This week’s reading begins with the words aḥarei mot, literally “after the death of,” and the people whose death we’re talking about are in Lev 16:1. They are Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who “claim close to YHWH” and died.
Despite what you might assume from that sentence, they did not die at the end of Leviticus 15; they actually died at the beginning of Leviticus 10, after offering unauthorized fire to God in Lev 10:1 – not one, not two, but three parshiyot ago, at the beginning of Parashat Shemini. So why are we talking about them now? Why does this section begin (or resume) telling the story of what happened after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu?
The shemini of Parashat Shemini is יּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י yom ha-sh’mini ‘the 8th day’, the day on which the ritual of the inauguration of the Tabernacle was to finish and life with a Tabernacle was to begin. It might seem quite natural to think that the boys did something wrong when they entered the holy area, and that’s why they were killed. We would therefore have to describe the way Aaron should correctly do it. What’s described in this chapter, though, is a much more complicated ritual.
This ritual includes not merely purging impurity from the altar, from the shrine, and from the people, but also the ritual that we call that of the scapegoat: picking two goats, sacrificing one of them (chosen by lot) to YHWH as a sin offering, and getting rid of the other one by sending it off into the desert to carry away the people’s sins and to die.
If you think about that ritual for a moment, you realize that these are not instructions for something that Aaron must do whenever he wants to go into the Holy of Holies. It is something he does only at a specific time — yet we don’t find that out until quite close to the end of the chapter, in v. 29.
That’s when we finally learn that we’re talking about “the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month.” The 7th month is Tishrei, and the 10th day of Tishrei is what we now call Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sure enough, v. 30 says: “On this day atonement shall be made for you,” and v. 31 instructs, “you shall practice self-denial.” It is “a law for all time” that we should fast on that day and deny ourselves other pleasures, as a result of which — or at least after which — “atonement shall be made for you” (v. 30).
Once again, though, the chapter is not introduced that way. It’s introduced as talking about an instruction given at a specific moment in Israelite history, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron.”
What about all the rest of the holidays of the Jewish year? Where do we find them? They are in Parashat Emor, which we’ll read next week. Lev 23:27 says, “The 10th day of this 7th month is the day of atonement [י֧וֹם הַכִּפֻּרִ֣ים/yom ha-kippurim].” That’s where it gets the name that we call it nowadays. In Num 29:7 as well, we read, “On the 10th day of this 7th month you shall have a sacred occasion and practice self-denial. You shall not do any work.”
The day Nadab and Abihu died, I suggest, is the day where our story picks up again when Parashat Aharei Mot starts. YHWH tells Moses, “Moses, you guys have to clean up your act! There’s a tremendous amount of ritual impurity and uncleanness happening right here at the most sacred location on earth, and you’ve got to protect the altar and the shrine from this miasma.”
Miasma — that’s the word that Jacob Milgrom, the great Leviticus expert, liked to use about the poisonous cloud created by sin and ritual impurity that could silently, invisibly infect the holiness of the sacred location where God’s presence was somehow focused.
If you look at how Leviticus 16 is woven into its context, both ritually and literarily, it is the culmination of a series of chapters that (1) outline the sacrifices that are supposed to be made in the Tabernacle; (2) describe the inauguration of the Tabernacle as the center of the sacrificial system; and (3) explain the rituals that govern purity and impurity.
Only toward the end of this chapter does it seem to occur to God that this cannot be just a one-time event. Aaron’s sons died on this most inauspicious day — the first day, even the first few moments, of having the Tabernacle actually in operation — but this is going to keep happening, so I had better have a ritual of this kind scheduled once a year as “a law for all time,” so that this kind of impurity can be cleaned away on a regular basis.
The “eighth day,” yom ha-shemini, of setting up the Tabernacle was not the 10th day of the 7th month; it wasn’t in the 7th month at all. It was back in Nisan, in the springtime. In Leviticus 23 God will tell Moses, “You Israelites need a whole series of ritual occasions, a ritual calendar that is going to keep you on the straight and narrow and that’s going to remind you of the way things are and why they are that way.”
This Day of Atonement will be part of that calendar. But in our chapter it is originally framed as a one-time event. God is realizing as he speaks to Moses that he must arrange to have the Israelites do this every year. That is how Leviticus 16 presents it.
All of which means that ha-yom ha-shemini, this “eighth day” of the Tabernacle being set up and inaugurated, early in the spring, is not only the inauspicious day on which Nadab and Abihu were killed. It is also the day that Yom Kippur was invented.