Nadab and Abihu are mentioned briefly in Scripture as two men who came too close to G‑d and died in the Tabernacle under mysterious circumstances.

Here’s what we know from the biblical text.

Aaron and his wife Elisheba had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Elazar and Itamar.1 The two older brothers are always mentioned as a unit, and we explore them accordingly.

When Moses ascended the mountain at the Revelation at Sinai, G‑d specified that Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders would also come (partway) up Mount Sinai and prostrate themselves from afar.2 Note that these two sons were singled out by G‑d, while their two younger brothers were not.

Their Deaths

Although we are introduced to Nadab and Abihu earlier in Torah, there is not much information given about them in the actual text—until the enigmatic description of their untimely deaths.

It was the 1st of Nissan, 2449, just one short year after the Exodus. The Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, was finally ready. G‑d had commanded the Jews to build a home for Him. And now, after an eventful year of the Giving of the Torah, the Golden Calf, the first Yom Kippur and many other episodes, the Jews were ready to inaugurate a home for the Divine. For a week, Aaron and his four sons had remained at the entrance of the Tabernacle night and day,3 undergoing a whole string of ceremonies and procedures as a prerequisite for their service in the Mishkan.4

Now the big day had arrived:5 On the 8th day of the inauguration, the first official day of service in the Tabernacle, Aaron and his sons followed a very special ritual designed by G‑d. Everything seemed to be going beautifully. But then the unimaginable occurred:

And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the L‑rd foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the L‑rd and consumed them, and they died before the L‑rd.

Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the L‑rd spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.6

On their very first day of service, Nadab and Abihu brought a “foreign fire” and were tragically consumed. On a simple level, this means that they brought a fire of their own, which G‑d had not commanded, into the sanctuary.

The Sages on Nadab and Abihu

At first glance, Nadab and Abihu appear to be transgressors who didn’t listen to the word of G‑d and were punished as a result. And perhaps that is true.

But the commentaries and Midrashim paint a very different picture of Nadab and Abihu, as well as the circumstances surrounding their death:

  1. Their piety was on par with the greatest of the great, Moses and Aaron!7
  2. They were “clean from sin” (up until the sin that caused their untimely death).8
  3. They were extremely handsome physically, which reflected a beautiful soul within9
  4. After their death, G‑d turned to Moses and said, “Tell Aaron, your brother, that I have done a great kindness and honor to him by the death of his children Nadab and Abihu, for now I have placed him in the innermost chamber, even closer to Me than you, Moses.”10
  5. G‑d treasured them, and thus their death is mentioned many times in the Torah.11
  6. G‑d instructed that all the Jews mourn their death.12
  7. They were reincarnations of the positive elements of Cain (son of Adam and Eve).13

Nobody Is Perfect

So what went wrong? How did such special individuals end up dying what may be the most tragic of deaths in the Bible?14

According to many commentaries, it wasn’t the foreign fire itself that was the cause of their death; rather, Nadab and Abihu were being punished for other infractions. However, it’s important to note that their actions were only considered sinful relative to their level of greatness.

Here are some perspectives on what exactly Nadab and Abihu did wrong:

  1. Being Disrespectful. One should not render judgment in front of his teacher. Nadab and Abihu did so in front of their teacher Moses, ruling that it was a mitzvah for them to bring their own fire to the altar.15
  2. Drinking on the Job. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, the two entered the Tabernacle while inebriated. This explains why this episode is followed by an admonishment not to serve in the Tabernacle while drunk.16
  3. Staying Celibate. They never married, and remaining single for no good reason is a sin. Many single women were hoping to marry them, but Nadab and Abihu would say, “The brother of our father [Moses] is a king, the brother of our mother [Nachshon] is a prince, our father [Aaron] is the High Priest, and we are the two vice high priests—which woman is good enough for us?”17
  4. Behaving Casually Before the Divine. When G‑d revealed Himself at Sinai, they acted too casually by eating, drinking and staring at the Divine as if they were looking at a friend.18
  5. Seeking Power. Once, Moses and Aaron were walking down the road, and Nadab and Abihu were walking behind them. Nadab turned to Abihu and said, “When will these two elders die, so that you and I can lead the generation?” G‑d heard this and said, “Let us see who will bury whom!”19
  6. Not Seeking Advice. They were too self-assured and didn’t seek counsel or advice from Moses, Aaron or even each other.20

Other commentaries strongly believe that their sin was of a higher nature than any of the abovementioned infractions. For example, the Kli Yakar says that he does not find a basis for any of these “sins” in the text of the Torah itself.21 On the contrary, from the verse “And they brought foreign fire before G‑d, that which they weren’t commanded to,” it seems clear that their only sin was that of the “foreign fire.”

There is a famous explanation from the Holy Ohr Hachaim22 which is also brought in many Chassidic texts that Aaron's two sons did not “sin” literally. Their “sin” was allowing their desire to cleave to G‑d to become so intense that their bodies could no longer contain their souls, and they expired. Thus, the Torah says, “They drew near to the L‑rd [with such passion that] they died.”

This was considered a sin, for although a Jew must divest himself of material concerns and focus on spirituality, at the moment when the ultimate ecstasy of the soul is within his grasp, he must return to the work that the soul is meant to do within a physical existence.

We were sent to this world to impact it and transform it, and not to escape it. We must uncover the holiness within our lives.