We read in Parashat Shemini the tense exchange between Moshe and Aharon on the day Aharon and his sons began serving as kohanim, after the tragic death of Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu. Moshe found that one of the sacrifices offered that day – a chatat (sin-offering) – had been entirely burned, and he angrily scolded the kohanim for burning the sacrificial meat instead of eating it. Aharon explained to Moshe that partaking of the meat would have been improper after the tragic events which befell the family that day – “…and such events happened to me; if I would eat a sin-offering today, would this be pleasing in the Lord’s eyes?” (10:19). Moshe accepted his brother’s explanation, and the conversation ended.
Rashi, based on the Gemara in Masekhet Zevachim (101a), explains that the sacrifice under discussion was the sin-offering brought every Rosh Chodesh. As Rashi writes earlier (9:1), citing the Midrash, this day was the first of Nissan. Therefore, in addition to the special sacrifices offered in honor of the inauguration of the kohanim, the monthly Rosh Chodesh sacrifices – which included, among other animals, a goat as a sin-offering (Bamidbar 28:15) – needed to be offered. Now generally speaking, an onein – somebody whose immediate family member passed away that day – is forbidden from partaking of sacrificial food. However, after the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe informed Aharon and his surviving sons that an exception was made for the special sacrifices offered that day in honor of their inauguration, and the sacrifices should be eaten (10:12-15). Aharon noted to Moshe that this exception pertained only to the sacrifices offered in honor of this one-time event – the inauguration of the kohanim – but not to the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice, a standard offering brought each and every month. Therefore, although Aharon and his sons were to eat the meat of the special sacrifices brought in honor of their inauguration, they were not to eat the Rosh Chodesh sin-offering.
Aharon begins his response to Moshe by saying, “Hein hayom hikrivu et chatatam ve-et olatam lifnei Hashem” (10:19). This ambiguous statement could be translated in several different ways, including, “Did they today sacrifice their sin-offering and burnt-offering before the Lord?!” This translation of the verse is followed by the Gemara (there in Masekhet Zevachim), as cited by Rashi. The Gemara explains that in this statement, Aharon responded to a question posed by Moshe which is not explicated in the text. Moshe had asked Aharon and his remaining sons if perhaps they did not eat the sin-offering because its blood had been sprinkled when they were in a state of aninut (bereavement), and was thus invalid. A sacrifice tended to by a kohen on the day of a family member’s death is disqualified, and so Moshe wondered if this might have been why this sin-offering was burned instead of eaten. Aharon replied by rhetorically asking, “Was it they who sacrificed their sin-offering?!” The service was performed that day not by Aharon’s sons, but rather by Aharon himself, and a kohen gadol – unlike regular kohanim – is permitted to perform the service in the Mikdash in a state of aninut. Hence, this is not the reason why the meat was burned.
The Ramban raises the question of why Moshe would have entertained such a possibility. After all, it is very clear from the text that Nadav and Avihu died only after the service was completed. Why would Moshe have thought that the sacrificial blood had been sprinkled when the kohanim were in a state of bereavement, if the tragedy struck only after the service? The Ramban suggests that perhaps Moshe did not see all the rituals performed that day, and considered the possibility that perhaps after everything else was completed, and after Nadav and Avihu’s death, the blood of this sin-offering was found, and the kohanim at that point proceeded to sprinkle it on the altar as required.
The Tur, in his Torah commentary, cites his father, the Rosh, as suggesting a simpler explanation, claiming that the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice had not been offered before Nadav and Avihu’s death. The Torah makes it clear that Nadav and Avihu perished following the offering of the special sacrifices required on that day, but it says nothing about the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice. Conceivably, then, the Gemara might have understood that the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice was offered later in the day, following the tragic death of Aharon’s older sons. Aharon thus clarified that it was he, and not his remaining sons, who tended to the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice, and it was therefore valid, as the kohen gadol is permitted to perform the service in a state of aninut.
This explanation is offered as well by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala. He adds that in the Torah’s description of Aharon’s offering the special sacrifices required on that day, the Torah emphasizes that these were offered “milevad olat ha-boker” – in addition to the daily morning tamid sacrifice (9:17), which is the first sacrifice offered each day. Revealingly, Rav Mecklenberg writes, the Torah does not mention in this context the Rosh Chodesh sacrifices – perhaps indicating that they were offered later, after the death of Nadav and Avihu.