Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Daf Yomi Eruvin 63a; parshat Vayikra; Shemini: Rendering Halachic Decisions Before One's Teacher

I've been learning a bit ahead in Daf Yomi in order to prepare the Rif. I just encountered a sublime midrash that I have seen many times before, but never really thought about it, and so never really appreciated it.

It is forbidden to render a halachic decision before one's teacher. This is discussed in Eruvin 62b-63a, and it is brought down as halacha by the Rif. A brayta also says that the sons of Aharon - that is, Nadav and Avihu - died because they rendered a halachic decision in the presence of their teacher Moshe. The brayta:
They learnt {in a brayta}: Rabbi Eliezer says: The sons of Aharon died only because they rendered a legal decision in the presence of Moshe their master. What was the exposition they made? From Vayikra 1:7:

ז וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אֵשׁ--עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְעָרְכוּ עֵצִים, עַל-הָאֵשׁ. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay wood in order upon the fire.
so even though fire comes down from heaven, it is incumbent to bring from ordinary fire.
Let us first consider the midrash in a most straightforward manner. The pasuk in pashat Vayikra, which states that וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אֵשׁ--עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, could be taken in one of two ways. We could either say that there is a requirement that fire be there, in order to consume the sacrifice. Alternatively, we could say that the bringing of fire is itself part of the order of service. The distinction between the two is if fire is already there. The sons of Aharon understood from this verse that there was a separate command for the sons of Aharon to bring fire, even if fire is already there - even if there is already Divine Fire already there. And they rendered this decision themselves without asking Moshe.

Before proceeding to the next verse, I would point out that the midrash is taking the phrase וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן hyperliterally, to mean not just descendants of Aharon but rather to refer to the actual sons of Aharon - that is, Nadav and Avihu.

We now turn to parshat Shemini. We read that a Divine Fire came down from Heaven. In Vayikra 9:24:
כד וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם. 24 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
Thus, the fire is already there. Should the sons of Aharon bring additional, non-Divine Fire? We read the next two pesukim, in Vayikra 10:1-2, which detail their actions and punishment: (Note that a connection between 9:24 and 10:1 is not necessary and to make such a connection may well be a midrashic device of semichut = juxtoposition.)

א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
The pasuk calls them "the sons of Aaron" perhaps to make a connection to the pasuk/command in parshat Vayikra. What did they do? Even though a Divine Fire was already present, as we saw in the previous pasuk, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ - just as the pasuk in parshat Vayikra commanded. Further, וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, "they offered before Hashem," even though Hashem's fire was already present. What did they offer? אֵשׁ זָרָה. Not "foreign fire," but ordinary fire, that is, aside from the Divine Fire which we know was already present.

But they were correct in their decision! Why were they punished? The pasuk concludes: אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. Examine the JPS translation of the pasuk: "which He had not commanded them." Note that they capitalize the "H" in "He." Thus, it was a non-Divine Fire which Hashem had not commanded them. The midrash translates the pasuk with a lower-case "h." It was not Hashem who had not commanded them, but Moshe who had not commanded them.

And that was their sin: אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

So much for the straightforward understanding of the midrash. See how involved it is, and how many different pesukim contribute towards the final midrash. People should appreciate midrash!

But that is not what I missed. I missed the deeper message. Let us turn to the homiletic layer of the midrash, and focus on the actual halacha that Nadav and Avihu deduced.

They claimed that even though a Divine Fire is present, there is still an obligation for a fire from a hedyot, a non-Divine fire, to be brought. See the irony yet?

Torah is compared to fire. To give the prime example, consider parshat VeZot HaBeracha, in Devarim 33:2:
ב וַיֹּאמַר, ה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ--הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן, וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ; מִימִינוֹ, אשדת (אֵשׁ דָּת) לָמוֹ. 2 And he said: The LORD came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them.
There was a Divine Fire which descended from Heaven. That Divine Fire was the law of Moshe, the Torah that he brought down. They were in the presence of this Divine Fire, for Moshe was present, and they could have asked him. Instead, they said that even though the Divine Fire is present, it is still incumbent upon the individual to bring his own fire - to deduce and render halacha on his own. In this, they were wrong.

Thus, the specifics of the law that they rendered is emblematic of the problem of their very rendering of the law. And that is why the midrash is sublime.

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