ALCOHOL AND TORAH – Sh’mini – Lev. 10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Torah reading includes the story of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, and their tragic mistake. The words of the Torah tell a strange and supernatural story. On the eighth day (sh’mini) of the new Tabernacle, after a solid week of sanctifying Aaron and his sons as priests to conduct the sacrificial worship, the first two of those sons take their fire-pans, put fire and incense in them, and ”bring them before G-d.” But the fire they delivered was “strange fire,” not the consecrated fire from the altar. As a result, a punishing flame “came out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died.”
A challenging narrative, to say the least. Were Nadav and Avihu experimenting with explosives? Did the fire in their pans come from some polluted fuel? Indeed, taken literally, does this mean that changing any detail of the religious ritual is a capital offense?
Commentators faced this challenge in several ways. The most accepted interpretation is based on the very next message Aaron gets from On High. “Drink no wine or strong drink when you are coming into the Sanctuary, you or your sons.” This timing would indicate that Nadav and Avihu made their fatal mistake because they were DUI – delivering under the influence. Aaron and his remaining sons have to take this as a grim warning against drinking before officiating.
Do we learn from this story that the Torah is anti-alcohol? Should we only make Kiddush over grape juice? Not true. Wine and liquor are often mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes positively and sometimes conscious of their danger. In the Psalms, King David sings “wine makes a man’s heart glad.” On the other hand, when a Biblical man wanted to rise on the scale of holiness he took the Nazirite vow – no wine, no strong drinks. Being prized for its pleasure, alcohol is also plagued by its power.
How appropriate this subject appears to be for this season. Last month we celebrated Purim, the one holiday when a famous Talmudic statement tells us to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman!” And just a few days later our Irish neighbors toasted St. Patrick. Is it the season?
Of course not. The bottom line in using alcohol, like the bottom line in other human activity, is balance. Know your limit. Know your body’s strengths and weaknesses. And use discretion. It’s pretty safe to say that most people can bring in the Sabbath or a holiday safely with a blessing over a cup of wine. One cup. But if you have any problem stopping at one, grape juice is just fine. Just don’t forget the bracha – the blessing of the day. No strange fire for us!