Parshat Shemini 5781: Kohanic and General Sobriety

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Parshat Shemini is dedicated Lilui Nishmas for My Mother: Chaya bat Zalman who was nifteret on 22 Nissan 5775.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

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Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Shemini 5781: Kohanic and General Sobriety

by Moshe Burt

After learning in Parsha Tzav that for seven days, Moshe taught Aaron HaKohen and his sons the laws of their Avodah (the Kohanic Service, i.e. in the Tabernacle and later in the Beit HaMikdash — ” The Temple”) in the Mishkan, our Parsha Shemini begins by relating that on the eighth day, Aaron and his sons commenced their Avodah HaKodosh (Holy Service).

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin provides a context on this eighth day in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Vayikra (page 53):

On this day they [Aaron and his sons] will publicly assume the Kehunah, …the priestly role to be bequeathed, in perpetuity, to their descendants.

At Hashem’s command, the entire nation gathers at the entrance to the Mishkan to witness the rituals of initiation performed by Aaron and his sons. The investiture service reaches a …mounting climax as Aaron twice blesses the people (the second time in conjunction with Moshe) and a miraculous fire descends from the Heavens consuming the offerings on the Mizbeiyach.

Here, we provide an excerpt from Rabbi Goldin’s Parshat Shemini summary (Ibid, Sefer Vayikra, page 51 and page 53):

Aaron’s moment of personal triumph suddenly turns to wrenching tragedy as his two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “foreign fire” and are themselves consumed by Heavenly flames.

The Torah testifies: “And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took, each man, his censer; and they placed in them fire; and they placed upon it incense; and they offered before Hashem a foreign fire which Hashem had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before Hashem and it consumed them; and they died before Hashem.” (Sefer Vayikra, Perek 10, posukim 1-2 as rendered to English by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text”)

Our Parsha thus relates the tragedy of the deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu who died while performing an unauthorized Service, offering a “strange fire …, which He did not command them…” (Artscroll Chumash, Vayikra, Perek 10, posuk 1)

Early on, as a Kohen, this author learned that intoxication and Kohanic service do not mix and are taboo Halachically. So, this Kohen sticks mainly with Kiddush grape juice.

Rabbi Goldin now discusses the subject of Kohanic and general sobriety (ibid, pages 69-72):

In the shadow of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic deaths, Hashem turns to… Aaron and commands:

“Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverage, you and yours sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; this is an eternal decree for your generations. In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure, and to teach the B’nei Yisrael all of the statutes that Hashem has spoken to them through Moshe.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Vayikra, Perek 10, posukim 9-11)

While the text seems clearly to prohibit the consumption of any alcoholic beverage during the Kohen’s fulfillment of his functions as Priest and educator, the Talmud, after extensive debate, limits the full Biblical prohibition to the ingestion of “intoxicating amounts” fo wine. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Kritot 13b; in accordance with the position of Rabbi Elazar)

….Most scholars extend the requirement of sobriety during teaching and application of the law to all teachers and not only to the Kohanim. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Beit Hamikdash, Perek 1, posuk 3; Rashi on Sefer Vayikra, Perek 10, posuk 11)

The Torah’s concern… centers on the debilitating effects of alcohol. And individual who is inebriated to any degree will neither be able to properly execute the Sanctuary service nor appropriately engage in halachic discussion and decision making. The Torah therefore prohibits the consumption of wine as a safeguard against possible intoxication. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Shemot, Perek 10, posuk 9, Ibn Ezra on Sefer Shemot, Perek 10, posuk 9, Sforno on Sefer Shemot, Perek 10, posukim 110-11)

This comment may well shed light on the Torah’s concern for the sobriety of Kohanim:

Hashem finds it necessary to prohibit the consumption of wine during ritual and intellectual religious activity in response to “common practice” of the time.

The use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs was an integral component of the religious rites of many ancient cultures. Rather than viewing inebriation and similar “escapist” behaviors as impediments to spiritual search, these societies considered the use of psychoactive substances an essential prerequisite…

One of Torah’s primary messages is that Hashem is to be found and experienced in this world, with our feet firmly planted on the ground. The Sforno maintains that Moshe, our greatest prophet, achieved his greatness specifically because of his ability to relate to Hashem without relinquishing his physical senses. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sforno on Sefer Shemot, Perek 33, posuk 11)

Hashem’s message to his people is once again clear: I am not to be found in the mists of the summit of Sinai. I am not to be encountered in esoteric visions or “out of body” experiences. You are to find me in your world through performance of My Mitzvot, through sober study, application and living of My Law.

Had the Torah’s only concern been for potential error on the part of the Kohanim, all intoxicating beverages would have been treated equally. By singling wine out for special attention, however, the Torah communicates that there is more to this prohibition than meets the eye. Wine used properly and in moderation, the Torah teaches, like all of Hashem’s physical creations, enhances our appreciation of the Divine. When used to escape reality, however, all psychoactive substances undermine our spiritual search, which is predicated on creating a union in our lives between Heaven and earth.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 72):

At the dawn of our history, as the spiritual search of our nation begins, Hashem again reiterates the distinction between Judaism and the surrounding cultures. Others may find their spiritual path predicated upon an escape from the realities of the physical world. Our path, however, is based upon the embrace and sanctification of that very world.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he and his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha are finally home in Eretz Yisrael. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.