. Although we’re never told specifically why they are prohibited, what do all of the forbidden fowl seem to have in common?

  5. We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat,” and this week’s parasha tells us not to eat the meat of diseased animals, food products from dirty animals, insects and vicious animals. Rabbi Levi Itzhak of Berdichev said that God gave us the laws of kashrut pertaining to what goes into our mouths so that we should take care of what comes out of our mouths. What do you think this means? How can thinking about what we eat affect how we act or what we say?

  6. According to some authorities, hukim are laws for which there is no rational explanation. It is as if God were saying, “Do this because of our relationship.” We all have stories of when our parents “laid down the law” for us and told us to do things that we didn’t understand. “Do it because I am your mother! … your father!” Go around the table and share these stories. How did being told to do make you feel? Why was it important to obey? Did you ever find your own reasons for why you were being directed to behave (or not to behave) in a certain way?