Classic Questions

On what basis did Pinchas kill the offenders? (v. 7-8)

Rambam: If a man is seen cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman... in public, i.e., in the presence of ten or more Jews, then if zealots strike him and kill him they are considered to be praiseworthy and eager [to serve G‑d]. This law is a [non-scriptural] tradition that has been passed down from Moshe at Mount Sinai. However, a [scriptural] proof can be found from the incident with Pinchas and Zimri.

The zealot is only allowed to strike them at the actual time when they are sinning, as in the case of Zimri where the verse states, "[He pierced both of them—the Israelite man] and the woman—right through her abdomen" (v. 8). However, once they have separated, he is no longer permitted to kill them, and if he did kill one of them at this point he would be [guilty of murder and hence] liable for the death penalty. If the zealot asks the Jewish Court for a ruling [permitting him to kill the sinner] he should not be given any response, even if the act of the sin is still taking place. Furthermore, if the zealot comes to kill the sinning cohabiter, and the cohabiter kills the zealot first in self-defense, then the cohabiter is not [guilty of murder and is thus not] subject to the death penalty.

Despite the fact that this sin does not incur the death penalty from the Beis Din [court], it should not be taken lightly, for there is a greater loss [to the Jewish people] through this sin than through all the other forbidden relations. For a son who is born as a result of forbidden relations [between two Jews] is his father's son in every respect and he is a Jew, even though he is a mamzer [illegitimate]. However, the boy that is a child from a non-Jewish woman is not considered to be his child at all....(Laws of Forbidden Relations 12:4-5,7)

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Zealotry of Pinchas (v. 7-8)

The following points of Rambam's ruling require some clarification:

  1. If the "sinning cohabiter" may be killed by the zealot, then we can presume that he must deserve this penalty. Why, then, is it the case that "once they have separated, he is no longer permitted to kill them"? Surely, this is a sin for which the person is liable with his life, even after the sin is done?
  2. In praise of Pinchas' actions, the Torah uses the expression, "because he was zealous for his G‑d" (Bamidbar 25:13), suggesting that this sin is a rebellion against G‑d more than any other, as its vengeance is described as a "personal" act on behalf of G‑d Himself. But in what respect, exactly, is this sin more an affront to G‑d than any other?
  3. In reward for his zealotry, Pinchas was given the honor of priesthood (ibid.). But surely, a person is a priest by virtue of the fact that he is born with the intrinsic qualities required to be a priest. How is it possible that a person could be rewarded for a particular good deed, by becoming a priest?

The Explanation

Rambam hints to the answer to all of these questions with the statement, "There is a greater loss [to the Jewish people] through this sin than through all the other forbidden relations":

In the case of other sins, including other forbidden relations, even if the child is illegitimate, he still remains Jewish. However, with the sin of cohabiting together with a non-Jewish woman, the result is that a non-Jew is born. Thus:

  1. The "result" of this sin is external to the person, and external to the Jewish people. The non-Jew has now been born, and this is an irreversible act.
  2. This sin breaches a boundary that no other sin is capable of, namely the boundary between Jew and non-Jew. As Rambam continues, "a son who is born as a result of forbidden relations is his father's son in every respect and he is a Jew... However, the boy that is born from the non-Jewish woman is not considered to be his son at all..."
  3. Concerning the act of conceiving a child, the Talmud states that "there are three partners in forming the child: the father, the mother... and G‑d, who provides him with the soul" (Kidushin 30b). In other words, when a child is conceived, G‑d is "personally" involved (so to speak).

Consequently, when the act of conception is a sin, it turns out that not only did the person sin on his own, but he even "dragged" G‑d with him (so to speak) into the act of sin, for G‑d is an intrinsic partner in any act of conception.

With this, we can answer all of the above questions:

  1. With other sins, there is still some connection with the realm of holiness, since even an illegitimate child can perform mitzvos, etc. However, the effects of cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman are irreversible, for a child is born. Therefore, a zealot is only permitted to kill the sinner at the time of the act, for afterwards, it is too late.
  2. According to the Talmud, G‑d is (so to speak) personally involved in the act of conception. Therefore, by killing a person who is cohabiting with a non-Jew one is "avenging" G‑d, as it were, personally. This cannot be said with respect for other mitzvos (or their transgression) where G‑d is not described as a "partner."
  3. The sin of cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman violates the intrinsic boundaries between Jew and non-Jew, as it causes a Jew to father a non-Jew. This is in defiance of the natural order which G‑d arranged, where a Jew should only give birth to a Jew.

Therefore, when Pinchas avenged this sin, G‑d rewarded him measure-for-measure: with a privilege which also defied the natural order, i.e., that a person who was not born a priest should be granted the priesthood.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 150ff.)