Shmini in the Diaspora, Tazria-Metzora in Israel

A Dvar Torah from Efrat for both venues. The 2nd day of a holiday is only observed in the Diaspora, and if it falls on Shabbat. Israel reads the Shabbat parsha, the Diaspora reads the holiday one and is one week behind.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin



“And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said]: I will be sanctified by those who are near to Me and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

The Bible is describing the climax of the seven days of the Consecration of the Sanctuary, the great celebration inaugurating Aaron the High Priest and his priestly sons into the exalted positions of religious, sacramental and dynastic leadership. A fire of Divine acceptance descends, consuming the sacrificial offerings; the ecstatic nation joyously breaks out in exultant song, falling on their faces in submission to the Lord. And the sons of Aaron, apparently caught up in the ecstasy of the moment, respond to God’s fire by bringing their own fire offering, two fire-pans of incense before the Lord. But alas, the Lord sends down another fire which consumes the two young men, shattering the celebrations.

The biblical commentaries attempt to identify the precise crime which merited such an extreme punishment.

Since the very next passage prohibits inebriated priests from entering the Tent of Communion, some suggest that herein lay the crime of Nadav and Avihu; others maintain that they were anxious to take over the leadership, that they acted on their own without asking Moses’ permission.

But I believe that a careful reading of the text will provide the truest explanation for the fire which consumed Nadav and Avihu.

The last five chapters of the Book of Exodus are dedicated to the Sanctuary, which symbolizes God dwelling together with man: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell within their midst” (Exodus 25:8). But the Bible also warns us about getting too close to God unless we are properly prepared, lest we be consumed by Him: “I may not go in your midst lest I consume you along the way, because you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3). God, you see, is compared to fire – the source of all creativity, but at the same time a force of inflammatory destruction.

What is true of God is also true of His Torah. This is precisely the teaching of the Midrash (Mechilta Yitro) based upon the words of our sacred Bible (Exodus 19:18): “‘Mount Sinai was all in smoke….God was in the fire,’ teaching us that Torah is fire, it was given from fire (esh-dat) and it is compared to fire. And since one who comes too close to fire gets burnt, a person must merely warm himself close to its light.”

In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “This Torah [Ma’aseh Merkava, mysticism] is compared to two paths, one of fire and the other of snow: Turn to the one extreme, and you will be consumed by the fire; turn to the other extreme, you will freeze in the snow. What must one do? Walk in the center path” (J.T. Hagiga, Chapter 2 Halacha 1; see Shalom Rosenberg, “Between Snow and Fire,” Makor Rishon, Shabbat Supplement, Vayakhel, February 21, 2014)

Hence, when it comes to Divine service, the construction of our Sanctuary (and our closeness to God and Torah), we are told again and again that everything was done “just as the Lord commanded Moses” – no less and no more. Alienation from God and Torah makes life an empty, materialistic shell, devoid of spirit and meaning; too much God and Torah can also consume and destroy physical life and the world altogether.

So when Aaron and his sons go beyond God’s law and ecstatically (fanatically) bring a fire which had not been commanded by God, they must be stopped in their tracks; such actions can lead to the destroying of one’s own children in the fires of Moloch or endangering civilization on the altars of suicide-bombing Jihadists.

In a far less extreme fashion than Moloch and Jihad, even in our own religious society, we have seen some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) demonstrations of fallout from going beyond God’s commands in the study of Torah.

I am unalterably opposed to Israel’s jailing of any Jew who wishes to learn Torah, but I am likewise unalterably opposed to Israel’s supporting any institution which educates towards total immersion in Torah alone, which sees Torah not as a prescription for life in order to perfect our world, but rather as a substitution for life to the exclusion of the world. Such education reforms and perverts the authentic Torah of the ages, which taught the value of Torah alongside of professional pursuit (Mishna Avot 2:2), which insisted that one must be a productive “grain-gathering” citizen at the same time that one studies Torah, and which ruled that the Torah scholar must share full responsibility with the lay-person, relying neither on miracles nor on Torah study for protection, whenever human safety is at stake. We dare not go beyond God’s law in Divine service even in the commandment to study Torah; it threatens the future of our nation.


“Speak to the children of Israel saying, when a woman conceives (tazria) and gives birth to a male … on the eighth day the child’s foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:2-3) 

The Hebrew word “halacha” is the term used for Jewish law which is the constitution and bedrock of our nation; indeed, we became a nation at Sinai when we accepted the Divine covenantal laws of ritual, ethics and morality which are to educate and shape us into a “special treasure… a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

The verb of the root “hlch” means “walk”; progressing from one place to another, and not remaining static or stuck in one place, as in the biblical verses: “Walk before Me [hit’halech] and become whole-hearted” (Genesis 17: 1) and “You shall walk [ve’halachta] in [God’s] pathways” (Deuteronomy 5: 33).

This is important since scientific discoveries and social norms are constantly evolving, and it is incumbent upon scholars to consider these changing realities when determining halachicnorms, such as establishing time of death (no longer considered the cessation of the respiratory function, but rather now considered brain-stem death), which would allow for heart transplants.

For this reason, the Oral Law was never supposed to have been written down – for fear that it become ossified.

It was only because our lost sovereignty (70 CE), pursuant exile and almost incessant persecution might have caused us to forget our sacred traditions that the Sages reluctantly agreed to commit the Oral Law to writing in the form of the Talmud, declaring, “It is time to do for the Lord, they must nullify the Torah law” not to record the Oral Law (Tmura 14b).

However, thanks to responsa literature, where sages respond to questions of Jewish law from Jews in every country in the globe, halacha has kept “in sync” with new conditions and new realities.

I would like to bring to your attention a ground-breaking responsum published by the great Talmudic luminary Rav Moshe Feinstein in 1961, regarding the verse which opens our Torah portion. Reactionary forces opposed his ideas, burnt his books and harassed his household, but he refused to recant.

The Hebrew word tazria in the above quote literally means “inspermated,” zera being the Hebrew word for seed or sperm. The rabbi was asked whether a woman who had been artificially inseminated, after 10 years of a childless marriage because of her husband’s infertility, could still maintain sexual relations with her husband. In other words: did the “new invention” of artificial insemination by a man who is not her husband constitute an act of adultery, which would make the woman forbidden to her husband?

Rav Moshe responded forthrightly and unequivocally: “It is clear that in the absence of an act of sexual intimacy, a woman cannot be forbidden to her husband or considered to be an unfaithful wife …similarly, the child is kosher, because mamzerut (bastardy) can only occur by means of an act of sexual intimacy between a married woman and a man not her husband, not by means of sperm artificially inseminated.” The sage added how important it is for us to understand the deep existential need a woman has for a child and how our “holy matriarchs” all yearned to bear children “and all women in the world are like them in this respect.” If the mother does not know the identity of the sperm donor, it would not prevent the later marriage of the child (lest he/she marry a sibling), since we go in accordance with the majority of people, who would not be siblings to this child (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, siman 10).

This responsum opened the door for many single women who refuse to be promiscuous, or to take a marriage partner solely for the sake of having a child with him, but who desperately wish to have a child of their own and continue the Jewish narrative into the next generation. Especially given the obiter dictum Rav Moshe included, in which he explained the importance of having a child especially to a woman and specifically states that he would have allowed the woman to be artificially inseminated ab initio (l’hat’hila — since the woman asked her question after she had already been inseminated), this responsum has mitigated to a great extent the problem of female infertility. If a given woman does not have a properly functional ovum, her husband’s sperm can artificially inseminate a healthy ovum, which can be implanted within the birth mother who will then carry the fetus until delivery; and if a woman is able to have her ovum fertilized by her husband’s sperm but is unable to carry the fetus in her womb, a surrogate can carry the fetus until delivery.

The question is to be asked: Who then is the true mother, the one who provides the fertilized ovum or the one who carries the fetus to its actual birth? Depending on the response, we will know whether or not we must convert the baby if the true mother was not Jewish.

Rav Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi of Israel (and previously the IDF chief chaplain), provides the answer from our parsha’s introductory text: “When a woman is ‘inseminated (tazria) and gives birth…” The word “tazria” seems at first to be superfluous. Rav Goren explains that it took 4,000 years for us to understand that this word is informing us that the true biological mother is the one whose ovum was “inseminated.”