The zealously of Pinchas and its appropriateness
And he and his descendants after him will have a covenant of permanent priesthood. This is because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for Bnai Yisrael. (BeMidbar 25:13)
The opening passages of our are based upon the incident described at the conclusion of the previous parasha. The Torah explains that Bnai Yisrael were camped at Shittim. A group of women from Moav entered the camp. They seduced some of the men. Once they established their influence over these men, they encouraged them to practice idolatry. Hashem punished the nation with a plague. Hashem instructed Moshe to direct the courts to respond and punish the transgressors. One of the participants in this promiscuous episode was, Zimri, the son of Salu. He was a leader in the tribe of Shimon. He was attracted to a princess of Midyan. Pinchas observed Zimri’s behavior. He reacted. He executed Zimri and his paramour. Pinchas’ demonstration of zeal had an immediate effect. The plague was suspended.
The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin discusses Pinchas’ behavior. Typically, the courts are charged with the responsibility of assessing whether a law has been violated and administering the appropriate punishment. What was the source of Pinchas’ authority to execute Zimri and his partner? The Talmud explains that Pinchas acted in accordance with an amazing law. One who witnesses a public display of sexual intimacy between Jew and non-Jew has the right to execute the parties without direct consultation with the courts. Pinchas was aware of this law and acted.
There is an interesting dispute in the Talmud regarding the details of Pinchas’ behavior. Rav maintains that before acting, Pinchas consulted Moshe. He asked Moshe to confirm his understanding of the law. Moshe confirmed Pinchas’ authority to execute Zimri and his partner. Only after this confirmation, did Pinchas take action. Shemuel disagrees. He contends that Pinchas knew the law and was aware of his authority to act. There was no reason for him to consult Moshe. He did not ask any questions. Instead, he acted immediately. He reasoned that a desecration of the Torah and Hashem’s name was taking place. No time should be wasted. An immediate response was required!
What is the basis of Rav and Shemuel’s dispute? Obviously, neither can claim knowledge of the actual events. Neither was present at the time of the event. Also, it seems that neither possessed an authentic tradition regarding the issue. If such a tradition existed, the issue could not be debated. Instead, it must be assumed that neither Rav or Shemuel claimed to have direct information regarding the details of Pinchas’ behavior. However, each assumed that Pinchas acted according to the requirements of the Torah and that he was aware of specific laws relevant to his situation. Therefore, each infers Pinchas’ behavior based upon his own interpretation of the requirements of the law. Rav and Shemuel disagree in their interpretation and therefore they attribute different behaviors to Pinchas. It remains to define these two alternate interpretations.
This law essentially allows a person to act as judge and executioner without appointment by the court. Under normal circumstances, Pinchas’ behavior would be a crime. But as a response to this extreme instance of public sexual intimacy, his actions were laudable. In other words, in this unique situation normal legal guidelines are suspended. Specifically, what laws are suspended? First, generally only the court can determine a person’s guilt. An individual witness does not have the authority to decide this issue. Here, the zealot is permitted to determine that a crime has been committed. Second, normally it is prohibited to take a person’s life. Apparently, in this situation, the violators’ lives are in forfeiture. The prohibition against shedding their blood is suspended.
However, there is a third law that must be considered. This is a subtle issue that can easily be overlooked. Pinchas decided the law in the presence of the court. This would be generally prohibited. Even though Pinchas had the authority to decide the issue, here a court was present! In deference to the authority and honor of the court, we would expect Pinchas to consult these judges! It seems that this is the issue disputed by Rav and Shemuel. Both agree that the Torah permits the zealot to determine the guilt of the sinners. He is also permitted to shed blood. In a situation in which no court is present, Rav and Shemuel would be in complete agreement. The zealot is free to act unilaterally. However, in Pinchas’ situation a court was present. Rav maintains that the zealot must show deference to this institution. Therefore, he infers that Pinchas must have consulted Moshe before acting. Shemuel disagrees. He maintains that the requirement to respect the authority and honor of the court is nullified by the urgency of the situation. The requirement is suspended. Therefore, he infers that there is no reason to assume that Pinchas first consulted Moshe.
Pinchas’ behavior is also discussed in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi makes an amazing comment regarding the authority of the zealot and Pinchas’ decision. The Talmud begins by establishing the basic law of the zealot. The zealot has the authority to act in this extreme case. One need not consult the court. However, the Talmud then adds that this behavior is not appropriate and is not completely approved by the Sages. In other words, the Sages would not encourage the zealot to act on the authority of this law. Furthermore, the Talmud explains that the Sages of Pinchas’ time did not approve of his behavior! Our pasuk is Hashem’s response to the Sages’ disapproval. Hashem rewards Pinchas for his zeal. He indicates that Pinchas acted properly and deserves praise.
This discussion raises many questions. First, the Torah in this instance permits the zealot to execute the sinner. Why do the Sages discourage the zealot from performing this mission? If the Sages are correct in their policy, why did Hashem commend Pinchas? Finally, after the Torah endorsed Pinchas’ decision why did the Sages not change their position? Torah Temimah deals with these questions and offers a brilliant answer. He explains that the Torah only permitted a specific type of individual to act in this case. This is an individual motivated by zeal to protect the Torah. Any other individual is prohibited to act in this case.
This answers our questions. The Torah permits the zealot to execute the sinners. However, the Sages discouraged this behavior. They felt that it is difficult for a person to evaluate one’s own motives. A person may confuse some personal motivation with authentic zeal. The Sages are not contradicting the Torah. They are merely recognizing the difficulty of meeting the requirements of the law. The Sages did not feel that even Pinchas should have relied on his own assessment of his personal motivations. For this reason, they did not immediately approve of his behavior. Hashem rewarded Pinchas. This demonstrated that Pinchas had been motivated by authentic zeal.
The Torah’s endorsement on Pinchas’ behavior did not alter the Sages’ general position. True, Pinchas had acted appropriately. However, this does not mean that a lesser individual can be trusted to perform this personal assessment.
Command Bnai Yisrael and speak to them concerning my sacrifice, my bread, a fire offering of appeasing fragrance. They should take care to offer it to me at its appointed time. (BeMidbar 28:2)
This pasuk introduces the discussion of the Tamid offering. The term Tamid means constant. This name refers to the regularity of the sacrifice. It was offered daily, in the morning, and afternoon. The pasuk refers to the Tamid as Hashem’s bread. This might seem strange. No bread was included in these offerings. Rav Yosef Bechor Shur explains the meaning of this term. Bread is regarded, by the Torah, as the most basic food. For this reason, the Torah requires that we say Birkat HaMazon – grace – after eating bread. Furthermore, the eating of bread is considered a meal and not a snack. There are other laws that also reflect the special distinction given to bread, in the Torah. The Tamid was the most basic sacrifice. All other sacrifices were offered between the morning and afternoon Tamid sacrifice. The special sacrifices offered on Shabbat and holidays are refereed to as Musaf – additional – sacrifices. This is because they are additions to the basic Tamid offering. The Tamid was, therefore the most fundamental of all sacrifices. For this reason, it is referred to as Hashem’s bread.