Sh’mini: The Power of Ritual?

The Western Wall, Jerusalem/Steve Lubetkin Photo. Used by permission.
The Western Wall, Jerusalem/Steve Lubetkin Photo. Used by permission.

This week’s portion, Sh’mini. has confounded commentators for centuries. In Leviticus 10 we read the strange and disturbing story of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who, in the midst of the consecration of Aaron as High Priest, “offered before God alien fire (“esh zarah”), which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God” (Leviticus 10: 2,3). It seems that these two boys did something against the rules, so to speak, and in doing so, were consumed. Quite a punishment for offering “alien fire”. It seems that if you are going to perform or officate at a ritual, you had better not improvise!
As I mentioned, there are quite a few interpretations to this strange incident. The text does not give us any more details other than to state the fact of the offering of “alien fire”. This led me to think about a very powerful development that we are seeing throughout contemporary Jewish life. Rituals are exploding in popularity, use, and creativity. All over our community rabbis, cantors and lay people are creating new rituals that speak to new life stages or situations that perhpas were not discussed in the past, or, seemed to fall under the traditional focus of when a religious ritual may be or could be used. That is no longer true. As part of our Jewish Sacred Aging project we have seen the development of new rituals that speak to such issues as older adult cohabitation,the removal of a wedding ring after a year of mourning, the welcoming into an assisted living facility, the moving from a long time family home and to such issues as signing an advanced directive (some of these we have posted on this site and we will continue to add more)

Many of these rituals are original, many are adaptations of other rituals. Why the interest? Rituals link us to our historical past, put our lives in a context of life reminding us that we are part of something greater than out own self. They speak, many feel, to a profound need to take time and celebrate the moment of time as something beyond just a moment in time no different from any other. These rituals also speak to our need to make our moments count for something. There are so many oppotunities for these moments of meaning. This creative impulse spans the age range. We have rituals (books of them) that speak to issues such as infertility and assisted reproduction, the disposal of frozen embryos following successful IVF treatments and the like. Web sites such as, serve as a living repository of creative rituals.

No doubt, Nadab and Abihu, would find some comfort, and maybe even support, had they created their “alien fire” today! The point being that we live

in a world that encourages and often celebrates the creation of new ritual expressions. Our lives are so different, so challenging and so in need of sacred embraces of moments of life. Think about those moments in your life that would be enhanced with a blessing, a prayer or ritual that honors the moment and links you and that moment to a sacred history. Nothing alien about that!
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

About Rabbi Richard Address 423 Articles
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.


What are your thoughts?