The Book of Leviticus, from which this week's Torah portion, Aharei Mot, is taken, was dubbed quite appropriately by the rabbis "The Priest's Manual," which mirrors its (Greek-derived) English name, Leviticus ("Of the Levites," one of the priestly classes). For it is, essentially, a book of laws mostly pertaining to the elaborate sacrificial system organized and carried out by the priests.

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Despite its predominantly legal nature (from which nearly half of Judaism's 613 commandments and the same proportion of the Talmud are said to be based), the laws are embedded in a literary frame that imbues it with a tightly woven thematic cohesion, even geometric composition.

The name of the portion alone, Aharei Mot,--literally, "After the Death"--points to the sole literary "plot" found in the Book of Leviticus, a narrative that quite fittingly involves the inaugural priestly family of Aaron (Moses' brother). Otherwise, the story verges on the mysterious. In Chapter 10, two of Aaron's four sons, in their role as priests, innocently make an offering to God and are instantly struck dead. At the time, the Torah implicitly suggests that their "sin" for which they were so strenuously punished was that they offered an alien fire, "which [the Lord] commanded them not."

As the only narrative in a book devoted to lists of commandments andtechnical descriptions of rituals--including such details as where to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice--the shocking story of Aaron's twowell-intentioned and yet ill-fated sons, Nadab and Abihu, seems misplaced. The "retelling" of the story or allusion to it in this week's portion is only slightly more satisfying.

Chapter 16's slightly altered version of the incident tries to present it as containing a lesson for the surviving priests. "And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came near before the Lord and died.... Speak to thy brother Aaron that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the covering which is upon the ark that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark cover." This version, pointing to the fact that Aaron's sons got too close to God (rather than mentioning the "strange fire"), is here contrasted with the moderation Aaron is commanded to have in approaching God.

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The second version of Nadab and Abihu, while still disturbing on somelevel, contains a basic truth about the Book of Leviticus and how itpresents God's laws. For one thing, the incident is an example of thepunishment karet--the most severe punishment meted out by Jewish law for only the worst transgressions and often translated as the "cut[ting] off [of the transgressor] from his people.