“Taking the Law Into One’s Own Hand”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the conclusion of this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learn that after Bilaam’s failed attempts to curse the people of Israel he plots to arouse the anger of G-d against the Jewish people.

Knowing that sexual immorality is never tolerated by G-d, Bilaam advises Balak, the King of Moab, to have the Midianite and Moabite women seduce the Jewish men. To this end, the Moabite women invited the Jewish men to feast and drink with them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains (Numbers 25:2) that when the men became aroused and wanted to cohabit, the women drew their idols from their robes and insisted that the Jewish men first worship the idols. In response, G-d instructed Moses to take the leaders of the debauchery and hang them. Moses then called on the judges of Israel to kill all the men who were involved in these idolatrous acts.

Suddenly, Scripture tells us (Numbers 25:6): “V’hee’nay eesh meeb’nay Yisrael ba, va’yahk’rev el eh’chav et ha’Mid’ya’neet, l’ay’nay Moshe, oo’l’ay’nay kohl ah’daht B’nay Yisrael,” Behold a man from among the children of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel. According to the commentaries, this lewd behavior was intended to be a provocative and defiant act against Moses.

In parashat Pinchas, the weekly Torah portion of next week, the perpetrator of the terrible act is identified as Zimri the son of Salu, who was the head of his father’s house from the tribe of Simeon. The Midianite woman was Cozbi, the daughter of Tzur, who was one of the leaders of the Midianite people.

Scripture tells us that upon seeing the lewd public act performed by Zimri and Cozbi, Pinchas, the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the priest, stood up from amidst the assembly, took a spear in his hand and killed both perpetrators. The Torah tells us that the brazen actions of Pinchas stopped the Divine plague that had struck the people of Israel and had already taken the lives of 24,000 community members.

The Torah in parashat Pinchas states that, in response to his zealotry, G-d praises Pinchas, the son of Elazar, for his actions and for avenging G-d among the people. G-d rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and eternal priesthood. G-d says (Numbers 25:11) that Pinchas’ actions had actually turned G-d’s wrath back from upon the Children of Israel, which could otherwise have resulted in the destruction of the entire people of Israel,“B’kahn’oh et kin’ah’tee b’toh’chahm,” when he zealously avenged Me among them.

The commentators are deeply troubled by this violent confrontation. Jewish law is always highly protective of human life, making it exceedingly difficult for a perpetrator of a capital crime to be executed. Two witnesses are necessary to warn the perpetrator, and two witnesses are necessary to witness the act. Surely, nothing of that sort could have taken place under these extreme conditions. And yet, G-d hails Pinchas’ act of zealotry.

Rashi, in his comments on Numbers 25:6, cites a very unusual Talmudic law recorded in Sanhedrin 81b, which states that in a situation where one publicly violates the Torah’s prohibition against cohabiting with a gentile, “kah’nah’im pog’im bo,” a zealous person may slay the perpetrator.

If that’s the case, why did Moses himself not take action against the provocateurs? Rashi suggests that Providence purposely caused Moses to forget this dictum, enabling Pinchas to act and become worthy of the blessing that G-d gave him. Citing the Midrash, Rashi (Numbers 25:7) maintains that before he acted, Pinchas first reminded Moses of the law. Moses, however, responded that, because Pinchas had made the law known, he should be the one to carry it out.

There are those who suggest that Moses could not have acted against Zimri and Cozbi because, according to the Midrash, Zimri had personally challenged Moses, who had prohibited Zimri from cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman. As Moses’ wife, Tziporah, was also not Jewish, Moses had to recuse himself from this judgment.

Struggling to resolve all the inner contradictions of the episode, the rabbis suggest that Pinchas never actually asked Moses what to do before he acted. Rather, he informed Moses of a law that Moses had previously taught, but had forgotten. Moses only confirmed that Pinchas had quoted him correctly. The rabbis therefore suggest that had Pinchas come to Moses and asked him to render a decision, Moses would not have directed him to do as he did.

If the rabbis are forbidden to recommend this law’s implementation, what is the purpose of the directive that allows a zealot to take action? The Chidushei HaRim (authored by Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, 1799-1866, founder of the Ger Chassidic dynasty) quoted in Studies in the Weekly Parasha, by Yehudah Nachshoni, explains that the term kah’nah’im, zealots, refers specifically to those who become so intensely angry when they see or hear a sin in progress that they act on impulse. If, however, someone remains calm enough to ask for rabbinic direction, such a person is hardly a “zealot.” In such circumstances, the rabbi may not tell the would-be “zealot” to kill cohabiters, for it is not halachically preferable to do so. Nor may one risk his life when not required to do so. Only a person who risks his life out of anger, not taking time to seek a ruling, is regarded as a“kah’nah’ee” and permitted to act on his zealotry.

In truth, had G-d not confirmed that Pinchas had done the right thing, his violent actions would never have been condoned. In fact, the rabbis so limit the circumstances where the principle of taking the law into one’s own hand is permitted that for all practical purposes it is rendered inoperable. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7, are so against what had occurred that they proclaim that Pinchas’ act actually opposed the will of the wise men. Rabbi Pazi says that had not the Divine voice defended him, Pinchas would have been excommunicated.

An important principle in Jewish law known as “ho’rah’aht sha’ah,” allows an individual to render a one-time decision for oneself upon reaching a personal conclusion that such action is essential. That, of course, does not render the action correct or permissible. In fact, if it is done, the perpetrator will be required to defend his actions in the World to Come. Fortunately, Pinchas can bring testimony from the Bible, confirming that G-d Himself approved his actions even though Pinchas acted on the spur of the moment and against what appears to be normative Jewish law.

Taking the law into one’s own hands is never recommended, despite the fact that, on very rare occasions, loopholes may permit such actions. It is far better, and far safer, to work within the Jewish juridical system which is a noble, sensitive, and gentle system, and serves to protect the rights of all–the perpetrator, the victim, the witnesses, and the judicial system as well.

May you be blessed.