Why did Aharon burn the Chatat? – A New Explanation

A number of recent posts have addressed some of the korbanot themes that arise in parshat Vayikra, Tzav and Shmini.  Certainly, one of the most challenging korbanot sections to understand from these parshiyot is the exchange between Moshe and Aharon regarding the chatat that Aharon burnt after the death of Nadav and Avihu:

“Why have you not eaten the chatat in a holy place, for it is most-holy, and it was given to you to atone for the sin of the congregation to atone for them before God. Behold its blood has not been brought into the inner holy place, you should have surely eaten it in the holy place as I commanded.  

And Aharon spoke to Moshe saying, “Behold, this day they have offered their chatat and their olah before God, and things such as this have befallen me. Had I eaten a chatat today, would it be good in the eyes of God?”  And Moshe heard and it was good in his eyes.

(Vayikra 10:17-20)

The text is completely obscure as to why, in the end, the chatat was burnt, and in what way Aharon’s answer responded to Moshe’s challenges.  The Gemara Zevachim (101) presents two answers – either that it was burnt because it became tamei or that it was burnt because Aharon determined that he was not allowed to eat it as an onen, one who just suffered the loss of an immediate relative.  The problem with the first answer is that there is no hint to it in the text (ikkar chaser min ha-sefer as the Gemara might say).  

In contrast, the second answer gains support from the text (“such things have befallen me” – i.e., the death of my two sons).  However, the problem with this answer is that Aharon was specifically commanded to eat the mincha (verse 12), although he was an onen and the chatat should be no different.  The Gemara answers this by stating that the chatat referred to here is not the inauguration chatat but the one of Rosh Chodesh, and because the Rosh Chodesh chatat was a permanent instiution, not a one-time sacrifice, Aharon deduced that it had to be treated differently.  However, it is without a question that the pshat of the verse refers to the chatat of the miluim, and not a chatat that has not been mentioned in this context.

A different explanation emerges, I believe, based on a close reading of the first half of verse 19: “they today have brought their chatat and olah…”  Which chatat and olah is being referred to here?  Not, I would suggest, the one that they brought for the congregation, as that set of sacrifices also had a mincha and a shelamim.  Rather, this is the set of sacrifices that come in the begining of Shmini for Aharon, and presumably his sons as well.  “And God said to Aharon: “Take for yourself a young calf for a chatat and a ram for an olah, unblemished, and bring them before God, lifnei Hashem.” (9:2).  This is their sacrifice – it was brought for their sake alone – and it was just a chatat and an olah.

Now, when we look at this chatat of Aharon (and his sons), we find something quite remarkable – it was an outer chatat which was not eaten by the Kohanim, but rather burnt outside the camp! (9:9, 11).  This is true, in fact, of all the chataot brought during the seven days of consecration (8:14-17) – they were brought on the outer altar, but they were burnt outside the camp rather than being eaten.

Now we understand the difficulty that Aharon faced when it came to question of eating the chatat of the congregation.  Was this chatat to be treated like the chataot of the 7 days of consecration and the chatat of the Kohanim on the eighth day, or was it to eaten, inasmuch as it was a chatat of the congregation and not the Kohanim?  Now, if we look at the begining of Shmini where these korbanot where commanded, we will note that there were no specific commands regarding either the chatat of Aharon, which was burnt, nor regarding the chatat of the People.  What we will also note is that when it comes to offering the chatat of the People the verse says: “And he slaughtered it and he offered it for sin, vayichateihu (or “he made it at chatat), like the first one.”  This chatat of the People is being identified with the chatat of Aharon, without any specific directives given for either.

Now, what about what Moshe said to Aharon and his sons after Nadav and Avihu died?  Didn’t he tell them to eat the chatat?  Well, no, he didn’t.  “And Moshe spoke to Aharon and to Elazar and to Itamar his remaining sons, [saying,] ‘Take the mincha that remains from the fire offering of God and eat it unleavened by the altar for it is kodesh kodashim…. And as for the breast of waving and the thigh of offering [from the shelamim] you shall eat in a holy place…'” (10:12, 14).    There was no command to eat the chatat!

So, now Aharon has to decide – to eat or not to eat the meat of the chatat?  Neither Moshe nor God commanded to eat it;  Moshe mentioned everything else he was supposed to eat but not this; and this chatat is similar in many ways to the chatat he brought for himself today.   Aharon thus arrived at the eminintly reasonable conclusion that this was also one of those unique chataot of the consecration that was brought on the outer altar and not eaten, but burnt outside the Mishkan.

Moshe, however, argues that the opposite conclusion was the warranted one.  “Why have you not eaten the chatat in a holy place, for it is kodesh kodashim” (10:17)  – that is – it has exactly the same character as the mincha, which you were commanded (verse 12) to eat exactly for this reason, because it – the mincha – was kodesh kodashim.  Then Moshe continues:  “Behold its blood was not brought into the inner-holy sanctum…” (verse 18).  That is, if you were in doubt,  you should have followed the general rule – that a chatat whose blood is not brought into the inner sanctuary is eaten, not burnt.

What, now, is Aharon’s response.  “Behold they today [also] brought their chatat and olah before God, lifnei Hashem” –  this sacrifice preceded and juxtaposed that of the People, and their chatat, although brought on the outer altar, was burnt, and not eaten.  And he continues, “And look what has befallen me” – my other two sons, Nadav and Avihu died, why?  Becuase they brought a fire lifnei Hashem (10:1) that had not been commanded.  Now, I ask you, Moshe, “had I eaten this chatat would it have been good in God’s eyes?” – if there was any possibility that I should not have eaten it, who would take the risk to eat this in a holy place, to eat this before God, if I may not have been commanded to do so?  Would I not have been running the same risk as my now dead sons?  Given what occured to me, there was no way I was going to eat something before God that I may not have been commanded to do.  “And Moshe heard, and it was good in his eyes.”


About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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