Parashat Pinhas

 By Rabbi Isaac Mann

The beginning of Parashat Pinhas seems out of place. We have here some details of a story that is basically recounted at the end of the previous parashah of Balak, and instead of finishing the story there, some of the details are left out and only filled in at the beginning of the next parashah. Why the need to spread the rather brief story over two parashiyot?

To elaborate, at the end of Balak, we are told of the Israelites engaging openly in an orgy of idolatry and immorality with Moabite/Midianite women with whom they had recently come into contact as they were approaching the Land of Canaan. Among the offenders was the head of a prominent family (nasi bet-av) of Shimon. The brazenness of their sinful activity sparked God’s anger against His people and resulted in the outbreak of a devastating plague. 24,000 people were killed until Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, emerged and slew the Shimonite leader and his Midianite partner as they were in coitus. With that, the plague ended and the parashah of Balak ends.

What were the names of the slain couple? What were the consequences to Pinhas himself? The answers are not given until we start the next parashah, namely that of Pinhas. At the outset, Pinhas‘ act of zealotry is praised and he is rewarded by God with a covenant of peace. Then almost as an afterthought, we are told that the Shimonite leader was Zimri and his Midianite companion was Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite prince. This segment that fills in the details of the Pinhas story, which began in Balak, consists of only five verses. Thus the question should be raised – why were these verses not included in Balak? We generally don’t find in the Torah that a narrative that is relatively short is divided into two parashiyot. Surely the names of the principal offenders and the consequences that flowed from Pinhas‘ bravery could have and should have been included with the rest of the story in Balak.

In searching among the major Biblical commentaries on the Torah, I could not find any that address this question directly, namely, what motivated the ba’alei mesorah (the ancient rabbinic scribes and teachers who were involved, among other tasks, with dividing the books of the Torah into separate parashiyot) to place part of the Pinhas story in Balak and part in the parashah called Pinhas. (For purposes of clarification I am using the term “parashah” to refer to a portion of a Biblical book that is read on the Sabbath. The term “parashah” elsewhere can also refer to smaller divisions of the text, more like paragraphs).

I would like to suggest a solution based on what we know of the rabbinic attitude toward zealotry. A perusal of the Talmudic discussion of Pinhas‘ act (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a -82b) reveals a kind of ambivalence toward Pinhas‘ employment of extra-legal means to achieve his goal. The Talmud perceives what Pinhas did – slay the offending prince and his consort – as a particular kind of act that is permissible only under limited circumstances and only by special individuals who are classified as kana’im (roughly translated as “zealots”). Their act of zealotry, involving the slaying of an offender for some grievous sin, must be done with purity of thought and only at the time that the sinful act is taking place. The intention of the zealot must be limited to curbing the hillul Ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name) that the completion of the heinous act would cause. Indeed, if the zealot has enough presence of mind to stop and ask a rabbi whether he can kill the miscreant for what he is doing, then he is no longer allowed to carry out the act of zealotry. It is seen as going beyond the law, which requires that a warning be given to the offender, that there be two witnesses, that there be a court of law adjudicating the case, etc. One is not allowed to take the law into his own hands unless many conditions, as outlined above, are met. Charles Bronson types, seeking to avenge murder and other dastardly crimes, would not qualify as legitimate zealots – and the evildoers would be allowed to defend themselves and to kill those who are seeking them out for extra-legal justice or for retribution.

Thus, faced with a kind of paradox between the glory and praise that Pinhas receives in the Torah for his heroic act of zealotry and the rabbinic reticence to sanction such zealous acts and instead to discourage others from following in Pinhas‘ footsteps (unless they meet all the criteria that Pinhas met), the ba’alei mesorah deftly divided the story into two parts. The first part, in Parashat Balak describes what Pinhas did. In that Torah portion no reward is given to him for his zealotry. It is only in the next parashah that God praises Pinhas explicitly and rewards him for his extra-legal act. The specific act of Pinhas is only alluded to with the mention of the names of the two slain. By separating the description of the zealous act itself from the positive consequences that accrued to the zealot, the Rabbis subtly hinted that the two should not always be seen as going together.

Yes, zealotry in the name of God can be seen in very limited circumstances in a positive light and worthy of blessing. But unless one meets all the criteria of a true zealot – and can compare himself in every way to Pinhas – then Jewish tradition looks askance upon, and even condemns, those who go outside of the Law even to defend the glory of God.

This ambivalence can also be seen in the story of Shimon and Levi, who slew the inhabitants of Shekhem because of their involvement with the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). Did they do the right thing or not? Could it be that Shimon, who played the most prominent role in carrying out that act of zealotry or possibly revenge, became (in the embodiment of a princely descendant) the victim, generations later, through another act of zealotry – that of Pinhas? What goes around comes around! Food for thought!


Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.