“Pinchas the Zealot?” 
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens with G-d praising Pinchas, the son of Elazar, for turning back His wrath upon the Children of Israel, when Pinchas was zealous for G-d’s sake, and brought atonement for the sin of the people. G-d therefore declares that as a reward for Pinchas’ actions, He will give Pinchas His Covenant of Peace, and that Pinchas and his offspring after him shall be part of the Covenant of the Eternal Priesthood.


The actual details of the story of Pinchas are recorded in Numbers 25, the last chapter of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak.


The people of Israel had settled in Shittim, where they began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. When G-d’s wrath flared up against Israel, G-d demanded of Moses that all the leaders of the people who had taken part in this horrible idolatrous act, be put to death.

Moses had just instructed the judges of Israel to punish those who had sinned with the idolatrous Ba’al Peor, when suddenly a prominent Israelite man came forth and, together with a Midianite woman, began to commit an act of public harlotry.


It was then that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the High Priest, stood up amidst the assembly, took a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite man and the woman into the tent and pierced them both. With their deaths, the plague halted, but not before 24,000 Israelites had already perished.


The Torah identifies the two perpetrators as prominent individuals. The man was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Kozbi the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess.


While Pinchas’ act of vengeance is hailed by G-d, the commentators are quite troubled by Pinchas’ impulsive and zealous action. After all, by what right does Pinchas decide to preempt Moses’ authority, and take the lives of the perpetrators, especially in front of Moses who had himself witnessed the harlotry?


While the rabbis of the Talmud and many of the biblical commentaries see Pinchas’ deed as heroic and bold from both the Jewish legal and a practical standpoint, they nevertheless are troubled by his action. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, in fact, confirms Pinchas’ action as being legally correct, but declares that the law is not practiced and not taught. In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 9:7, states that the Sages wished to ex-communicate Pinchas for his act. Furthermore, had Zimri, the perpetrator, turned on Pinchas and killed Pinchas in self-defense, Zimri would not have been subject to punishment.


The rabbis wonder why the Torah goes to such great lengths to publicize the names of the perpetrators, calling Zimri אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמֻּכֶּה, the Israelite man who was smitten (Numbers 25:14). Some commentators assume that it comes to underscore that since Zimri was a tribal prince, there was a great risk that his fellow tribesmen would rise up to avenge his death. Nevertheless, Pinchas did not hesitate to stop the sinful act and fulfill the call of his conscience.


The Kli Yakar notes that when G-d declares in Numbers 25:11, that Pinchas, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, had turned back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake, among them, the additional words “among them,” come to underscore that Pinchas performed his act of vengeance among Zimri’s tribesmen and relatives who were extremely likely to take revenge. Nevertheless, Pinchas acted with great courage and fortitude, and proceeded to act without fear or hesitation.


Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni in his Studies in the Weekly Parashah on the book of Bamidbar, states that it is Pinchas’ self-sacrifice, and not his zealotry, that G-d applauds. Pinchas brazenly endangered himself for the sake of Torah and the Jewish people, proving that he didn’t act out of personal interest or gain, but only to avenge G-d’s anger.


The Akeidat Yitzchak goes so far as to say that Pinchas is celebrated by the Torah for using his Divine insight to do what Moses failed to do. Apparently, Moses saw Zimri’s deed as an act that would not incur the death penalty in an earthly court, and therefore refrained from taking any action himself. Pinchas, however, concluded otherwise.


The Kotzker Rebbe declares that while Pinchas’ act of vengeance was celebrated and his virtues praised, he was nevertheless invalidated from becoming the leader of the Jewish people. Moses had originally thought that Pinchas would have been a suitable replacement, but when he saw Pinchas’ zealotry, he realized, that as a leader, Pinchas could not conduct himself with moderation and flexibility. Therefore, he appointed Joshua as his successor.


The commentators also wrestle with the well-known principle that a Kohen who kills, even when permissible by Torah law, is rendered invalid to serve as a priest. How then could Pinchas become a Kohen? This further underscores the great commitment of Pinchas, who nevertheless proceeded to act even though the action could jeopardize his becoming a priest. Some suggest that an exception was made for Pinchas, and that is why his status was not invalidated.


More likely is that since Pinchas was born before Aaron and his sons were made priests, Pinchas was regarded simply as a Levite. Having the status of a Levite when he killed Zimri and Kozbi, Pinchas was not subject to being invalidated. It was only after G-d’s blessing, that Pinchas became a priest.


The complex issues raised regarding Pinchas’ dramatic act, underscores the primacy of the concept of the sanctity of life in Judaism. This is why, the deed of vengeance is not glorified. It is only Pinchas’ courage to sacrifice everything meaningful in his life in order to stand up for the dignity of Moses and G-d that is hailed as heroic.


May you be blessed.