Shema Yisrael Home

              Fish&Soup.jpg - 12464 Bytes Subscribe

   by Jacob Solomon

Tihs Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome - Please Read!


G-d spoke to Aaron saying, “Do not drink intoxicating wine… when you come to the Tent of Meeting… this is an eternal statute throughout the generations.” (10:8-9)

This commandment is unique in that G-d communicated it to Aaron, rather than to Moses, directly after the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 12:2) states why that is so. Aaron accepted the death of his two sons as a Divine decree without complaint (‘Aaron was silent’ [10:3]). Therefore G-d honored him by communicating this statute exclusively to him.

The Chinuch (Mitzva 152) gives little attention to the rationale of this Mitzva. He writes that one may only participate in Temple activities and Torah study when in the right (sober) frame of mind, dismissing it with a curt, “there nothing to be gained by discussing the obvious.”

The above raises the following questions:

1. Aaron was a bereaved father. How was G-d’s communicating to him the injunction against serving in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) when drunk, sensitive to Aaron’s human feelings at that moment? Following the tradition brought by R. Ishmael (Vayikra Rabba 12:1) that Aaron’s sons died because they entered the Tabernacle after drinking wine, would not telling Aaron that such behavior was punishable by death be rubbing salt into an open wound?

2. The Chinuch (quoted above) stated that, “there nothing to be gained by discussing the obvious.” Yet the Torah explicitly declares that this injunction is a Chok – a statute (10:9). The Midrash (Sifra 12:10; also see Rashi on 18:4) brings the difference between a Chok and a Mishpat (judgment). A Chok is a commandment with no apparent rationale, such as the prohibition of eating pork. By contrast, a Mishpat is a law that would be seen as fair and just even if not commanded by the Torah – such as the prohibitions of murder and robbery. By classifying the ban on entering the Tabernacle/Temple under the influence of alcohol as a chok, the text in effect says that there is no apparent reason for it…

R. Bunam of P’shis’cha (1765-1827), a Hasidic master, comments that this commandment tells us a basic Torah attitude towards joy. G-d wants His servants to find the source of joy in the Torah and in the performance of the commandments, not through external stimuli such as alcohol. Thus a priest who enters the Temple is spiritually deficient if he does not have the appropriate feelings and emotions.

Indeed, many commentators link what we eat and drink with our spiritual state of mind, as well as with our physical well-being. The former link is something that human beings cannot easily understand. As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Horeb, #448) in reference to the dietary laws:

How instincts can be aroused or controlled by bodily gratification; how mental clarity can thus be improved or killed; how even animals may become blood-thirsty and wild through one food, tame and mild through another food. Only when you know all of this, you may be surprised at not being able to understand the reasons for these laws.

Thus, Hirsch classifies the dietary laws as Chukim – writing in the vein that G-d, and not people, understands how our spiritual state of mind relates to what we eat. G-d, who created us, knows what items are fundamentally ‘good’ for us and which ones are damaging. He goes further than this, stating (ibid. p.lxi):

If we could understand the nature and condition of the interrelationship and essential unity of our body and soul, we should find it easy to comprehend Chukim that are meant to rule all these relationships, as easily as we comprehend Mishpatim.

Underlying the above is the idea that we do not appreciate the reasons for the Torah’s Chukim because we do not comprehend the physical and spiritual composition of the Creation. The Torah demands that the Israelites, in serving Him, show sufficient faith to trust the Creator’s stipulations as to what activities are beneficial, and detrimental to our physical and spiritual welfare.

Thus, consuming wine might well bring joy when performing Mitzvot. But it can also arouse other negative emotions which more than cancel out that additional joy. Our not understanding the relationships between wine and those negative emotions can explain why the Torah put the prohibition of priests entering the Temple after drinking wine into the category of a chok. The Torah is in effect saying that the emotions caused by wine and the sanctity of the Temple cause grave disharmony.

This also may explain why Aaron was given this Mitzva. Aaron showed exceptional strength of character in silently accepting the death of his two eldest sons as the Will of G-d. This showed a very high measure of faith in the Almighty, almost incomprehensible strength of character. G-d was in effect saying, “Your reaction to My decree set an example for My people. Do not drink wine so that your feelings towards My judgment become more negative…”



This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel