Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Phinehas 5763/ July 19, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Phinehas 5763/ July 19, 2003

Phinehas' Reward

Yedidiah Klein
Jerusalem

At the end of Parashat Balak (Num. 25:6-8) we are told about an act of Phinehas', as follows:

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas ... saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked.

At the beginning of Parashat Phinehas (Num. 25:10-15) we are told about his reward:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar 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 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.'"
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. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.

This episode raises the following questions:

  1. Why did the Torah add the introductory words, "Say, therefore," and not make do with the words, "I grant him My pact of friendship"?
  2. What is meant by the promise, "I grant him My pact of friendship"?
  3. What is meant by the promise, "It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time"?
  4. How can the words, "because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites," be interpreted?

Why did the Torah add the introductory words, "Say, therefore"?

Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, in his Torah commentary Meshekh Hokhmah, explains this introductory phrase in the light of what Maimonides wrote in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah. He emphasized that G-d's promises of beneficence can be cancelled if the recipients of those promises sin. However, promises relayed through a prophet cannot be cancelled. Therefore G-d asked His prophet Moses personally to relay this promise to Phinehas, so that its fulfillment in practice be absolutely guaranteed.

Or Ha-Hayyim, in contrast, explained that the term lakhen (rendered here as "therefore") is used to indicate an oath. This use of the word is learned from the text in Samuel (I Sam. 2:30): "Assuredly (Heb. lakhen) – declares the Lord, the G-d of Israel, I intended for you and your father's house to remain in My service forever." Hence, the author of Or Ha-Hayyim is also of the opinion that the promise will be kept no matter what, except that in his view this inevitability follows from the fact that it was said in the language of an oath, whereas the Meshekh Hokhmah stresses the idea of prophecy. Meshekh Hokhmah puts the emphasis on the word emor, "Say," whereas Or Ha-Hayyim focuses on the word lakhen, "therefore."

What is meant by the promise, "I grant him My pact of friendship (Heb. shalom)"?

According to the Netziv, G-d's promise to Phinehas, "I grant him My pact of friendship," pertained to morality. There was reason for concern that the act of killing Zimri and Cozbi might destroy Phinehas' moral fiber, since any act of murder is likely to have an impact on the perpetrator, making him a more cruel person, even when the act was correct at the moment. Therefore G-d promised him a "pact of friendship" in the sense that his soul would not be adversely affected.[1]

Some commentators are of the opinion that the shalom given Phinehas was "peace from the angel of death," in other words, long life. Indeed, Scriptures indicate that Phinehas was High Priest until the time of the later judges:[2] "The Israelites inquired of the Lord (for the Ark of G-d's Covenant was there in those days, and Phinehas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest ministered before Him in those days), 'Shall we again take the field against our kinsmen the Benjaminites, or shall we not?' The Lord answered, 'Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hands.'" Also according to the legend that says, "Phinehas was the same as Elijah,"[3] Phinehas ascended to heaven in a whirlwind and is alive to this day.

Rabbenu Bahya, in contrast, explains this text quite simply as meaning that the Lord would protect him from the vengeance of Zimri's brothers, who sought to kill him to avenge the "murder" of their brother.

What is meant by the promise, "It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time" and the words, "because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites"?

Rashi explains this verse according to the gemara:[4] "Rabbi Eliezer quoted Rabbi Haninah: Phinehas did not become a priest until after he had killed Zimri, for it is written: (Num. 25:13): 'It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time,'" for Phinehas was born before Aaron and his sons were anointed priests, and therefore he was not considered a priest; but he received the priesthood as a special reward for his deed.

Ralbag explains that Phinehas brought peace between the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel by "allaying" G-d's anger at Israel over their failing regarding the Moabite women. Therefore, as a reward, he was given a "pact of peace." The passage, "because he took impassioned action for his G-d," he interprets as follows: since through his deed he restored peace between G-d and Israel, he received the "pact of peace." Ralbag does not doubt that Phinehas was a priest even before his deed, and so he presents another two explanations of the substance of the blessing of priesthood given him:

  1. That his progeny continue forever, insofar as he was promised that his offspring would always be priests.
  2. That he would become High Priest, and likewise his descendants. Indeed, it follows from Chronicles that many of Phinehas' descendants were High Priests.[5]

The meaning of his "making expiation (va-yekhapper)for the Israelites" now becomes clear: just as Phinehas made expiation by his deed and stopped the plague that was raging among the people, so, too, he and his offspring would make expiation for all of Israel once a year, through the sacrificial service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

One can also interpret the main point of this story in terms of an idea set forth by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Darash Moshe, his commentary on the Torah.[6] He explains that the greatness of Phinehas' act lay in his ostensibly playing the role of G-d; he performed an act which he did not have to do, and according to one approach of the Halakhah, had he consulted a rabbi whether the deed ought to be done, the answer would have been no. Through his act he showed the zealousness of G-d in G-d's place and thereby prevented G-d, as it were, from annihilating all of Israel in His zealousness. This idea has an affinity to the following gemara:

The wicked Tornoserufus asked Rabbi Akiva: If your G-d loves the poor, why does He not provide them a living? He answered: so that we be spared on account of them from being condemned to Hell.

From this gemara we can conclude that G-d does not deliberately intervene in human affairs in order that humans can be given a chance to be rewarded themselves for setting right that which is wrong. Humans are expected to complete, as it were, the work of G-d. This argument is used in Sefer ha-Hinukh to explain the reason for the commandment of circumcision, namely that through this act we are commanded to complete the last stage in creation of the newborn son.[7]

Phinehas was rewarded with a "pact of friendship" between him and G-d, in accordance with what is said in Malachi 2:5: "I had with him a covenant of life and well-being (Heb. shalom)." Shalom is a name of G-d, as appears in Tractate Derekh Eretz, Ch. Ha-Shalom: "Rabbi Joshua said: Great is peace, for the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, is Peace, as it is written (Judges 6:24): "... called it A-donai-shalom." For the same reason Phinehas also received a pact of priesthood for all time, to minister in the most sacred inner precinct before the Lord. According to the approach of those who say Phinehas lives forever, one might also say that he became eternal, as it were, like G-d.


[1] A similar notion is put forth by the Netziv with respect to a city that has gone over to idolatry. Cf. Ha'amek Davar on Deuteronomy 13:18, s.v. "ve-natan lekha rahamim."
[2] Judges 20:28.
[3] Yalkut Shimoni, Bemidbar, 25. 771.
[4] Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 101b.
[5] See the source in the edition published by Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem 1998.
[6] Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Darash Moshe, Benei Berak 1988.
[7] Commandment 2.