Parashat Pinchas: "In That He Was Zealous For My Sake"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion


ParAshat Pinchas

"In that he was zealous for my sake"

Rav Itamar Eldar



            At the end of the previous parasha, we read about the daring act of Pinchas, the son of Elazar the priest, who zealously acted for the sake of God and killed Zimri, the son of Salu, prince of a father's house among the Shimoni, for cohabiting with the Midyanite woman, Kozbi, the daughter of Tzur.


            At the beginning of this week's parasha, Pinchas receives God's endorsement of his action, as the Torah states:


And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore, say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace: and he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 25:10-13)


            Chazal's exegetical sensitivity led them to the understanding that the need for God's approval of Pinchas's action testifies to its problematic nature. The Midrash explains what drove Pinchas to do what he did:


"And Pinchas, the son of Elazar, saw it." And did all the others not see it? Surely it is written: "In the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel" (Bamidbar 25:6)? True, but Pinchas when he saw the act remembered the law, namely, that if a man cohabits with an Aramean woman he is struck down by zealots. (Bamidbar Rabba 20, 25)


            According to the Midrash, Pinchas acted in accordance with a known halakha: "If a man cohabits with an Aramean woman he is struck down by zealots." Thus, the Midrash fits Pinchas's action into a proper halakhic framework. The Yerushalmi, however, seems not to have accepted this approach, for it states:


It is written: "And Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, saw it" (Bamidbar 25:7). What did he see? He saw the act and remembered the law, namely, that if a man cohabits with an Aramean woman he is struck down by zealots. It was taught: Without the approval of the Sages. Did Pinchas act without the approval of the Sages? Rabbi Yehuda bar Pazi said: They wanted to place him under the ban, had the holy spirit not jumped upon him, saying: "And he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, etc." (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 48b)


            In contrast to the Midrash, the Yerushalmi raises the possibility that Pinchas acted without the approval of the Sages, to the point that had God not endorsed his action, he would have been liable to be placed under a ban.


            This might be the source for what Rashi says about the scorn shown to Pinchas, according to the Midrash, by the tribes of Israel:


"Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest" – Because the tribes spoke disparagingly of him, saying, "Have you seen this grandson of Puti the father of whose mother used to fatten calves for idolatrous sacrifices and he has dared to slay a prince of one of Israel's tribes!" Therefore, Scripture comes and connects his genealogy with Aharon. (Rashi, Bamidbar 25:11)


            The attempt to hurt Pinchas through his genealogy stems from the fact that we are dealing with the killing of a prince of a tribe of Israel without a trial, and perhaps, if we follow the path of the Yerushalmi, without the sanction of the Sages.


            The two possible understandings differ not only as to the fitness of the action, but also as to the motivation standing behind it.


            According to the Midrash, we are dealing with the balanced and even-spirited halakhic process of examining the law pertaining to Zimri the son of Salu. Pinchas saw what was happening and remembered the law that "zealots strike him down," and as a result went into action. We are dealing with halakhic judgment and execution.


            According to the Yerushalmi, on the other hand, we seem to be dealing with spontaneous emotion that does not pass through the balanced world of Halakha. Pinchas acts as a zealot, and a zealot does not consider or examine the situation, but rather he acts. According to the Yerushalmi, we might say that "zealots strike him down" is part of the approval that God gave to Pinchas's act after the fact, which had been performed not only not in accordance with Halakha, but to a certain degree in contradiction to it.


            Chassidic thought relates to this sensitive question, which was important not only at the time, but for all generations. We shall try to examine the issue.




            As we have seen, Pinchas's veering from the position of the Sages constitutes a great problem and seems to open a dangerous and problematic door. The Yismach Moshe sharpens this point:


Yerushalmi (end of chapter Ha-Nisrafim [Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 9:7]): "If a man cohabits with an Aramean woman he is struck down by zealots. It was taught: Without the approval of the Sages. Did Pinchas act without the approval of the Sages? Rabbi Yehuda bar Pazi said: They wanted to place him under the ban, had the holy spirit not jumped upon him, saying: "And he shall have it, and his seed after him, [the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, etc.] (Bamidbar 25:13)." The Penei Moshe explains: "'It was taught: Without the approval of the Sages.' That which we have said that zealots strike him down – this is only if he acts on his own, for if he comes to ask, we do not instruct him to act in that manner. 'Did Pinchas act without the approval of the Sages?' This is a question, for surely he asked Moshe, and Moshe said to him that he himself should go. 'They wanted to place him under the ban,' because he acted after having asked. 'Had the holy spirit not, etc.'" Thus the Yerushalmi and the Penei Moshe. According to him, it is very difficult, for regarding Pinchas there is no difficulty at all, only regarding Moshe who instructed him if that is considered a ruling. According to what he says, it seems to me that "Pinchas acted without the approval of the Sages" is a statement. That is to say, that also Pinchas acted on his own. (Yismach Moshe, Pinchas 77b)


            The Yismach Moshe disagrees with the Penei Moshe in his understanding of the Yerushalmi. The Penei Moshe understands that Pinchas asked Moshe, whereas the Yismach Moshe argues that this understanding moves the question from Pinchas to Moshe. He therefore suggests that the Yerushalmi is saying that Pinchas did not ask anybody, but rather he acted on his own. After the fact, continues the Yismach Moshe, the Shekhina revealed that God was pleased with Pinchas's action, even though it had been performed of his own accord and without the approval of the Sages.


            The Sefat Emet tries to dull the deviation from the position of the Sages and thus provide positive meaning to the very act even lekhatchila, and not merely bedi'eved. He writes as follows:


The story of Pinchas implies that a pious man is permitted to risk his life even where he is not obligated to do so. For a person is not obligated to risk his life for the mitzva that zealots strike him down. And it is difficult to say that this was like an accessory to illicit sexual relations, since it was sitting back and doing nothing. And therefore there was nobody who acted zealously, for it involved a danger to life. Only Pinchas acted, this being an act of piety. (Sefat Emet, Likutim, Hashmatot)


            The Sefat Emet shifts the focus from the question of the fitness of the act to the question of the danger involved in its performance. According to the Sefat Emet, Pinchas's action involved a risk to his life, for as we noted above, we are dealing with a prince of a father's house in Israel, and anybody who causes him harm should be liable for execution. Pinchas assumed this risk, and the great question, according to the Sefat Emet, was whether this assumption of risk was justified.


            We know that there are three transgressions regarding which a person is permitted and even obligated to give his life, fulfilling "let him be killed, rather than violate the transgression": idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder. Did Pinchas's act, which according to the Sefat Emet brought him very close to being killed, fall into one of these three categories? The Sefat Emet argues that it did not. Even if we define cohabitation with an Aramean woman as an accessory of illicit sexual relations, surely Pinchas was not asked to perform any action, but rather to sit back and do nothing. Therefore, argues the Sefat Emet, there was certainly no justification for putting his life in danger.


            According to the Sefat Emet, Pinchas was fundamentally obligated to kill Zimri in order to fulfill the rabbinic imperative that "zealots strike him down," which is a mitzva like any other. Thus, the Sefat Emet decides, in contrast to the position cited in the Yerushalmi, that we are we dealing with a mitzva that is lekhatchila. In our case, however, Pinchas was exempt, and perhaps even forbidden to fulfill this mitzva, because its fulfillment involved putting his own life at risk.


            It was in this, argues the Sefat Emet, that Pinchas deviated from the norm. This deviation, however, which is more refined than what was presented earlier, had a justification in that Pinchas was a pious man, and "a pious man is permitted to risk his life even where he is not obligated to do so."


            This assertion also requires examination and explanation, for surely the value of "'That you shall live with them' - and not die with them" is a supreme value, and even a Divine imperative, and not just an allowance or permission to violate a prohibition in the face of danger. How can a pious person decide the law for himself and say that the value of a certain mitzva is greater than the value of his own life? Chazal teach us that the Torah insists that the saving of lives sets aside Shabbat laws. Is a pious person permitted to deny this assertion and claim that Shabbat is more important to him than his own life? The Sefat Emet seem to be struggling with this question in the following teaching:


In Pinchas who is Eliyahu was fulfilled the verse "Who has a claim on Me from before, [that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine]" (Iyyov 41:3). For according to Torah law, one who cohabits with an Aramean is not liable for the death penalty, but nevertheless the zealous strike him down. This is a step beyond the special order according to the Torah. And, therefore, Moshe Rabbenu, may peace be upon him, did not find him liable for the death penalty, but only Pinchas with his zealotry and readiness to offer his life, for which he attained peace. "Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine." The explanation is that this is the aspect of peace, as it is stated regarding Eliyahu: "Who has ascended up into heaven, and come down again?" (Mishlei 30:4) – which is up and down. And under the whole heaven he conjoins with Him, blessed be He, and does not separate. And truly this is the power of the covenant of circumcision. As it is stated: "Who shall go up for us to heaven" (mi ya'ale lanu hashamaima) (Devarim 30:12), the initial letters of which form the word mila (circumcision). And Pinchas was called the angel of the covenant, and in the words "heaven is mine" – circumcision – li hu ("is mine") – the word Eliyahu. (Sefat Emet, Pinchas 5659)


            Once again, the Sefat Emet emphasizes that by Torah law, Zimri was not liable for the death penalty,[1] and thus Pinchas's act was a deviation from the order, from Halakha, and from the Torah. Here the Sefat Emet establishes a new category: "This is a step beyond the special order according to the Torah."


            The Sefat Emet is alluding here that there exists an abysmal gap between heavenly and earthly truth. "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord" (Tehillim 115:16), alludes the Sefat Emet in this passage, "but He has given the earth to the children of man." Thus, the truth of man is an earthly truth, having nothing in common with the Divine heavenly truth, which is beyond human comprehension and conduct.


            The Torah, explains the Sefat Emet, directs us to the earthly truth, and allows for its existence in this world. The Sefat Emet cites the words of Moshe who tried to explain to the children of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land why the Torah is not hidden or far off from them:


For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth in and in your heart, that you may do it. (Devarim 30:11-14)


            Moshe teaches the children of Israel that the Torah is very close to them, "in our mouths and in our hearts, that we may do it." And it is not in the heaven that we should say, "Who shall go up for us to heaven?" The Torah is not a heavenly and distant truth that creates an unbridgeable distance between the desired truth and the possibility of attaining it. The Torah is directed at the principle of "But the earth He gave to the children of man."[2]


            Pinchas's act, according to the Sefat Emet, was not directed at earthly truth. His readiness to risk his life for a mitzva, even in contradiction to the Torah, and in disregard of the value of "That you shall live in them," involves a waiver of earthly truth in favor of Divine truth. This is the quality of Judgment in accordance with which the world cannot exist, and therefore the Torah does not demand such devotion, and perhaps even forbids it. The pious man, however, who wishes to climb up to heaven, to that Divine truth that is beyond the special order according to the Torah – is permitted to do so.


            Pinchas merited the covenant of peace in heaven and on earth, and thereby paved the way for him who followed in his footsteps – the prophet Eliyahu who went up to heaven in a tempest. Eliyahu also partially waived earthly truth, when he abandoned human society and went out into the wilderness, to that very place where Moshe himself went up to heaven – to the Mountain of God, at Chorev. In his zealotry, Eliyahu acquired Divine truth just like Pinchas. And from that point on, "The heaven is Mine" (Iyyov 41:3), which gives expression to the gap between the heavenly truth belonging to God and the earthly truth belonging to man, and that very assertion, "is mine" (li hu), which dispossesses man from that elevated heavenly truth - turns by a transmutation of letters into "Eliyahu."


            Heaven, in the wake of the acts of Pinchas and Eliyahu belong no longer exclusively to God. From that point on Eliyahu and Pinchas also had a part in that very heaven and the truth hidden within it, and from now on heaven as well was given to the children of man.


            The pious man, according to the Sefat Emet, who is ready to sacrifice his life over the point of the top of the letter yod, makes peace between heaven and earth. While it may appear that he tries to achieve things that the Torah is not striving for, at a deeper level he strives for the Divine truth found in heaven, and thereby makes peace between heaven and earth, and the Divine truth descends from the mountain to the people standing at its base on earth.[3]


            The pious man's conduct, according to what is stated here, from time to time reveals the supernal Divine truth. As human beings, we are not required to adopt and act in accordance with that truth. But nevertheless it is a great blessing to us and to the world, when that truth makes a partial appearance in our world through a pious man, and serves us as a compass, horizon and vision, guiding us in the proper direction and towards the proper objective.


The similarity between Pinchas and Eliyahu, with respect to both the zealotry and the covenant, brings the Sefat Emet to the covenant of circumcision – the symbol of the prophet Eliyahu, and here too it is perhaps possible to see the gap between heaven and earth.


Man was created uncircumcised, and that is his natural condition here on the earth. But on the eighth day - the symbolic number that expresses the breach of natural boundaries symbolized by the seven days of creation in which the entire creation was completed – a person is asked to raise his son to a supernatural state, to heaven. The letters comprising the word mila, "cirumcision" are the initial letters of the words "Who shall go up for us to heaven," "mi ya'ale lanu hashamaima"!


This is a moment during which a person rises up over the level of nature. Indeed, anyone who has experienced his son's circumcision knows that it involves extreme dedication, a psychological state that is the opposite of "that you shall live in them." Man is rarely asked to reach such a state (as we have already mentioned – regarding only three mitzvot in the entire Torah), but for a single moment, perhaps precisely at this primal moment, a person is asked to reach such a state, to experience "who shall go up for us to heaven." When a person dedicates himself to this act, to the experience of going up to heaven, Eliyahu descends from heaven, rests his blessing and joins this psychological state, which he as a reincarnation of Pinchas the son of Elazar introduced to the world – the state of going up to heaven.




            The stories of Pinchas and Eliyahu are similar in their zealotry, but they are entirely different in their endings.


            Whereas Eliyahu goes up in a tempest to heaven and leaves the earth behind him, Pinchas, in the wake of his act, merits a covenant of peace and the High Priesthood, and thus is raised to a very important position of leadership in Israel.[4]


            The difference seems to be rooted in the following:


We find in the book, Avodat Yisra'el, that were it not for the fear that pulls a person back a little from the intensity of conjunction, men would swallow each other alive. That is, the enormity of great love would bring an end to life, but fear pulls back a little so that a person remains alive. This was the greatness of Pinchas, that he would bring them into the enormity of love and conjunction, but nevertheless "I consumed them not," as stated. "Wherefore say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace" (Devarim 25:12), for he is worthy of being the aspect of tzadik foundation of the world, the aspect of peace, etc. (Tif'eret Shelomo, Pinchas)


            R. Shelomo of Radomsk points out that love and longing for God, out of total conjunction with Him, leads to "the swallowing of life," an expression that aptly describes the prophet Eliyahu, who went up in a tempest to heaven while he was still alive. Total conjunction and readiness to waive the truth of this world bring a person to heaven, and thus ends his existence on the face of the earth, not by way of death, but by going up to heaven.


            Eliyahu did not die, but rather he went up alive,[5] and the same should have happened to Pinchas. R. Shelomo of Radomsk explains, however, in the name of the maggid of Koznitz, that Pinchas's greatness was that he succeeded in bringing Israel to that conjunction and love, but nevertheless he was not "consumed." This is how he understands the words, "that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy." Pinchas, then, in contrast to Eliyahu, truly succeeded in making peace between heaven and earth. Not only does he go up to heaven and waive on the earth, but he also succeeds in returning to earth and fulfilling both.


            Pinchas's priesthood combined total dedication to and communion with God with life and Torah observance in this world.


            A truly pious person wishes to emulate Pinchas more than Eliyahu. He does not waive on the earth, he does not nullify earthly truth before Divine truth. His devotion does not nullify the value of life in this world, and he succeeds in combining the two worlds. Following Pinchas, the pious man wishes to say that both the earth and heaven were given to the children of man, and thus, he must not abandon either one of them.


            There are many students of Chassidic thought, and one of the fundamental questions raised by anybody who wishes to say anything about Chassidut, relates to the tension between the elitism and the elevated spiritual demand that Chassidut makes upon its followers with respect to communion, devotion and dedication to God and His service, and the populism that allows every chassid to remain in this world, conduct his routine life, but nevertheless remain conjoined to God.


Pinchas, whom the Sefat Emet wishes to turn into a model for the chassid, gives expression to the peace made between these two extremes, and tries to sanctify heaven and earth, joining them in devotion, communion, love and fear of God.




[1] The Sefat Emet does not clarify here what precisely was the point of Pinchas's departure from Halakha. Does the very idea of "zealots strike him down" constitute a deviation from the order of Halakha, in which case we must say that to a certain degree the "deviation" is anchored in Halakha, because "zealots strike him down" is indeed a law in itself? Or perhaps as in the previous passage, "zealots strike him down" is part of Halakha, and it was only its application in the particular case of Zimri, where it involved a degree of risk to life, that constituted a deviation from the order of Halakha. For our purposes, however, it is unnecessary to decide the issue, provided that the principle of deviating from the order of Halakha is preserved.


[2] This is connected to the way we understand the principle of the controversy between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. This, however, is not the forum to discuss this issue.


[3] Even Chazal at times give voice to such a position. The saving of lives sets aside all the mitzvot in the Torah, even prohibitions that are punishable by death, and yet the laws of prayer include the rule that one who is standing in prayer must not move from his place even if a snake has curled itself around his heel. What happened to the law of saving a life, and the principle of "'That you shall live in them' – and not die in them"? And all this relates to the mitzva of prayer, which, despite all its importance, does not occupy the top rung of the severity of prohibitions. Rather, according to Torah law and the Halakha, a person is certainly permitted to run away from the snake, even in the middle of prayer. However, owing to the pious man's state of mind that he is standing before the King of kings, his spiritual conjunction with God does not allow him to obey the laws of saving a life.

I heard that a certain rabbi distinguishes between the laws of the Torah and the laws of prophecy. This distinction expresses the same gap that we have seen in this lecture. The matter requires careful examination and, most importantly, extreme caution.


[4] Indeed, both Pinchas and Eliyahu have turned into meta-historical characters, who have accompanied Israel throughout the ages (see Pinchas's appearance in the book of Shoftim 20:28). This is because they symbolize going up to heaven before they have completed their mission. There is, however, a difference between them, in that Pinchas continued his mission on the face of the earth, whereas Eliyahu appeared from heaven in every generation.


[5] Chassidic thought assigned this quality to Chanoch as well, about whom it is stated: "And Chanock walked with God, and he was not, for God took him" (Bereishit 5:24). This verse implies that Chanoch never died, but rather he was taken, as he was communing and walking with God.


(Translated by David Strauss)