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And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: "Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, turned away My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake... Therefore... I shall grant him My covenant of peace..."

Numbers 25:11-12

Pinchas' deed evokes many associations -- courage, decisiveness and religious passion are several that come to mind -- but peace hardly seems one of them. Pinchas, after all, killed two people. True, what he did was condoned by Torah law, and his doing so saved many lives; still, one does not usually think of homicide as a peaceful act.

As the Torah tells it (see Numbers, 25; Rashi, ibid; Talmud, Sanhedrin 81b-82b and 106a), the wicked prophet Balaam, having failed to undermine the people of Israel's special relationship with G-d by harping on their past sins, had an idea. "Their G-d abhors promiscuity," he said to Balak, the Moabite king who had hired him to place a curse on Israel. Corrupt them with the daughters of your realm, and you will provoke His wrath upon them.

This time Balaam succeeded. Many Jews, particularly from the tribe of Shimon, were enticed by the Midianite harlots who descended upon the Israelite camp in the Shittim valley, and were even induced to serve Baal Peor, the pagan god of their consorts. When tribunals were set up by Moses to try and punish the idolaters, Zimri, the leader of Shimon, sought to legitimize his tribe's sins by publicly taking a Midianite woman into his tent, before the eyes of Moses and the eyes of the entire community of Israel.

Moses and the nation's elders were at a loss as of what to do. Torah law does not provide for any conventional, court-induced punishment for such an offender. There is a law that gives license for "zealots to smite him," but this provision eluded Moses and the entire Jewish leadership. Only Pinchas remembered it, and had the fortitude to carry it through. He killed Zimri and the Midianite woman, stopping a plague that had begun to rage as the result of G-d's wrath against His people.

The Grandfather Issue

The Talmud, referring to G-d's opening words to Moses quoted above, asks: The Torah has already told us who Pinchas is, back in the sixth chapter of Exodus and again, but a few short verses before, in Numbers 25:7. Why does the Torah again refer to him as "Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron?"

Rashi, quoting the Talmud and Midrash, explains:

Because the tribes of Israel were mocking him, saying Have you seen this son of the fattener, whose mother's father fattened calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and now he goes and kills a prince in Israel?! Therefore, G-d traced his lineage to Aaron. (Pinchas' maternal grandfather was Jethro, who prior to his conversion to Judaism, was a pagan priest).

This explanation, however, seems to raise more questions than it answers:

(a) What set "the tribes of Israel" against Pinchas? The animosity of one tribe, the tribe of Shimon, would be understandable: he killed their leader and put an end to their pagan orgy. But why was he condemned by the entire community of Israel, most of whom were outraged by Zimri's act and were doubtless grateful for Pinchas' stopping the plague?

(b) Of what possible relevance is Jethro's past? If Pinchas acted wrongly, then he is guilty of much worse than having a grandfather who fattened calves for slaughter. "Murderer" would be a more apt epithet than "fattener's grandson." And if it was acknowledged that killing Zimri was the right thing to do, why was the young hero and savior of his people being mocked?

(c) If, for whatever reason, Pinchas is to be faulted because of Jethro's idolatrous past, why dwell on the fact that he "fattened calves for slaughter"? What about the fact that he was a pagan priest who (as the Midrash tells us) had served every idol in the world?

(d) Whatever the complaint against Pinchas was, how is it refuted by the fact that he was Aaron's grandson?

Who Is A Zealot?

The nature of Zimri's crime made his killing an extremely sensitive moral issue. On the one hand, the Torah deems what he did as deserving of death. On the other hand, it does not entrust the carrying out of the sentence to the normal judiciary process, ruling instead that "zealots should smite him." Who, then, qualifies as a zealot?

When a sentence is carried out after the due process of a trial and conviction, there is less of a need to dwell on the motives of the judges and executioner: they're going by the book, and we can check their behavior against the book. But the motives of the zealot who takes unilateral action are extremely important, for his very qualifications as a zealot hinge upon the question of what, exactly, prompted him to do what he did. Is he truly motivated to "still G-d's wrath", or has he found a holy outlet for his individual aggression? Is his act truly an act of peace, driven by the desire to reconcile an errant people with their G-d, or is it an act of violence, made kosher by the assumption of the label "zealot"?

The true zealot is an utterly selfless individual -- one who is concerned only about the relationship between G-d and His people, with no thought for his own feelings on the matter. The moment his personal prejudices and inclinations are involved, he ceases to be a zealot.

(This may be why the law that "zealots smite him" falls under the unique legal category of halachah v'ein morin kein, ""a law that is not instructed": if a would-be zealot comes to the court and inquires if he is permitted to kill the transgressor, he is not given license to do so (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Forbidden Relations, 12:5). Indeed, the very fact that he has come to ask disqualifies him -- someone who needs to ensure, in advance, that he is backed by the court, is no zealot. The true zealot has no thought for himself: not of his feelings on the matter, not of his personal safety, not even of the moral and spiritual implications of his act on his own self -- he doesn't even care if what he is doing is legal or not. He is simply determined to put an end to a situation that incurs the Divine wrath against Israel.)

Aaron's Grandson

According to this, the questions posed above answer each other.

The tribes of Israel knew that the case of Zimri warranted the law that "Zealots smite him." But they were skeptical of Pinchas' motivations. Why is it, they asked, that no one -- not Moses, not the elders, nor anyone in the entire leadership of Israel -- was moved to assume the role of zealot, save for Pinchas, "the youngest of the band"? Was Pinchas the most caring and selfless one of them all? Far more likely, said they, that what we have here is an angry young man who thinks he found a Torah-sanctioned outlet for his aggression.

A bit of digging around in the skeletons of Pinchas' family closet only reinforced their initial doubts. Of course, they said, look at his grandfather! Few professions are as inhumane as the fattening of calves for slaughter. The fact of Jethro's idolatry is not what is relevant here, but his nature and personality. Pinchas, the "tribes of Israel" reasoned, must have inherited his grandfather's natural cruelty, and proceeded to clothe it in the holy vestments of zealotry.

So G-d explicitly attached Pinchas' name to Aaron, the gentlest, most peace-loving man that Israel knew. Aaron, the "lover of peace and pursuer of peace, one who loves humanity and brings them close to Torah." In character and temperament, G-d was attesting, Pinchas takes after his other grandfather, Aaron. Not only is he not inclined to violence -- -it is the very antithesis of his natural temperament. Pinchas is a man of peace, who did what he did with the sole aim of "turning away My wrath from the children of Israel."

Two Hypocrites

This also explains the significance of another statement by Rashi. After emphasizing that Pinchas was Aaron's grandson, the Torah writes: "And the name of the smitten Israelite, who was smitten with the Midianite, was Zimri the son of Salu, a tribal prince of the Shimonites." On which Rashi comments, "On the same occasion that the righteous ones lineage was cited in praise, the wicked ones lineage was cited in detriment." But what detriment is there in Zimri's being a Shimonite prince?

Those who looked with a negative eye on Pinchas' motives, saw his cruelty even more strongly underscored when contrasted with the motives of the man he killed. Pinchas slew a man, while that man was engaged in an act of love; Pinchas was giving vent to his own violent passions, while Zimri acted out of a selfless concern for his constituents, putting his own life on the line (for surely he knew that some zealot might take it upon himself to kill him) to save his tribe through his bold attempt to legitimize their sins. If Pinchas did the right thing -- these critics were saying -- he did it for all the wrong reasons, while Zimri might have done a wrong thing, but was motivated by an altruistic love for his people.

G-d, who knows the heart of every man, spoke to dispel this distorted picture. Pinchas, He attested, inherited the peace-loving nature of his grandfather, while Zimri was every inch a descendent of Shimon, whom Jacob rebuked for his heated and violent nature. ("Cursed be their anger, it was fierce," said Jacob of Shimon and Levi, rebuking them for the massacre of Shechem and their plot against Joseph, "and their wrath, for it was cruel" -- Genesis 49:5.)

Indeed, the Talmud describes a hypocrite as one who "does the deeds of Zimri, and asks to be rewarded like Pinchas." Zimri's kindness was the ultimate hypocrisy: instead of fulfilling his role as the leader of his people by prevailing upon them to cease the behavior that was destroying them, he pursued the fulfillment of his own passions, without regard to the terrible consequences to their spiritual and physical well-being -- -all the while disguising his act as selfless and self-sacrificial. In contrast, Pinchas deed was "hypocritical" in the positive sense: ostensibly violent and cruel, but in truth a selfless act of peace.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Discussion (9)
April 8, 2014
Pinchas: Zealot or Murderer
The problem I have with Sidney Taubenfligel is the same that I have with all explanations offered by Talmudic scholars for anomalies in Torah : ie they beg the question by apparently knowing the mind of G-d . If I approach these problems with an open mind I can sometimes find rational explations. Sidney Taubenfligel ignores the crucial issue - Rewarding Pinchas for his zealotry sets a terrible precedent for mankind. Why should G-d break his own rules ? Was the Israeli settler who killed a large number of the worshippers in a Mosque a zealot ?
Avram Anschel
April 7, 2014
Re: Avram Anshel
Korach's sin was very different than Zimri's. For Korach's, there had been no explicit instruction from G-d as to how to punish contesters of the Priesthood of Aaron and the leadership of Moses. Therefore, G-d Himself intervened. In Zimri's case, G-d had already instructed Moses that when someone brazenly behaves as such in public, making a public desecration of G-d's will, he should be put to death instantly by a bystander. Therefore, G-d did not actively intervene, only passively, miraculously allowing Pinchas to survive the risky job of doing what Moses had taught was G-d's will.
Sidney Taubenfligel
Lower East Side, NYC
February 28, 2014
Pinchas Zeaot or fanatc
<The true zealot is an utterly selfless individual -- one who is concerned only about the relationship between G-d and His people, with no thought for his own feelings on the matter. The moment his personal prejudices and inclinations are involved, he ceases to be a zealot.>>
This is precisely the claim made by Moslim terrorists - 2 such in London murdered a soldier in street in daylight and waited to be arrested: - At their trial they showed no regret Only the killer knows the truth of his motives
If you compare Pinchas to Korach : Was Korach's offence so much worse than Zimmi's that it warranted G-d's direct intervention in one case but not the other ?
Should not have Pinchas should stood trial and .made his case .
The act of Pinchas set a terrible precedent for mankind - and undermines the Absolute value of the 6th Commandment. "You shall not murder" -
We ourselves has seen an Israeli Jewish assassin still revered by some as a zealot.
Avram Anchel
July 17, 2008
Shimon and Levy (3)
Pinchos and Zimri had many Grandfathers - the point of the essay is that the Torah specifically mentions Aharon’s name by Pinchos and Shimon’s name by Zimri to teach us who they inherited their nature from. (thereby excluding all other grandparents)
Brooklyn, NY
July 13, 2006
Shimon and Laivi (2)
Zirmi is described as a desendent of Shimon, to show that he holds his traits of anger ad cruelty; pinchas is described as grandson of Aaron to show he is influenced by his peacefull traits.
But to say Pinchas was a grandson of Aaron, is not so different to saying he is related to Laivi?
And Jacob rebuked both Shimon and Laivi together.
If hashem is tellig us that Zimri being of the tribe of Shimon, makes him bad, then Pinchas being of the tribe of Laivi suggests exactly the same thing here.
Perhaps there is another example, in which Shimon is rebuked for his anger and cruelty and Laivi is not involved, but if not then it cannot be ignored that Shimon and Laivi were rebuked together.
Perhaps the suggestion made in comment "Shimon and Levi" is a possible answer. Does somebody have further comments on this?
Glasgow, UK
July 9, 2006
Do we really understand what we believe?
Today's Parsha shows us what is real. Is tradition, what I think, and what religion teaches real? or is understanding "love of G-d" and what it's really all about? If we look towards religious practice/religion to tell us the truth, it won't. Truth is doing the will of G-d. In this instance, the will of G-d is living holy and undefiled by idolatry which is anything held in higher authority above G-d Himself first and foremost whom we worship. Pinchas has done the "mind" of G-d. He understood what it meant to love G-d and to be loved by
G-d. The others were responding out of human thnking and reactive, even judging G-ds purposes. This lesson speaks to humility before G-d and asking Him for advise, not ourselves.
Lynn Carpenter
Saint Petersburg, FL
July 18, 2005
Shimon and Levi
Not only Zimri was a descendant of Shimon, but Pinchas was also a descendant of Levi. Shimon and Levi, like Pinchas, punished Shechem for the wrong sexual behavior, but that was a sinful act of hatred and vengeance. Maybe, on the highest level, the souls of Zimri and Pinchas conspired to atone for the sin of their ancestors; Zimri by provoking, and Pinchas by performing the act of righteous zealotry.
Alexandra Malamud
Brooklyn, NY
July 9, 2004
I am confused, earlier in the article it is stated "There is a law that gives license for "zealots to smite him," but this provision eluded Moses and the entire Jewish leadership. Only Pinchas remembered it, and had the fortitude to carry it through." If this is the case, then how is Pinchas actually acting out of his own Zealot beliefs?
Bronx, New York
July 8, 2004
Thank you for the inspirational website!! May Hashem continue to help and guide you with your endeavors and good deeds.
dobbs ferry, ny