Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Pinchas

On the Zealousness of Pinchas

Dr. Ephraim Yitzchaki

Department of Talmud

Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him an Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. d his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'

The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. (Numbers 24: 11-14).

Pinchas, in his zealotry, succeeded in halting the plague which struck the Children of Israel (despite the fact that, in general, zealotry is not a positive trait) and the Holy One Blessed be He rewarded him for what he did: "Behold I give to him My covenant of peace. And he shall have it and his descendants after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood".

The difficulty is obvious: the narrative opens with the words "Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest"--Pinchas is already a priest, the son and grandson of priests, and it follows that his sons after him will also be priests. What, then, is his reward? How can he be rewarded with "a pact of priesthood?" The priesthood was granted to Aaron and his sons during the first year after the exodus from Egypt, and the incident with Pinchas occurred during the fortieth year in the wilderness, prior to the entry of the Children of Israel to the Land.

Rashi dealt with this problem, as we can understand from his comment: "Even though the priesthood had already been given to the descendants of Aaron, it was only given to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him,and to their descendants who would be born after their fathers had been anointed. But Pinchas, who was born earlier, was not anointed and therefore had not as yet attained the status of priesthood".

Rashi's interpretation is problematic for several reasons:

a)Why was Pinchas, alone among the descendants of Aaron, not anointed along with the others of his family ?

b) Where is there any hint in the Torah that Pinchas was not anointed with all the other descendants of Aaron?

c) This opinion, that Pinchas did not attain priesthood until he had killed Zimri, is the view of Rabbi Eliezer alone, while all the other Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah) are of the opinion that he became a priest together with all the others of the House of Aaron (see Zevachim 101b). Once again, according to majority opinion, how shall we understand the verse: "And he shall have it and his descendants after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood"?

d) Why does the Torah tell us the name of Zimri ben Salu, the Israelite who was slain, along with his family and station, in 25:14, after citing the reward given to Pinchas (v.12-13)? In the nature of things his name should have been mentioned immediately after the tale of his sin and the consequent plague in verses 7-9, at the conclusion of last week's Parashat Balak, before the reward to Pinchas.

I will not attempt to explain the words of Rashi or why he chose the minority view of R. Eliezer for his explanation, despite its difficulties. On the other hand I do wish to offer a possible interpretation following the opinions of those who held that Pinchas attained the priesthood together with Aharon and his family.

In retrospect it is strange that the tribe of Levi should be singled out from among all the tribes of Israel to serve in the Sanctuary and in the Tent of Meeting, for everything the Torah tells us of the tribe of Levy has to do with killing!

To begin with, Levi, the father of the tribe, along with his brother Shimon, in their anger over what had been done to their sister, Dina, killed the entire male population of Shechem.

An avenging passion is a dangerous trait, and Jacob punished them for this: "I will divide them among Jacob and scatter them among Israel" (Genesis 49:7). They are dangerous when they are together and must be dispersed among the other tribes.

This punishment was carried out fully in the case of Shimon and the tribe of Shimon was totally absorbed into the tribe of Judah. On the other hand Levi, though scattered in residence among the other tribes, did not lose his identity but was even given priesthood and the privilege of holy service. True,

and the fact that the Levites did not receive a portion of land in the Land of Israel and were dependent on others for their livelihood were punishments, but the honor and prestige conferred by holy service and the priestly gifts certainly compensated for that , and more.

Secondly, at the time of the sin of the Golden Calf, we once again meet the tribe of Levi with sword in hand. When Moses stood at the gate and declared "Whoever is for the Lord, let him come to me!" (Exodus 32:26) the Torah tells us that "all the sons of Levi gathered around him". On that day the Levites killed nearly three thousand men.

And now, again, in our parashah, a son of Levi - Pinchas son of Elazar the Priest-- kills a fellow Jew!

We know, for example, that even King David was disqualified from building the Temple for the simple reason that "You have shed much blood and you have made great wars; you will not build a house to My name because you have shed much blood upon the earth before me" (Chronicles I 22:8). The Halachah also rules that "A priest who killed someone, even accidentally, may not lift his hands (to recite the priestly benediction), even if he has repented" (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 128, 35). Why, then, was the tribe of Levi chosen from among all the tribes of Israel to receive the priesthood and the holy service despite all the violence in its history?

One may assume that the priesthood of the sons of Aharon became a point of contention among the Israelites while they were still in the desert. "The entire congregation is holy, all of them, and the Lord is among them, therefore why do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord" (Numbers 16:3 - in parashat Korach). Obviously, there were those among the Children of Israel who protested the choice of the sons of Aharon to the priesthood.

Zealousness is not a positive attribute and killing is definitely forbidden; this is why Jacob punishes his two zealous sons. But there is a difference between the two brothers. When Shimon and Levi reacted zealously to what had been done to their sister, we have no way of knowing what their intention was in attacking the residents of Shechem. Was this an act of redeeming their honor or the honor of the family? Was it zealousness in the name of human values or for the laws of G-d?

The story of the Golden Calf demonstrates the difference between Shimon and Levi - Levi is zealous for the cause of the Lord of Hosts. No consideration of family honor is involved here, for they are commanded: "And slay brother, neighbor and kin" (Exodus 32:27). In this incident, Shimon does not join Levi in his avenging passion.

In Parashat Pinchas the Torah delineates the vast difference between the zealousness of Shimon and that of Levi: the sinner in this story is a head of a paternal house of the tribe of Shimon and the zealot is of the tribe of Levi. The zealotry of Shimon is shown to have been for his own convenience or benefit, it is the zealousness of individual or family honor, whereas of Pinchas the Torah writes "by displaying among them his passion for me"(25:11).

Pinchas proved to the entire people that the priesthood which was given to the sons of Aharon was given to them with complete justification: "Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'

"Say, therefore" not to him alone but rather tell all the Children of Israel that this is the reason why thesons of Levi were chosen to perform the holy service, because their zealousness is on behalf of the Lord. Pinchas proved this publicly, and from that day forward no band of "Korach and his followers" would ever again protest the right of the sons of Aharon to the priesthood.

Zealousness is a negative trait, but when motivated for the sake of Heaven it can be channeled into positive directions.

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