You are here

Acharei Mot 5774

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

The name of this week’s Sidra means 'After the Death'. It is an unusual name and it refers to the Sidra of Shemini where the dramatic and sudden deaths of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu are described in detail. That event took place on the first of Nissan in the second year after the Exodus, on the day that the Tabernacle was consecrated.

Nadav’s and Avihu’s sin is not stated clearly anywhere in the Bible. It is for this reason that it has been a subject of considerable speculation by our commentators. However, “the book of splendour”, known in Hebrew as the ZOHAR, explains that the reason for their death is stated in the second part of the first verse.  Their sin was that they entered the Holy of Holies without authority, at the wrong time. This explanation is supported by the fact that the first commandment in this Sidra is addressed to Aaron. He is warned that that he should not enter the Holy of Holies at any time, except on the Day of Atonement. Even on that holiest day of the year, he was allowed to enter only at specific times and for the specific purpose offering up the incense.


Why is it that the two sons of Aaron committed the sin of entering the Holy of Holies without permission?  The Rabbis speculated that they wished to assert their claim for the High Priesthood, because they assumed that since their father was already 84 years old it was their turn to take up the mantle of the priestly leadership.  However, it was wrong of them to have contemplated such an improper idea. They should have waited with patience and dignity until it was their turn. They were punished very severely in order to deter others from coming anywhere near the sanctuary without authority.

This reference to the great tragedy of the death of Aaron's sons is followed by three major themes.

The first theme is the Yom Kippur service, which took place in the Tabernacle. The High Priest was at the centre of attention. It was he who performed all the rituals of purification. He purified the Tabernacle and then he offered up the sacrifices in order to see Atonement for himself and his family, for his tribe and, finally, for the whole nation. To this day, we read the detailed description of the dramatic scenes which took place on Yom Kippur in the Additional Service, known as Musaf. That section is called ’THE AVODAH’. We read how thousands of people were watching the high priest with unparallelled trepidation and awe.

The second part of the Sidra, chapter 17, focuses on the serious transgression of consuming blood, which is punishable by death.  The last section of the Sidra, chapter 18, is devoted to the laws of incest and other forbidden sexual relationships.

In the morning service of Yom Kippur, we lein or read, in the synagogue, chapter 16 and in the afternoon service, we lein chapter 18.   There is a profound connection between these two chapters and they were selected by our rabbis with the greatest of care. There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to change the reading of the afternoon service, as the leaders of Reform Judaism have decided to do. Both of these chapters deal with the most sacred laws and institutions in the Jewish religion. The Day of Atonement is the most sacred of days and the laws of incest are the most sacred of laws.  The Day of Atonement purifies us from our sins and the laws of incest ensure the purity and sanctity of our family life. 

The commentators ask the following question:  What is the connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement?

The Talmud, which was compiled in the land of Israel, and which is known as the Yerushalmi, gives the following answer. The connection of these two events teaches us that, just as the Day of Atonement provides atonement to the people of the Israel for their sins, so equally the death of the righteous gives Atonement for Israel's sins. We understand how Atonement is achieved on Yom Kippur. However, how is this achieved through the death of the righteous?  Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous work called Torah Temimah, explains this statement in the following way. It is not their death that brings atonement for our sins. Rather, it is the way we mourn for the righteous and how we honour them after their death. If we mourn for them with sincerity and dignity, we bring honour and glory to the Almighty himself. Righteous people and great sages are regarded as the representative of the Almighty in our midst. Our ancient rabbis stated in the Talmud that the only way in which we can fulfil the great mitzvah of loving God is by loving great and righteous teachers of the Torah.

More documents on this Parshah: