Shabbat-Table Talks: Shemini

To read last year's Table Talk click here.



By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>

[This week’s Table Talks is dedicated in memory of Miriam bat Rena, by her son David Abadi.]

Value: Consoling the mourning and grieving. Consoling a mourning person is a misva that is considered emulating God’s compassionate behavior. Our Halakha offers guidance on how to carry out this misva, which might appear very difficult at first. Helping our children recognize this misva and fulfill it when the unfortunate occasion arises, can develop their compassion and sensitivity to the plight of others.


Background: This week’s perasha describes the tragic deaths of two of Israel’s elite, Nadab and Abihu, Aharon’s sons. They were two of Israel’s first five kohanim. They were killed on one of the most momentous days of Aharon’s life, the inauguration of the Mishkan and the initiation of Aharon into being the Kohen Gadol. On that day, his two sons decided to offer an incense offering, that God had not commanded. The result was that they were killed by a fire that went out from the Sanctuary.


Text: Vayikra 10:1-3

Now Aharon’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Hashem alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of Hashem. Then Moshe said to Aharon, “This is what Hashem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. And Aharon was silent. 


Analysis: According to some commentators (Ramban) that statement that “Aharon was silent” implies that he had been crying previously, and that Moshe’s words comforted him.


Discussion:  Begin the discussion by asking if the children have learned the perasha and do they know something sad that happened in it. If they have not learned the perasha, ask them if they know what happened to Aharon’s two sons. If they do, ask them to tell the story, if not tell the story yourself. At this point focus on the peshat (straightforward explanation) of what happened, namely that they died because they brought an offering that Hashem had not sanctioned. (There are many midrashic reasons that are valuable in their own right, but they are not the point of this discussion.) Read Moshe’s words to Aharon and Aharon’s response. Ask: what does the fact that he turned silent imply about what he was doing before? (that he was crying.)


Ask: What do you think was comforting in Moshe’s words? 


Two comforting aspects of Moshe’s words are the fact that he called Aharon’s sons “those near to” God, and that their death proves that they were in fact very close to God.


Secondly, the idea that their death led to a greater respect, distance and therefore sanctity of the Mishkan. People would be more fearful of approaching the Mishkan now that the two kohanim, Nadab and Abihu, died. In short, the second reason implies that their death had a purpose and achieved something permanent in Israel.


What would you say to Aharon?

One of the most compassionate aspects of Jewish communal life is the Jewish approach to death and mourning. When a member of the community is mourning the death of a relative, the whole community visits him while he “sits” for seven days (shiv’a). Halakha prescribes the visitor’s behavior. For example, the halakha is that upon visiting the mourner, one must not begin talking. Rather one must let the mourner acknowledge the visitor and begin. If the mourner does not feel like talking he must be allowed to remain silent. It is his decision to reenter into the common discourse with man. In the overwhelming majority of the cases the mourner does begin talking. Yet, the fact that it was his decision makes him aware that his reentry into the life of the community was his choice and that he was not coerced to do this. Instead he was protected by the halakha. Upon departing there are several customs regarding the farewell. One custom is to wish that the mourner be consoled from heaven (“min hashamayim tenuhhamu”). The visitor realizes that although he attempted to console the mourner, real consolation is only achievable through divine grace. This farewell is recognition of Man’s inability to truly console and a prayer that the Almighty would complete our meager attempts.


Another tradition has the visitor reciting that God should console the mourner amongst all others who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. This farewell reminds the mourner that Jewish experience is filled with things to mourn. Just as Hashem will console those who mourn for Jerusalem, so may the mourner be consoled. This farewell allows the mourner to understand the broader context of his mourning and grief.


In later verses (10:6-7) Moshe commanded Aharon and his remaining children not to show the traditional external signs of the mourner. They were the representatives of the service at the sanctuary; a service associated with connection to God. It would be improper for them to show mourning. Communal standing and the overall message must, at times, override personal emotions. Even though they have suffered a tremendous loss, the remaining Kohanim had to show that the service of God transcends their individual grief.


Why do you think the halakha states that if a person is within the seven days of mourning and a yom tob comes, that his mourning is completed and he does not resume sitting during of after the yom tob? (Yom tob commemorate the connection to God that resulted in an event of national happiness. The national happiness overrides the individual’s grief.)

To read last year's Table Talk  click here.


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