Photo Credit:

A boy is born locked inside of a small house with no windows and no way out. He is provided with food and clothing, as well as books and some toys for entertainment, but that is all. He never once sees the outside world, never once sees anything beyond his extremely limited surroundings. Raised in such a way, he comes to believe that this house is all that exists. One day, someone comes along and breaks down the door to the house, letting him out into the world for the first time. Naturally, he is in absolute awe of what lies around him. The grandeur, the sheer magnitude and marvel of the surrounding world astounds him and leaves him wondering how he ever considered his previous existence to be a full life.



A Fascinating Case Study

There is a life-changing concept that lies at the center of the shocking sin and deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The pasuk describes how, during the chanukas haMishkan (inauguration of the Tabernacle), Nadav and Avihu offered the Ketores (spice offering) and were engulfed by Divine flames (Vayikra 10:1-2). This episode is both striking and perplexing, as the pesukim do not clarify what their sin was or why it warranted such a harsh punishment. At face value, one might think that they acted righteously, sacrificing an offering to Hashem in the Mikdash. What, then, was so egregious about their actions? We will go through a range of possible answers to these questions as we ultimately develop a deeper understanding of this topic.


A Few Opinions in Brief

Rashi quotes Rav Eliezer’s position, which understands Nadav and Avihu as having violated the prohibition of being moreh bifnei rabo (teaching halacha in front of their rebbi), Moshe Rabbeinu (Vayikra Rabbah 12:1).

Another opinion, mentioned in the Sifra, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned by entering the Kodesh HaKodashim. As the holiest place in the world, it is completely off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. Evidence for this position is in Acharei Mos, the very next parashah, in which the Torah links the Yom Kippur avodah with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Vayikra 16:1). The Sifra suggests that this connection is due to the fact that the avodah of the Ketores, precisely what Nadav and Avihu performed, is done exclusively on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh HaKodashim. The fact that Nadav and Avihu are associated with this exclusive avodah hints to the fact that they performed it at the wrong time and were therefore punished. Interestingly, Rabbi Akiva suggests that the problem was where the fire came from; they sinned by bringing a forbidden fire (aish zarah) onto the Mizbei’ach.

Rashi also quotes Rabbi Yishmael’s position, namely that their error lay in the fact that they were intoxicated while performing the avodah. This is based on the fact that the very next passage in the Torah prohibits a KoIhen from being drunk while performing the avodah. The juxtaposition of these verses is a hint toward the essence of their wrongdoing, as the prohibition follows an instance in which it was violated.

Taking a deeper look at the concept of drunkenness, there is an interesting idea embedded in this position of Rashi. The spiritual concept of intoxication is related to the theme of transcendence and the expansion of consciousness. Although done inappropriately, Nadav and Avihu were attempting to transcend their physical state and connect to Hashem on the deepest level. This explains why they specifically chose to do the avodah of the Kodesh HaKodashim, a place that transcends all physical dimensions of time and space. Their “sin,” therefore, was that they were not yet ready to enter such an exalted spiritual realm. This explains their distinctive, strange punishment: The pasuk states that they were engulfed by Divine flames, and Rashi explains (based on the Gemara) that their physical bodies remained intact while their souls alone were engulfed by the fire. Nadav and Avihu transcended to a completely spiritual level, one they were neither yet ready for nor capable of handling, and they were therefore spiritually consumed.


The Big Question

There is, however, something missing from all of these approaches. Rashi quotes the Midrash which explains that Moshe already knew that two of the holiest people in Klal Yisrael would die on this very day, the day of the chanukas haMishkan. Moshe originally thought that these two people would be Aharon and himself, but it turned out to be Nadav and Avihu instead (Vayikra 10:3). This Midrash makes it clear that Nadav and Avihu were on a tremendously lofty level. If so, how could they have done something so egregiously wrong – something that resulted in such a harsh heavenly punishment?


Not Commanded

The Ramban therefore takes a different approach, suggesting that the only problem with Nadav and Avihu’s avodah was that they brought the Ketores offering without being commanded to do so. This view is drawn from the explicit statement of the pasuk itself, as it says that Nadav and Avihu brought an offering “Asher lo tzivah osam – That they were not commanded to bring” (Ibid. v. 1).

Based on this, however, we face a new difficulty. If Nadav and Avihu’s sin was only that they did something that they were not commanded to do, our question is actually strengthened: What was so abhorrent about their actions that it merited such extreme punishment? They did nothing prohibited, only something that was not specifically commanded. In order to understand the answer to this new question, we must first understand what it means to be commanded, as well as the difference between being metzuveh (commanded by Hashem) and eino metzuveh (not commanded by Hashem).


Gadol Ha’metzuveh V’Oseh Mi’mi She’eino Metzuveh Ve’oseh

The Gemara states that it is greater for one to do something that they have been commanded to do by Hashem than to do something of their own volition, without being commanded (Bava Kama 38a, 87a: “Gadol ha’metzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh.”). Meaning, it is better to perform a mitzvah (commandment) out of obedience to Hashem’s will than to do so spontaneously of your own will. At first glance, this appears counterintuitive. Would it not be better to do it of your own volition? Is this not a more genuine expression of Divine service? Instead of doing it because you have to, you’re doing it because you want to!



The first explanation for this puzzling statement lies in the concept of ego. As human beings, we are naturally resistant to external instruction or direction, preferring to do things only when we want to do them. Obedience to others requires sacrificing our ego, our sense of control, and our illusion of being ultimately superior. The essence of a mitzvah, however, is negating our ego and submitting to the will of Hashem. Hashem gives us instruction in the form of mitzvos; we obey them because He told us to. We may not understand or agree with everything, but in performing mitzvos, we acknowledge Hashem as the ultimate source of truth and His instructions as the guide to ideal living in this world. We affirm that the source of truth does not lie within our limited selves but within the infinite source of reality, i.e., Hashem.

The second explanation for why the performance of a mitzvah is superior to an act of one’s own volition requires a deeper understanding of mitzvos. In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and see how it fundamentally affects the way we understand Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleIsraeli Parents Rejoice! Nearly 2.5 Million Children Start School
Next articleGermany, Families of 1972 Munich Massacre Victims Reach Compensation Breakthrough
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: