Pinchas: Fundamentalist Zealot or Centrist Yeshiva Bochur?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

Pinchas is such a fascinating character for the observant Jew. There is something seductively appealing about a zealot’s ability to do the right thing in reaction to shocking acts that paralyze the ordinary arbiters of halakhah.  Even though we are never halachically allowed to instruct anyone in a specific situation that the halacha is “zealots strike him”, still this is the halacha and Pinchas got it right. 

We usually imagine Pinchas rising to action in the moment. But the Gemara on Sanhedrin 82a offers a very different description of the episode.  In the Gemara’s telling of the story, Zimri grabs Cozbi by the hair, drags her in front of Moshe, and asks:

בן עמרם, זו אסורה או מותרת?

ואם תאמר: אסורה, בת יתרו מי התירה לך?

“Son of Amram, is this woman forbidden or permitted?

And if you say that she is forbidden, as for the daughter of Yitro, who permitted her to you?”

Moshe is literally at a loss for words, as the Gemara tells us:

נתעלמה ממנו הלכה –

געו כולם בבכיה

the Halacha eluded him,

 causing the entire nation to cry

It is at this point that Pinchas acts.  But before striking Zimri and Cozbi, the Torah records (Bamidbar 25:7):

וירא פינחס בן־אלעזר בן־אהרן הכהן

ויקם מתוך העדה ויקח רמח בידו

When Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this,

he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand…

On a peshat level, it is clear that Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi coupling. But the Gemara’s retelling adds a step in the sequence of Pinchas’ actions:

מה ראה?

אמר רב: ראה מעשה ונזכר הלכה.

אמר לו: אחי אבי אבא, לא כך לימדתני ברדתך מהר סיני: הבועל את כותית קנאין פוגעין בו?

אמר לו: קריינא דאיגרתא איהו ליהוי פרוונקא

What did Pinchas see (that led him to act)?

Rav says: He saw the incident and he remembered the halakha.

He said [to Moses]: “Did you not teach me when you descended from Mt. Sinai that “One who has intercourse with a Gentile – zealots strike him”?

[Moses] said to him: “Let the one who reads the letter be the agent [to fulfill its contents].”

In this version, Pinchas no longer rises to action following his gut instinct. He acts only after receiving confirmation from Moshe that the Halacha does indeed condone killing the perpetrators of such an act.  It is the modern-day equivalent of consulting with a Rabbi or checking in the Shulchan Arukh before acting.  The irony is that this version directly contradicts Rav Chisda’s ruling of הבא לימלך אין מורין לו – if [the zealot] takes counsel, we do not instruct him so. 

Rav’s retelling of the Pinchas story highlights one of the major questions posed by a commitment to Halacha:  To what extent, if any, can we trust our instincts when facing ethical dilemmas, or must we always consult with Halakhic sources and/or authorities?

In this regard, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l relates a powerful story from his early years living in Israel.  While walking with his family in a charedi neighborhood, they came across a presumably non-observant merchant whose car had broken down and was in need of assistance.  A number of the neighborhood kids got into an argument whether they should help him, based on the Gemara Pesachim 113b’s discussion of the status of wanton sinners as relates to the mitzvah of perika u-te’inah (helping one load or unload a burden).  Rav Lichtenstein recalls that he wrote his father-in-law, Rabbi Soloveitchik, a letter in which he concluded: “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” Rav Lichtenstein continues: “My feeling then was: ‘Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.’” (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein z”l. “Developing a Torah Personality—Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting”) 

The dilemma outlined by Rav Lichtenstein has always defined our community, and will continue to do so.  To trust our instincts and internal morality – which HAS been shaped by our Torah education – or  to consult our sefarim and posekim before doing anything.  This dilemma is seen in the two versions of Pinchas presented above.  The question and challenge for us is which model of Pinchas do we choose to follow.


Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz (SBM 2001) is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD.


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