Parshat Shmini

Parshat Shmini

Aaron’s Sons Make a Fatal Mistake, Plus the Laws of Kashrut

Dateline: First day of Nissan, one year after the Exodus – the 8th day of Tabernacle dedication.

Sinai Desert.

Scene: After waiting hopefully for 7 days, for some sign from heaven that their toil had been accepted and their transgressions atoned, the Jewish people finally got their omen. A flame came down from the sky and consumed the animal offerings on the altar. The people were overcome with awe and fell on their faces.

“But Nadav, my dear brother, we have no permission to enter the Holy of Holies!” protested Avihu.

“Can’t you see?” responded Nadav, “the heavenly fire only consumed the animal offerings – but what about the incense? Obviously it is up to us. We can’t just sit and wait for miracles to occur!”

Avihu agreed wholeheartedly. And he suggested that they wet their lips with a little wine first, “to get us in a joyous mood to serve God properly.”

His brother added: “Don’t forget that as the oldest sons of Aaron, we are the next generation of Jewish leaders. I can’t wait until Uncle Moses and Father Aaron are gone and we will show the people the meaning of holiness!”

Though these brothers were great men, they overestimated themselves. They should not have decided on such an important issue without first consulting Moses. They also never got married, thinking this would lower their ability to connect to the spiritual.

Together, these miscalculations are referred to as “bringing a strange fire to God.” This “self righteous” attitude was central to their misdeeds, and as future Jewish leaders, God held them to stricter standards. (heard from Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, based on Midrash)


At this point, two rays of fire descended from heaven and entered their nostrils. Their holy souls departed and their bodies remained intact. Moses ordered the bodies removed by the Levites, their cousins, but the family of Aaron continued with the dedication offerings, even though they were now mourners.

On the greatest day of Aaron’s life – being inaugurated as the High Priest of Israel – the sudden death of his two sons was a heavy blow. In spite of it all, Aaron remained silent and accepted God’s judgment.

Aaron recognized this as atonement for his own role in the Golden Calf (even though his intention was to stall for time until Moses returned).

Moses confirmed the greatness of Aaron’s two sons, since they were chosen to be the vehicle for atonement. Moses also said that Aaron was really about to lose all four sons, had Moses not brought partial forgiveness with his prayers.

Later in the story, when Moses found out that his instructions to eat certain sacrifices were not fulfilled, Aaron explained that he was fully aware of the events that had occurred, and had made a decision based on a distinction between the special dedication offerings and the regular ones. When Moses heard this he was very pleased. This demonstrated that Aaron’s earlier silence was due not to his being in a state of shock, but was rather a sign of sincere and unquestioned trust in God.


How do we keep God’s presence in our midst even when we don’t have a Temple?

Answer: By being holy!

Question: What’s holy?

Answer: Holiness is when we use the physical world as a means, not an end. When we elevate materialism in service of the Almighty.

First Step: Keep Kosher!


There are those who claim that Judaism is primarily a “kitchen religion,” focused on food! “Is it meat or dairy? Kosher for Passover or not?” Many people have a hard time with “dietary laws” in general: “What difference does it make to God what I put in my stomach?”

Question: Why can’t Jews eat pork? What’s wrong with pigs?

Question on Question: Do we really understand the essence of God, humans, or even a pig? Without understanding their essence, we cannot understand how a certain act of eating can put a block between a Jew and his Creator!

The prohibition against eating pork is not a logical law. Rather it is based on the basic Jewish belief that all physical matter is connected to spiritual roots. When we view the Divine commandments as a prescription from the doctor, they have a different meaning. “You are what you eat!” Our eating habits play a central role in our lives and can influence our personalities in many ways. This is true both in the medical, emotional, and other inner senses that can be aroused or deadened by our diet.

If the Almighty forbids certain animals, it must be that particular animal’s lifestyle (dirty, scavenger, carnivorous) is not the model that God wants us to emulate. God wants us to see ourselves as being more than “sophisticated animals” scrounging for a meal. Benign animals, such as chickens and cows are the kosher ones.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes in “Horeb”: Just as the Temple in Jerusalem becomes defiled by impurity, so too your own “inner temple” becomes defiled by impure foods. The food may feed and nourish you, but the animal instinct is increasingly aroused. Your body is blunted from being an instrument of the spirit and you are drawn down to the animal. Your spirit is faced with a fierce battle and less equipped to fight.

Just as your body naturally rejects matter found to be alien and not suitable for human consumption, so too you must reject that which prevents you from fulfilling your holy mission as a Jew! It is clear that the Divine Spirit in man is linked to the body. Instincts can be aroused or controlled by bodily gratification. Mental clarity can be impaired or killed, just as animals are made bloodthirsty or tame, by the food they consume.

All this is true even if we don’t understand the metaphysical reason behind the laws. Can we possibly understand all God’s laws? Do we know the intimate nature of all creatures – or even our own nature? The Almighty knows all of these, and knows your exact place in the scheme of creation. Therefore, implores Rabbi Hirsch, follow God’s instructions as He summons you to holiness!


Of course, following God’s commands is largely predicated on belief in God and an acceptance of the idea that He gave the Torah.

One of God’s most concrete fingerprints is found in the laws of Kashrut. In order for an animal to be kosher it must have two identification signs: (1) it has split hooves, and (2) it chews its cud (regurgitates its food partially digested in the stomach).

Once the Torah informs us of this, it is a simple logical deduction that if an animal has only one of the above, it is not Kosher. Yet the Torah goes out of its way to inform us that there is only one animal that has split hooves and does not chew its cud – the pig.

The Torah is informing us that these are the only existing examples of animals with one sign without the other. This means that if you encounter an animal you’ve never seen before, and you see that it has split hooves, yet you have no way of knowing if it chews it’s cud, then you may eat that animal on one condition: That you are certain it’s not a pig. Why? Because the Torah testifies that there is no other animal on planet Earth that has split hooves and doesn’t chew its cud except the pig!

This raises a very interesting question. How could any human, at the time the Torah was written, have known this? Zoologists today have identified over 5,000 different species of mammals. And only one, the pig, has split hooves and doesn’t chew its cud. Was Moses familiar with every mammal in every corner of the world? Of course not. Only God could know such a thing, and only God could make such a claim in the Torah, written thousands of years ago.

In the heyday of the Bible Critics, they actually sent a expedition to Australia to find another species and disprove the Bible. Having observed the kangaroo, koala bear, and the duck-billed platypus, researchers still couldn’t find a split-hoofed animal that didn’t chew its cud.


The identifying signs of Kosher fish are fins and scales. Judaism proves the God-given nature of the Oral Law by pointing out that the Mishnah (written 2,000 years ago) states categorically that “all fish with scales have fins” – and not the other way around.

How could the Sages have known this fact?

About 200 years ago in France, a new species of fish was discovered and they couldn’t decide if it was poisonous. Then a rabbi saw that it had fins and scales, and offered to eat it himself – based on the Torah law that any fish with these two signs is okay to eat!

Birds: The Torah lists the names of all non-kosher birds, without providing an identifying sign. Since we do not know the exact meaning of all the names, we only eat those birds that have a tradition they’re Kosher. Most of the forbidden birds – vultures, ravens, hawks, eagles – are birds of prey.

Insects are prohibited many times in the Torah, which means that fruits and vegetables must be checked for bugs, if there is a likelihood that bugs may be found (e.g. lettuce).

The Torah permits one species of locust, but the tradition was lost and we therefore do not eat locust. Some Yemenite Jews, however, still claim a tradition of which locust is Kosher!


The Torah teaches that before eating any animal, it must be slaughtered in a “Kosher” way. A razor-sharp knife is used to cut through the majority of the trachea and esophagus (wind and food pipes). The blade must be smooth without a nick, and cut with constant pressure on the blade. The blood rushes out and the animal feels no pain.

If only half of the pipes are cut, the slaughter is not valid. The difference between Kosher and not is the tiny balance between 50 and 51 percent!

Keeping Kosher connects us with God even when performing mundane physical acts. The goal is to sanctify the physical to God.

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