Thoughts on Shemini

In his book entitled, Jewish Wisdom, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shares the following,

Yitgadal ve-Yitkadash Shmei Rabbah, Magnified and sanctified be His great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. (The opening words of the Kaddish prayer recited for the dead.)

Along with the Sh’ma, the Kaddish probably is the best-known Jewish prayer. Yet many Jews do not know its meaning (perhaps because it is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew), and are surprised when they learn that it never alludes to death. Instead, Kaddish is a paean to God, expressing the hope that His majesty will be accepted by the entire world.

Why was the Kaddish prayer chosen as the memorial prayer for the dead? Probably because the greatest testament to the deceased is that he or she has left behind descendants who attend synagogue and pledge themselves to work toward perfecting the world under the rule of God. (Jewish Wisdom, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994, p 268-69)

A quotation concerning death and mourning is not the usual way I begin these weekly Thoughts, but I found it very appropriate for this week’s parasha. Shemini, Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47,* begins “On the eighth day….” Remember, last week’s parasha ended with the seven-day ordination of Aaron and his four sons, Abihu, Nadab, Eleazar, and Ithamar. All five of these men were consecrated, set apart for specific service, avodah, standing between the indwelling presence of HaShem and Bnei Yisrael. These men were in the presence of HaShem at the entrance to the Mishkan for seven days then on the eighth day Moshe called the five out and had Aaron offer a sin offering for himself and his sons, as well as a burnt offering and meal offering (9:3-14). Then Aaron brought the same three offerings on behalf of Bnei Yisrael (9:15-22). At the conclusion of these events

Moses and Aaron then went into the Tent of Meeting. When they came back out and blessed the people, the glory of ADONAI appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of ADONAI and devoured the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (9:23-24)

There was a feeling of exhilaration, of reverential fear, maybe even a feeling of finally being at home in the presence of ADONAIIt is in this attitude of exhilaration, of being in the presence of HaShem, that Abihu and Nadab “each took his own censer, put fire in it, laid incense over it, and offered unauthorized fire before ADONAI — which He had not commanded them,” (10:1). Immediately ADONAI answered the action, “so fire came out from the presence of ADONAI and consumed them. So they died before ADONAI,” (10:2). Sermons have been preached decrying the unauthorized fire, and commentators have sought intently to explain the attitude or motivation of the hearts of Abihu and Nadab, some even suggesting that they had the molten calf or some other idol in mind when making their offering. However, the passage itself explains why their offering was unauthorized; because HaShem לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם, did not command the offering, nor was it offered in the proper manner. Abihu and Nadab were in the moment, or as said in today’s vernacular, they were in the spirit of the moment and excited. They just had to do something. But what they did was wrong, it was out of order, it was unauthorized and as such, it was dealt with immediately and decisively. One might remember another episode that would happen centuries in the future. In 2 Samuel 6, we see a similar exhilaration being expressed by King David and the 30,000 plus men and women that gather to transport the Ark from Baale-Judah (modern-day Kiryat Ye’arim) upward to Jerusalem. Then, as with Abihu and Nadab, tragedy struck.

But when they reached the threshing floor of Nahon, Uzzah reached out to the ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. Then the anger of ADONAI was kindled against Uzzah. God struck him down there for his irreverence so that he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

Once again the sermonizers and commentators have tried to explain why such an act of care for the Ark brought about such a devastating outcome. And again, I feel the answer is the same. Only certain people were supposed to touch and to transport the Ark, and Uzzah, son of Abinadab was not one of those people. In Numbers 4 it is recorded that the kohanim (Aaron, his sons, and descendants) were responsible for covering the Ark and placing the carrying poles in the rings so that the sons of Kohath could carry the Ark, though they were never to touch it directly. Again, there is a right way and an improper way to serve HaShem.

What does all of this have to do with Kaddish and mourning of the dead? Aaron, the father of Abihu and Nadab had every right to mourn the tragic death of his sons. However, Aaron, as well as his surviving sons, were in a consecrated position and as such, could not defile themselves, even for their sons and brothers (Leviticus 21:1). Moshe’s words, though hard, were for Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar’s safety.

“But let your kinsmen—the whole house of Israel—mourn over the burning that ADONAI has kindled. You must not go out from the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, or you will die, for the anointing oil of ADONAI is on you.” (Leviticus 10:6-7)

HaShem set forth specific ways for Israel to approach and relate to Him as well as specific ways to approach and relate to others. While some see these rules as harsh and unbending, are they any more so than the exclusive interpretation of Yeshua’s words, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 15:6).

In closing, the Kaddish prayer, as Rabbi Telushkin noted, has nothing to do with the dead or even grieving for the dead loved one. It is focused solely and completely on HaShem. It is a prayer that acknowledges God’s greatness and the fact that He alone is to be worshipped, honored and praised in this world and in the world to come. The only mention of the dead in this prayer is in a generic sense when we pray

In the world which He will create anew, where He will revive the dead, construct His temple, deliver life, and rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and uproot foreign idol worship from His land, and restore the holy service of Heaven to its place, along with His radiance, splendor and Shechinah, and may He bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Moshiach (Messiah). (

With the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish, we remember loved ones who have passed on before us while focusing on HaShem, who one day will restore us with our loved ones in the Olam Haba, the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom

  • Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
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