Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinchas  5766/ July 15, 2006

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,



Phinehas – A Role Model for Zealots?


 Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan


Midrasha for Women


The actions of Phinehas at the conclusion of last week’s parasha received a special blessing in this week’s portion:  “I grant him My pact of friendship” (Num. 25:12).   But what Phinehas did raises many questions: Can he serve as an admirable model for anyone zealous to perform the word of the Lord?  Who is entitled or obliged to be zealous?  What characteristics does such a person require?  Under what sort of circumstances may a zealot take action?  Should a zealot strike at anyone who commits a transgression?   Is that not tantamount to encouraging people to take the law into their own hands in the name of the Torah?   How could a single individual, even as great as Phinehas, execute the death sentence against any individual, in this instance the head of an Israelite tribe, without due legal process in a court of twenty-three judges, as required in capital cases?

According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9.6) a zealot is entitled to take action only in three cases of transgression:  “If one stole implements of the Temple, or cursed the Lord by idolatrous enchantment, or had sexual intercourse with an idolatress – zealots may lay hold of him.”   Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro summarized the Talmud’s interpretation of the restrictions that apply to a person who is zealous for the word  of G-d   and who would lay hold of a man who had sexual intercourse with an idolatress:

Zealots may lay hold of him – those who were zealous for the Omnipresent would kill him.  But that pertains only in cases where the idolatress is the daughter of an idolatress, the two are caught in the act, and there are ten Jewish witnesses present.   Suffice it for one of these conditions not to be fulfilled, it is forbidden to kill the man.  But his punishment is explicitly spelled out by the prophet:   “May the Lord leave to him who does this no descendants” (Malachi 2:12); and he receives four lashings, according to scribal regulations:  one on account of violating the laws on menstruation, one on account of the laws concerning handmaids, one on account of the laws concerning non-Jewish women, and one on account of the laws concerning harlots.

According to both Talmuds, this law was reiterated in the wake of what Phinehas did, but originally it was instructed to Moses at Mount Sinai:  “When he saw the deed performed he was reminded of the law that one who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9.7; 27b).  Likewise, “Thus you taught me when you came down from Mount Sinai:  one who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a).

Nevertheless, though there was such a ruling, there is no obligation to act zealously, and the zealot assumes a personal risk:  “The incoming sovereign is not instructed [to perform this halakhah].   Morever, if Zimri pronounces the explicit Name and Phinehas kills him, he is subject to the death penalty on his account.  If Zimri turns around and kills Phinehas, he is not subject to the death penalty since it is a case of self-defense” (loc. sit.)  Moreover, the Sages were critical of the way Phinehas acted:     “What Phinehas did contravened the will of the Sages” (Jerusalem, loc. sit.), and, “The ministering angels sought to push him … the tribes began to hold him in contempt:  Did you see what that son of Puti did, whose mother’s father raised [Heb. pitem; a play on the name Puti] calves to be used for idolatry, and who killed the chieftain of an Israelite tribe!” (Babylonian, loc. sit. 82b).   This source is based on the fact that Phinehas’s maternal grandfather was a descendant of Jethro:   “And Aaron’s son Eleazar took to wife one of Putiel’s daughters [according to the Midrash, Putiel is one of the seven names of Jethro], and she bore him Phinehas” (Ex. 6:25).

Why did Phinehas not receive public support and backing?  Why does the zealot for the word of the Lord assume a personal risk?   Why is this a rule of law which one is not instructed to perform?

Rabbi Kook gave the following explanation:

The act of zealotry – He who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him – illustrates a halakhah which we are not instructed to perform.  How can such an act takes place except with pristine pure religious intention, devoid of any personal bias?  There must not be the slightest element of murder involved, for such an act is done not according to the decision of a court that hears capital cases, not according to the testimony of witnesses, only when caught in the act, and is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven.  Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act, which normally causes impurity, transformed to an act which is permissible, to an act which sanctifies.   The tribes that had contempt for Phinehas suspected that he had not been devoid of personal biases, that he was not deserving of the elevated status that is requisite for performing “a halakhah that we are not instructed to perform.”   It was felt that his family connections on the side of his mother – the woman whose father raised calves to be used for idolatry – made it impossible for his zealotry to be pure, inspired as needs be by perfectly pure, authentic religious intent.   Such an ancestry was likely to be obstructive in performing such a complex act, an act that involves the most delicate balance, overriding the proscription against murder, contravening such a grave prohibition, and intended to be transformed into the opposite – an act which is sublimely holy. [1]

Acts of zealotry must be performed out of a high level of spiritual maturity and pure fear of G-d, and out of careful and responsible consideration.  If the circumstances are not precisely these, then it is murder.   Also to the outside world, those present must be convinced of the purity of intent motivating the zealot.   In Rav Ashi’s opinion it was only much later that everyone became convinced that Phinehas had acted out of pure motives:  “Phinehas was not anointed as a priest … until he had established peace among the tribes, as it is written (Josh. 22:30):  ‘When the priest Phinehas … heard…’” (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 101b).  Only after he made peace between the tribes living on the eastern bank of the Jordan and the tribes on the western bank of the Jordan was he called the priest Phinehas.

Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli gives another interpretation of a “rule of halakhah that we are not instructed to perform”:

The transgression [intercourse with an idolatress] itself does not carry an obligatory death sentence by the courts, nor does it require a reaction when caught in the act.  This rule of halakhah serves but to say that those elect few who carry zealousness for the Lord in their hearts and who sense the full enormity of abhorrence in this act … those people are not obliged to struggle emotionally to overcome their feelings, rather they are permitted to give free reign to their feelings and lay hands on the person who has committed the abhorrent act. [2]

According to this analysis, this rule of halakhah does not dictate to anyone to perform the deed, rather it gives a person permission and backing after the deed has been committed.  Phinehas may have come forward from within the community, from the Sanhedrin (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a), but he acted on his own initiative.  The zealot who takes action solely on the basis of this law, and not because of an inner storm of moral protest that he feels upon seeing such abhorrent behavior, is actually acting against the halakhah.   The halakhah does not direct us to take such action from the outset.  The people who can satisfy all the necessary conditions are indeed a very select few.

Not only is the zealot forbidden to take action if all these conditions are not satisfied, but also the man who has intercourse is not subject to the death sentence as long as there is no zealot confronting him.  This was explained by Rabbi Jacob Moses Harlap:

The law that a man who has intercourse with an idolatress must be put to death does not pertain except when there are zealots present.  For they, out of their lofty spirit and feeling for the sanctity of Israel, serve to reveal this sanctity, and thus the former becomes subject to being put to death.  But when there are not present any zealots or such people who are stirred to the depths of their being over the sanctity of Israel, in truth the former is not subject to death.  The obligation of putting to death is a function of the presence of zealots, and not of the actions of the man having intercourse.   Thus it becomes clear … how it could have been permissible for him (Zimri) to kill Phinehas, and even, had he done so, not to be held accountable for murder.  According to what we have said – that the obligation of putting to death actually arises at the moment that zealots lay hold of him and not prior to that – it follows that before Zimri was killed, he was not truly subject to the death penalty. [3]

Only a zealot who is also prepared to take the risk of himself being killed, and legally so, before he strikes at the man having intercourse – only such a zealot receives halakhic backing, should he succeed in carrying out his act of zealousness.

It is time to sum up: the ruling that “zealots may lay hold of him” is unique and exceptional.  It holds only with regard to the three sins mentioned and is not to be extended to any other walk of life.  The zealot must have specific characteristics, indicating true zealousness for the Lord, devoid of any personal or other motives including halakhic ones.   Jewish law does not oblige one to be zealous.  It may indeed make such acts permissible and give them backing, but only after the fact, after it has been established through investigation that indeed the zealot’s motives were completely pure.  What Phinehas did was exceptional, outside the usual judicial setting of the court and not according to regular penal law.  Accepted norms were violated for the sake of the sanctity of the people, the sanctity of the Sanctuary, and the sanctity of the Lord.  Aspiring toward perfection in these spheres of sanctity is a fundamental characteristic built into the nation, but it finds expression in a unique and exceptional manner in the act of Phinehas, whom it fit and behooved to perform such a deed.  As Rabbi Kook explained,

Love of the Lord, when taken to its highest level, becomes zealotry for the Lord…   Zealotry for the Lord is imbued in the Jewish people as a whole … in the private individual it is the characteristic of Elijah. [4]

[1] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Shemu’ot Re’ayah, parashat Pinchas (ed. Rabbi Yeshayahu Hadari, published by Ha-Mahlakah le-Tarbut Toranit ba-Golah, Jerusalem), p. 23.

[2] Rabbi Saul Yisraeli, “Kana’im Pog’im,” Amud ha-Yemini (Tel Aviv:  Moreshet, 1966), pp. 154-162.

[3] Rabbi Jacob Moses Harlap, Mei Marom – Be-Midbar (Jerusalem:   Beit Zevul, 1998), Part 11, p. 166.

[4] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh, Part 3, p. 364.