Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Pinchas
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham Ben David

Parashat Pinchas

The Parameters of Pinchas' Zealotry

Beyond Intellect and Emotion A Dearth of Halachot Of Torah or Rabbinic Origin? Zimri's Right to Self-Defense A Lesson Learned


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Beyond Intellect and Emotion
2. A Dearth of Halachot
3. Of Torah or Rabbinic Origin?
4. Zimri's Right to Self-Defense
5. A Lesson Learned

Beyond Intellect and Emotion
Our portion opens with the Torah's praise for the "jealousy" - or more appropriately - "zealotry" - of Pinchas: "Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the Cohen turned back My anger from the Children of Israel; I am therefore awarding him with My Covenant of Peace." What's the meaning of this zealotry, what is its source, and why is Pinchas deserving of such an exceptional Divine reward?

One's intellect is the source of his moral character: and personality. Only after one appreciates that that which is good is truly good, does he begin to yearn for it - and as a result act towards achieving that end. Human intellect is beyond emotion; in fact, it actually guides and even directs emotion. An act of "jealousy" on behalf of God, however, does not stem from the intellect. Man possesses a quality even higher than the intellect: it exists on the subconscious level, in the depths of one's spirit; it constantly strives to reveal itself and to appear via the intellect and emotion. The role of intellect and emotion is to neutralize those factors that block the manifestation of zealotry. [This model is used by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (of blessed memory) to explain the phenomenon of Emunah , or faith. He stresses that emunah exists on a plane above and beyond intellect and emotion].

It is from these depths that jealousy must spring; this jealousy - or zealotry - reveals itself once one puts aside all factors that inhibit the manifestation of his inner cleaving to the Creator of the Universe. This zealotry responds to any even slight manifestation of Hillul Hashem , or desecration of God's name. Zealotry that has its roots in an understanding of the Divine - inspires the "zealot" to reach a state of completion - or Sheleimut : "Behold, I am giving him My covenant of Peace ( Shalom )."

In Tractate Sanhedrin, our sages enumerate the deeds, which, if done by a Jew, warrant "Zealots smiting him." For example, "One who steals a vessel for use in the Temple... one who has relations with a Gentile woman..." and - even a Cohen who serves in the Temple while in a state of ritual impurity - are legitimately attacked and killed by zealots. The reason for Torah-sanctioned vigilance in these kinds of cases? The direct offense committed by the transgressor, who himself has stricken at the heart of the bond between the Children of Israel and the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Our sages explain that true zealotry may be defined as a situation in which the zealot does not inquire of a scholar how to act in the case at hand; in fact, should he make such an inquiry, a scholar would be bound not to instruct him to take action. Why? The very question as to how to respond indicates that the person has not internalized the level of zealotry required to permit his unilateral action. True zealotry flows naturally, from an inability of the person to tolerate the desecration of God’s name. A well-known Torah dictum states that in situations of desecration to God’s name, one does not allot honor even to a Rabbi."

A Dearth of Halachot
The Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, does not detail the laws associated with Torah-approved zealotry. Author of the work "Chelkat Michokek" questions the reason for this omission. A possible approach to this question: it is inappropriate to write down such halachot, since after all, the laws of zealotry - though they are compulsory - do not serve as the basis of actual halachic rulings. Thus, though Pinchas’ zealotry is aptly discussed in the Beit Midrash (study hall) - it is inappropriate to engage in it in the framework of normative halachic codes.

Of Torah or Rabbinic Origin?
What is the source of the halacha that "zealots strike at offenders"? The great medieval sage, Rabbeinu Nissim ("Ran") maintains that it is a "Halacha L’Moshe M’Sinai" - namely, an oral tradition dating back to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His insistence that it is not rabbinic in origin stems from his view that the Sages do not have the power to initiate rabbinic death penalties outside of one-time emergency situations; they do not, says Ran; have the right to rule in this manner for generations to come.

A support for Ran’s approach appears in the midrash: Pinchas approaches Moshe and says to him: "This is what you told us when you descended from atop Mt. Sinai: ‘One who has relations with a Gentile woman is justifiably attacked by zealots’".

In his book of responsa, the great rabbi known as "Radbaz" argues that the permissibility of unilateral acts of zealotry is rooted in rabbinic law. Ran’s point doesn’t faze Radbaz, since, according to the latter, the Sages did not rule that one should kill an offender outside of the framework of the law; rather, they ruled that one should not punish a zealot who takes unilateral action and kills an offender outside of the framework of the law .

Why? Our sages understood that a person filled with love of Hashem to the point at which, out of zealotry, he kills another Jew guilty of desecrating God’s name - is simply unable to conquer the holy emotions within him. It is thus improper to punish him.

Zimri's Right to Self-Defense
Our sages, writing in the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, maintain that if Zimri had turned on Pinchas and killed him, he (Zimri) would have been exempt from punishment. This statement seems to clash with another halachic principle:namely, that one may kill a person whom he sees in pursuit of another person; here, it is permissible, and even a mitzvah, to kill the rodef (pursuer) since one "should not idly stand by the blood of his neighbor." Nevertheless, if the rodef turns around and kills the one who is trying to kill him, he (the rodef) is deserving of death. The obvious reason for this ruling: one who is on the verge of killing a " rodef " is about to fulfill a mitzvah; thus, the " rodef " himself has no permission to kill the one pursuing him.

How should we resolve the above principle with the rabbis' observation that, had Zimri killed Pinchas, Zimri would have been exempt from the death penalty? It must be that Pinchas, as the one who killed Zimri, was not fulfilling a mitzvah! For if killing Zimri were to have been a mitzvah, Zimri would not have had permission to defend himself.

A Lesson Learned
From this discussion, the Mishneh L’Melech on the Rambam, offers another observation: It is known that a relative of a manslaughter victim, may halachically kill that manslaughterer should the latter leave his "city of refuge".

What would be the ruling if the (accidental) murderer turned around and killed the vengeful relative? Mishneh L’Melech maintains that the halacha in this instance may be learned from Zimri: It is not a positive mitzvah to kill one who committed manslaughter; the latter's punishment is exile to a city of refuge, and not death. However, the Torah understood the heart and mindset of the grieving relative, and ruled that it is improper to punish him for killing the person who killed his relative.

Since, then, the relative is not fulfilling a mitzvah in his killing of the murderer, he, the relative, is a " rodef ". Thus, the pursued murderer is permitted to defend himself by killing his "pursuer".

A zealous person such as Pinchas is a type of "blood avenger" - not on behalf of a dead relative - but on behalf of God. He is so identified with God, that he is unable to suffer any affront, so to speak, to Hashem. This is why he stands up and acts out of his zeal. The fact that the zeal is not obligatory, but only permissible, does not detract from its value. Just the opposite is true: the value of this "jealousy" is so great, that it is impossible to mandate every person to reach his level...
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