On the concluding eighth day – after which Shemini is named – of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the sanctuary on which future temples would be modelled and built, a tragedy struck.
Just as Aharon the Israelite high priest came to the end of his week of gruelling training, Nadav and Avihu, two of his four sons died. The flames licking the surface of the incense pans they were holding caught the alcohol heavy on their breath.
Their priestly father, dumbstruck with grief, abstained from eating the sacrificial meat. When Moshe expressed anger at this, Aharon reasoned that God would not have wanted a person who is suffering to fake joy and celebration.
Moshe accepted this and sent a clear message to future Torah leaders to deliver halacha with compassion. Failure to do so is a condemnable lack of sensitivity unconducive to Torah.
The ban on alcohol when on duty introduced after this tragedy was the first clear health and safety instruction issued in recorded history.
The other major feature in this week’s reading regards the species kosher for consumption. Ungulates, or four-legged hooved animals, except for the camel, are permitted to be slaughtered and eaten. Birds on the list are generally those that do not prey on others or wait for carrion to appear.
Although the Torah allows us to eat meat, we should train ourselves not to allow us to become cruel. Products of harsh, cruel methods of farming, such as veal, battery eggs and foie gras should be avoided, even if they are otherwise kosher.
ω Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old