Spontaneity: Good or Bad?
Family Edition

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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Shemini tells a tragic story. The Sages said that God rejoiced on the first day that the Mishkan was used, just as much as at the creation of the universe, but this great day was soon overshadowed by the death of two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, following their sin.

There are many explanations as to what precisely they did wrong, but the most straightforward answer, given by the Torah itself, is that they offered “unauthorised fire” spontaneously, on their own initiative, perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm in the moment.

Moshe acted spontaneously in far more fraught circumstances when he shattered the Tablets of Stone upon seeing Bnei Yisrael dancing around the Golden Calf. The tablets were perhaps the holiest objects there have ever been, yet Moshe was not punished for his act.

Why was spontaneity wrong for Nadav and Avihu yet suitable for Moshe Rabbeinu? The answer is that Nadav and Avihu were Kohanim, Priests. Moshe was a Navi, a Prophet. These are two different forms of leadership. They involve different tasks, different sensibilities, and indeed, different approaches to time itself. Let’s explore these differences further.

The Kohen serves God in a way that never changes over time (except, of course, when the Temple was destroyed and its service, presided over by the Kohanim, came to an end). The Navi serves God in a way that is constantly evolving and reacting to the times. Sometimes the Navi warns of forthcoming catastrophe. But when they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the Navi brings consolation and hope.

The words said by the Kohen are always the same. The priestly blessing uses the exact words today as it did in the days of Moshe and Aharon. But the words used by a Prophet are never the same.

After we lost the Temple, Rabban Gamliel and his court at Yavneh established a standard text for the weekday Amidah, with eighteen (later nineteen) blessings in a precise order. But not everyone agreed. Rabbi Yehoshua held that individuals could say an abridged form of the Amidah. According to some, Rabbi Eliezer was opposed to a fixed text altogether and believed that one should say something new each day. It was another ongoing argument between structure and spontaneity.

This disagreement is rooted in the very source of tefillah. If prayer originated with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov then it is prophetic. But if our tefillot were established to replace the korbanot, then they are priestly. Someone who saw prayer as priestly would, like Rabban Gamliel, emphasise the importance of a precise text, with no spontaneity. One who saw it as prophetic would value personal tefillot and each day try to say something new.

Tradition eventually resolved the matter in a most remarkable way. Every day, we say the Shacharit and Minchah Amidah twice, once privately and silently in the tradition of the Prophets, then a second time publicly and collectively. This “Reader’s Repetition” follows the tradition of a Kohen offering a korban at the Temple. During the silent Amidah, we can add extra words of our own. During the repetition, we may not. That is because Prophets acted spontaneously, but Priests did not. And since there was no korban at night-time, Maariv is not repeated.

The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu is that they made the mistake of acting like Prophets when they were, in fact, Priests. But we have inherited both traditions. Judaism would have no continuity without structure, but without spontaneity, it would have no fresh life. The challenge is to maintain the balance without ever confusing the place of each.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. Can you think of a time where spontaneity is important in your life? In what ways do consequences educate or prevent future mistakes in our lives, and in our community?
  2. Considering Nadav and Avihu’s misplaced “enthusiasm”, is there ever a time where we should hold back on our expressions of excitement?
  3. What are some other examples of “korbanot gone bad” in the Torah?
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Parsha in Passing

On the eighth day, after a week-long initiation, Aharon and his sons start their duties as holy Priests. A Divine fire consumes the altar’s offerings, signifying God’s Presence in the Sanctuary. But Aharon’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an unauthorised fire to God and are struck down, a tragic end to the glorious day.

Aharon responds to the profound loss of his sons with silence, and then a legal debate over the offerings arises between Moshe and Aharon, with Moshe eventually acknowledging Aharon’s correct understanding.

God delivers the laws of kashrut, specifying which animals are kosher and therefore which can and cannot be eaten.

Only land animals with cloven hooves who chew the cud, fish with fins and scales, a specific list of kosher birds, and certain kosher insects (including four locusts) are permissible. Bnei Yisrael also receive laws on ritual purity, teaching them to distinguish between what is pure and impure, highlighting the cleansing properties of the Mikvah (a ritual bath that meets specific criteria) and spring water.

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Parsha People

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Nadav and Avihu: They brought a korban and took a deep breath, but it was forbidden, and led to their death.

Aharon: In silence this father bore loss so profound; deep in his heart, his grief abounds.

Moshe: In wisdom, the brother debates then concedes, in law and in life, to where righteousness leads.

Kashrut: The laws that carve out the menu we dine; split hooves, cud-chewing, fins and scales, they define.

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Parsha Practical

The most practical mitzvot that emerge from this week’s parsha are undoubtably the laws of kashrut! After the climax of the inauguration of the Mishkan, followed by the death of Nadav and Avihu, it may seem like an unexpected change of subject to include in this week’s parsha. But its inclusion perfectly aligns with Rabbi Sacks’ understanding of the message Shemini teaches about spontaneity and tradition.

Kashrut isn’t just about what we eat; it’s about weaving our day-to-day choices with deeper meanings, turning the simple act of eating into a mindful moment that connects us to our roots and values. Kashrut reminds us that our traditions can guide us daily, hourly even, keeping us connected to something bigger than ourselves while navigating the modern world. And in many ways, kashrut is our bridge between the sacred and the ordinary. While spontaneity within the laws of kashrut is not permitted, the culinary world’s creativity with kosher food has allowed for the personal expression of faith to come through while also balancing the essential rules that we follow without compromise.

  • Can you think of other mitzvot that have adapted to the times but still maintained their original halachic intent?
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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Red Light, Green Light!” This is a game all about listening and knowing when it’s the right time to act. One player becomes the “traffic light” and the rest must try to reach them from the opposite side of the room. The “traffic light” faces away and yells ‘Green Light!’ for players to march towards them. Suddenly, they call ‘Red Light!’ and turn around. Players must freeze; anyone caught moving starts over. The game continues until someone tags the traffic light, winning. You can also include ‘Amber Light’ for slow motion, and ‘Reverse Gear’.

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Parsha Philosophy

The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu illustrates the dangers of unguided spontaneity in a sacred context. Rabbi Sacks explains the roles of Priests and Prophets—symbols of constancy and change, to clarify when we must be constant and when we should adapt. Embodying the essence of Jewish resilience, this duality teaches the importance of evolving religious practices while maintaining a deep connection to heritage, a theme that has been prevalent in Sefer Vayikra so far.

Following the Temple’s destruction, the Jewish people transitioned from sacrificial rituals to acts of kindness and moral introspection, demonstrating remarkable flexibility rooted in unchanging values. The Amidah is the perfect example of how we navigate the delicate interplay between religious spontaneity and structure. Saying it once privately and once out loud as a congregation, we honour both the need to be creative and the importance of maintaining order and tradition.

  • When do you feel more spontaneous in your tefillot, and when do you tend to stick to the structure of the Siddur?
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Parsha Parable

The Kosher Champion

Meet Bat-El Gatterer, a superhero in Taekwondo and a proud member of the Israeli Olympic team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Unlike other athletes who munch on protein bars between matches, Bat-El has a secret weapon: her trusty cup of kosher instant noodles from Israel. She knows it’s not the tastiest, most nutritious choice, but keeping kosher is important to her, even if it means skipping the usual athlete snacks.

Taekwondo is a martial art that includes explosive kick-jumps. Bat-El has been perfecting her moves since she was a little girl, practising hard and never giving up. Competing in her chosen sport has led her all over the world, but Bat-El’s adventures don’t stop there. She’s also a champion of keeping Shabbat, even at big competitions. Imagine this: one time, in Belgium, she woke up super early, scared she’d oversleep for her match because she couldn’t use her phone or the elevator on Shabbat, so she needed to allow lots of extra time to get ready. Even with just three hours of sleep, she powered through five rounds of Taekwondo and brought home a shiny bronze medal!

On a Shabbat in Germany, she once walked three hours in the snow to reach the competition. She laughed about how when she arrived at the event, she looked like a snowman herself, she was so covered in snow! But she won her match that day too. Bat-El is a true Olympic hero who shows us that you can reach for your dreams without letting go of your values, and maybe you’ll even bring home a medal while you’re at it!

Bat El Gatterer kosher jewish olympic champion of taekwondo e1711857270526
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Parsha Ponderings

What Would You Do…

…if there was no Siddur, no Amidah, and no fixed prayers, but you still needed to daven three times a day?

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Parsha Puzzle


Q. Which of the books of the Torah mention camels?

(See below for the answer)

This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:

Bamidbar is the only book without mention of a single camel. In Bereishit, the men who buy Yosef from his brothers travel via camel. In Shemot the camels are struck by the plague of pestilence. This week (Vayikra 11:4), and in Devarim (14:7) camels are listed as a non-kosher animal.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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