Don Isaac Abravane, sometimes spelled Abarbanell (1437-1508) was a probing and penetrating Jewish thinker, as well as a prolific
Biblical commentator. In Leviticus 10, he tackles one of the Torah’s most controversial topics: the
untimely deaths of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the high priest.

“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer,
and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire
before God, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth
fire from before God, and devoured them, and they died before God.”

What happened? What triggered the demise of Nadab and Abihu, both holy men of prominent stature?
Among the venerable rabbis, there was no shortage of opinions. Surrounding the bitter tragedy, indeed,
a plethora of theories swirl. For the full discussion, see Abravanel’s World.

In sum, Abravanel examined the Talmudic rabbis’ five distinct hypotheses, before surmising that if the
ancients couldn’t come to a consensus as to the root cause of Nadab and Avihu’s deaths, then that gave
him license and leeway to critique their respective explanations, before advancing his own theory. We
present it in abbreviated form now.

This much we know. In their generation, both young men were pious. We can also gather that both had
died simultaneously, and their deaths unnatural, as they had no co-morbidities or underlying health

  • According to the Talmud, the high priest had, let us say, first right of refusal to offer incense in
    the Tabernacle. Nadab and Abihu should have deferred to Aaron.
  • Nadab and Avihu offered the incense together, a criminal act. It was a one-man operation.
  • Incense is offered in the holy of holies. Nadab and Avihu had no business entering that hallowed
    chamber without permission.
  • The fire used to light the censer should have been taken from the incense altar. However, Nadab
    and Abihu utilized a different “starter” flame.
  • During the 8-day inauguration period of the Tabernacle, Moses served as its high priest. Nadab
    and Abihu should have shown the requisite respect for him.

Abravanel brings Scriptural support for Nadab and Abihu’s wrongdoings. Having said that, as mentioned
above, both men were otherwise upstanding. In closing here, Abravanel states that Temple service
followed strict guidelines. The slightest misstep was fraught with peril, even if unintentional. These
factors must all be considered, plus others, when studying the tragic demise of both righteous priests.