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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Phinehas 5763/ July 19, 2003
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
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
This episode raises the following questions:
- Why did the Torah add the introductory words, "Say, therefore,"
and not make do with the words, "I grant him My pact of
- What is meant by the promise, "I grant him My pact
- What is meant by the promise, "It shall be for
him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all
- How can the words, "because he took impassioned action
for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites," be
Why did the Torah add the introductory words, "Say,
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
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,
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
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:
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
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
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
"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:
- That his progeny continue forever, insofar as he was promised that his
offspring would always be priests.
- That he would become High Priest, and
likewise his descendants. Indeed, it follows from Chronicles that many of
Phinehas' descendants were High Priests.
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
One can also interpret the main point of this story in terms
of an idea set forth by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Darash Moshe
commentary on the Torah.
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
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
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
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
A similar notion is put
forth by the Netziv with respect to a city that has gone over to idolatry. Cf.
on Deuteronomy 13:18, s.v. "ve-natan lekha
 Yalkut Shimoni
, 25. 771.
See the source in the
edition published by Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem 1998.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,
, Benei Berak 1988.