Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What was עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם? Nadav and Avihu's death, or Eleazar and Itamar's service?

Summary: One can parse the pasuk so that this phrase,  עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם, goes on Nadav and Avihu's death. Or, we can parse it so that it goes on the service of Eleazer and Itamar. This is a case of trup vs. Divrei Hayamim.


Consider the following pasuk, with its trup. Bemidbar 3:4. ד. וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי ה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לָהֶם וַיְכַהֵן אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם: 

Rashi explains עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם as בחייו, in his [=Aharon's] lifetime. And his basis is [Num. Rabbah 2:26, Lev. Rabbah 20:11, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana p. 173b]. So we can look there to get a sense of what he means.

Basically, the obvious ambiguity would be whether עַל פְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן אֲבִיהֶם refers to Nadav and Avihu's death {or bringing the esh zara}, or Eleazar and Itamar's serving as kohanim.

Ramban writes:
ד): על פני אהרן אביהם - 
בחייו, לשון רש"י. 
ואין העניין להגיד שכהנו בחיי אביהם, כי כל איש מבני אהרן הכהנים יכהן בחיי אביו, רק בעבור שאמר "הכהנים המשוחים" שהיו גם הם ככהנים גדולים נמשחים כמוהו בחייו ולא יעשה כן לדורות. 

והנכון, כי "על פני" יחזור על הרחוק, וימת נדב ואביהוא לפני ה' על פני אהרן אביהם בהקריבם אש זרה, וכך נאמר בדברי הימים (א כד ב): וימת נדב ואביהו לפני אביהם ובנים לא היו להם ויכהנו אלעזר ואיתמר. וטעם"לפני ה'", שמתו בנס שבא מאתו, וכן נאמר במרגלים (להלן יד לז): במגפה לפני ה':
"Upon the face of Aharon their father -- 'in his lifetime' -- the language of Rashi. And the import of this is not to relate that they served in their father's lifetime, for every man of the sons of Aharon the kohanim serves in his father's lifetime. Rather, since it states 'the anointed kohanim, who were kohanim gedolim as well, who were anointed like him in his lifetime, and such was not done for generations.

And the correct explanation is that על פני binds to the distant phrase, of וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה. And so is stated in I Divrei HaYamim 24:2:

א  וְלִבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן, מַחְלְקוֹתָם:  בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן--נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא, אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר.1 And the courses of the sons of Aaron were these. The sons of Aaron: Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.
ב  וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי אֲבִיהֶם, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לָהֶם; וַיְכַהֲנוּ, אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר.2 But Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no children; therefore Eleazar and Ithamar executed the priest's office.

And the meaning of לִפְנֵי ה is that they died by a miracle which came from Him. And so is stated by the scouts {later on, Bemidbar 14:37}

לז  וַיָּמֻתוּ, הָאֲנָשִׁים, מוֹצִאֵי דִבַּת-הָאָרֶץ, רָעָה--בַּמַּגֵּפָה, לִפְנֵי ה.37 even those men that did bring up an evil report of the land, died by the plague before the LORD.


End quote of the Ramban. Shadal cites Mendelsohnn, who takes note of this, and writes:
 [ד] על פני אהרון אביהם: לדעת רמב"ן חוזר למעלה, וימת נדב ואביהוא על פני אהרן אביהם, וכן הוא בד"ה א' כ"ד ב ', והאתנח ראוי תחת ואיתמר (נתה"ש).ש

His point here is that by putting the etnachta on veItamar, the al penei Aharon avihem would be parenthetical, and could bind distantly above. But placing it where it is, on lahem, it makes it seem like al pnei Aharon avihem is modifying the kehuna of Eleazar and Itamar.

This is a valid point. And so we Divrei Hayamim (and Ramban) arguing against the trup (and Rashi and Chazal). Neither these is necessarily compelling and dispositive. That is, perhaps the author of Divrei Hayamim did not have the trup, and interpreted the pasuk in his own way. And perhaps the author of the trup was unaware of the parsing given in Divrei Hayamim.

Still, must we say that this is an absolute machlokes? While these are alternate parsings of the same pasuk, the interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, we can say that Rashi + Chazal were making a derasha, but know that the mikra also maintained its peshat value. And that the trup was parsing the pasuk according to that derasha. And meanwhile, Ramban + Divrei Hayamim were giving the peshat interpretation.

My leanings towards interpreting this pasuk is certainly more in the direction of Ramban + Divrei Hayamim. This is genealogy. And I am reminded of the genealogy involving Er + Onan, and of Datan and Aviram. The very point would be that these died at this time, and so the genealogy will focus only on the other descendants, and their numbers and their roles. (On the other hand, their is a focus on roles and thus the shimush.)

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