Weekly Torah Study: Pinchas 2023/5783


Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.


Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

  • This week we'll focus on Pinchas, who our tradition both reveals (and is concerned about) for his zealotry
  • What is a zealot and where did this term come from that connects, in Hebrew, directly to the zealots of ancient history?

The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70). Zealotry was the term used by Josephus for a "fourth sect" or "fourth Jewish philosophy" during this period.


The term zealot, the common translation of the Hebrew kanai (קנאי‎, frequently used in plural form, קנאים‎, kana'im), means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from Greek ζηλωτής (zelotes), "emulator, zealous admirer or follower".[1][2]


Josephus' Jewish Antiquities[3] states that there were three main Jewish sects at this time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee (also called Judas of Gamala) in the year 6 CE against the Census of Quirinius, shortly after the Roman Empire declared what had most recently been the tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus to be a Roman province. According to Josephus, they "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." (18.1.6)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Zealots:[4]

Judah of Gaulanitis is regarded as the founder of the Zealots, who are identified as the proponents of the Fourth Philosophy. In the original sources, however, no such identification is anywhere clearly made, and the question is hardly raised of the relationship between the Sicarii, the upholders of the Fourth Philosophy, and the Zealots. Josephus himself in his general survey of the various groups of freedom fighters (War 7:268–70) enumerates the Sicarii first, whereas he mentions the Zealots last.

Others have also argued that the group was not so clearly marked out (before the first war of 66–70/3) as some have thought.[5]

Simon the Zealot was listed among the apostles selected by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke[6] and in the Acts of the Apostles.[7] He is called Cananaean in Mark and Matthew (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18)

Two of Judas of Galilee's sons, Jacob and Simon, were involved in a revolt and were executed by Tiberius Alexander, the procurator of Iudaea province from 46 to 48.[8]

The Zealots had the leading role in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE). The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting Romans and Greeks. Another group, likely related, were the Sicarii, who raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered apostate and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for the cause. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous "reign of terror" prior to the Jewish Temple's destruction. According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple's destruction. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem, and held it until 70, when the son of Roman Emperor Vespasian, Titus, retook the city and destroyed Herod's Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.[citation neede


(א) וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּשִּׁטִּ֑ים וַיָּ֣חֶל הָעָ֔ם לִזְנ֖וֹת אֶל־בְּנ֥וֹת מוֹאָֽב׃ (ב) וַתִּקְרֶ֣אןָ לָעָ֔ם לְזִבְחֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ן וַיֹּ֣אכַל הָעָ֔ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲו֖וּ לֵאלֹֽהֵיהֶֽן׃ (ג) וַיִּצָּ֥מֶד יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְבַ֣עַל פְּע֑וֹר וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף ה' בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ד) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה קַ֚ח אֶת־כׇּל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הָעָ֔ם וְהוֹקַ֥ע אוֹתָ֛ם לַה' נֶ֣גֶד הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁ֛ב חֲר֥וֹן אַף־ה' מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ה) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־שֹׁפְטֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל הִרְגוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֲנָשָׁ֔יו הַנִּצְמָדִ֖ים לְבַ֥עַל פְּעֽוֹר׃ (ו) וְהִנֵּ֡ה אִישׁ֩ מִבְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בָּ֗א וַיַּקְרֵ֤ב אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֔ית לְעֵינֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהֵ֣מָּה בֹכִ֔ים פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ (ז) וַיַּ֗רְא פִּֽינְחָס֙ בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֔ר בֶּֽן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֥ח רֹ֖מַח בְּיָדֽוֹ׃ (ח) וַ֠יָּבֹ֠א אַחַ֨ר אִֽישׁ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־הַקֻּבָּ֗ה וַיִּדְקֹר֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֚ת אִ֣ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה אֶל־קֳבָתָ֑הּ וַתֵּֽעָצַר֙ הַמַּגֵּפָ֔ה מֵעַ֖ל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ט) וַיִּהְי֕וּ הַמֵּתִ֖ים בַּמַּגֵּפָ֑ה אַרְבָּעָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים אָֽלֶף׃ {פ}

(1) While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by consorting with the Moabite women, (2) who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. (3) Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and ה' was incensed with Israel. (4) ה' said to Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before ה', so that יהוה’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” (5) So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.” (6) Just then a certain Israelite man came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (7) When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, (8) he followed the Israelite man into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite man and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. (9) Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

  • Somehow Pinchas' action calmed the situation, and ended the plague
  • What was the influence of Pinchas' action?
(א) ויבא אחר איש ישראל והיה לו בזה כמה נסים כי אם לא היה מכוין לדקרו בשעת מעשה הי' חייב מיתה, וגם אם דקרו בשעת מעשה ולא היו כמה נסים שחשבו חז"ל ובת"י בענין זה שכולם ראו שהרגו בשעת מעשה, היו במ שבטו מעלילים עליו שהרגו שלא בשעת מעשה שאז חייב מיתה, ובזה קדש ש"ש שמסר א"ע לסכנה לכבוד השם המחולל ועי"כ השיב חמה ותעצר המגפה:

...in this [action he took Pinchas] acted to sanctify God's Name since he put himself in danger for God's glory that had been defiled, and a result of that he held back God's anger and the plague ended.

(י) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (יא) פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃ (יב) לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃
(10) ה' spoke to Moses, saying, (11) “Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. (12) Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship.
  • Verse 11 - 'passion' is the word understood in the first century to be 'zealotry'
(ב) בקנאו את קנאתי. בְּנָקְמוֹ אֶת נִקְמָתִי — בְּקָצְפּוֹ אֶת הַקֶּצֶף שֶׁהָיָה לִי לִקְצֹף; כָּל לְשׁוֹן קִנְאָה הוּא הַמִּתְחָרֶה לִנְקֹם נִקְמַת דָּבָר, אנפרט"מנט בְּלַעַ"ז:

(2) בקנאו את קנאתי means “when he executed my vengeance” (more lit., when he avenged my avenging) — when he displayed the anger that I should have displayed. The expression קנאה always denotes glowing with anger to execute vengeance for a thing; in O. F. emportment (cf. Rashi on 11:29).

(א) בקנאו. קל הנו"ן להקל על הלשון והטעם כי הוא קנא כקונו וכתוב על השם כי הוא אל קנא בע"א: (ב) ולולי הוא שקנא הייתי מכלה כל ישראל בדבר בקנאתי:
(1) IN THAT HE WAS VERY JEALOUS FOR MY SAKE AMONG THEM. There is no dagesh in the nun of be-kano (in that he was very jealous) in order to simplify enunciation. It means that Phinehas was jealous like his creator. Scripture tells us that God is a jealous God (Ex. 20:5) when it comes to idolatry. (2) [SO THAT I CONSUMED NOT THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL IN MY JEALOUSY.] If Phinehas had not been jealous for My sake, then I would have destroyed all of Israel in My jealousy.
(א) בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם. שעשה נקמתי לעיני כולם כדי שבראותם זה ולא ימחו יכופר על אשר לא מיחו בפושעים ובזה השיב את חמתי מעליהם:
(1) בקנאו את קנאתו בתוכם, for having taken G’d’s vengeance in the presence of all the people, so that by their watching what he did and not protesting his deed they would qualify for atonement of their sin for not having protested the sinners at the time when they were about to commit their evil deeds. [compare author on verse 4 in this chapter where he made a similar point explaining the unusual command by G’d to Moses. Ed.]

One may question this statement seeing that 24,000 Israelites died during the pestilence, so how could Pinchas be credited with having totally prevented G’d’s wrath claiming victims amongst the people? In fact, the very fact that only people from the tribe of Shimon died is the proof that Pinchas succeeded in halting G’d’s wrath claiming victims from the בני ישראל, i.e. the attribute of Justice was active only among that single tribe. This is the meaning of the words: “and I did not completely wipe out the Children of Israel during My jealousy.” Clearly, turning back G’d’s wrath resulted in the continued existence of the Jewish nation. It follows that Pinchas was the source of the Jewish people as a nation enjoying long life, i.e. continued existence from then on until the end of time. As a reward commensurate with his deed he was granted continuous life in that he became in due course Elijah the prophet as we know from Zohar 215 based on Maleachi 2,5: “My covenant was with him, Life (ongoing) and peace.” When the Torah speaks here about Pinchas being granted בריתי, “My covenant,” the meaning is the same as in Maleachi.

Rabbenu Bahya

  • Pinchas has done something helpful for the Jewish people
  • Why the broken "vav" in 'Shalom'?
(א) את בריתי שלום. שֶׁתְּהֵא לוֹ לִבְרִית שָׁלוֹם, כְּאָדָם הַמַּחֲזִיק טוֹבָה וְחַנּוֹת לְמִי שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה עִמּוֹ טוֹבָה, אַף כָּאן פֵּרֵשׁ לוֹ הַקָּבָּ"ה שְׁלוֹמוֹתָיו:
(1) את בריתי שלום [I GIVE TO HIM] MY COVENANT — PEACE — This means: I give him my covenant that it should be to him as a covenant of peace; just like a man who shows gratitude and friendliness to one who has done him a kindness. So here, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, expressed to him His peaceful feelings towards him.
(א) את בריתי שלום. ממלאך המות כענין עושה שלום במרומיו כי אמנם ההפסד לא יקרה אלא בסבת התנגדות ההפכים וזה אמנם נתקיים בפינחס שהאריך ימים הרבה מאד מכל שאר אנשי דורו עד שהיה הוא משמש במשכן שילה בזמן פלגש בגבעה שהיה בלי ספק אחרי מות יהושע ושאר הזקנים אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושע וכל שכן אם היה בזמן יפתח שכתב למלך בני עמון בשבת בני ישראל בחשבון ובבנותיה כו' שלש מאות שנה וכבר ספרו ז"ל שפינחס לא רצה ללכת אז אל יפתח להתיר נדרו וכל שכן לדברי האומר אליהו זה פינחס והוא עדיין חי וקיים:
(1) את בריתי שלום. Peace with the angel of death. We have a similar meaning of this word שלום in Job 25,20 עושה שלום במרומיו, “He makes peace in His lofty regions.” [I assume that the reference is to the fact that the angel of death has no authority in the celestial regions. Ed.] Losses occur only as a result of confrontations by opposites. We find that as a result of this שלום, “peace, or armistice” with the angel of death Pinchas enjoyed an exceedingly long life on earth, more so than any other member of his generation. In fact, he was still serving as priest in the Tabernacle at Shiloh during the civil war between Binyamin and the other tribes. This occurred many years after the death of Joshua and the elders who were Joshua’s assistants. (Judges 20,28) Joshua 24,26 reports these elders as surviving Joshua for many years. If, as is indicated by the Talmud, Pinchas was still alive in the days of Yiphtach (Judges 11,26) he must have been 300 years old by that time. (compare either Bereshit Rabbah 60,3 or Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer chapter 47 on the subject of Pinchas)

My covenant [of] peace. Pinchas was promised he would not become an agitated and angry person, for the nature of the act he did — killing a person with his hands — leaves a strong impression. However, since he did it for the sake of Heaven he received the blessing that he would always be in peace and serenity.

-Ha'amek Davar

The text concerns a covenant of peace (brit shalom) that is offered to Pinchas the somewhat over-zealous and fiery priest who skewered Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon and Kozbi a Midianite woman. Pinchas' act stopped both the Israelite's bout of immoral behaviour and the plague they had been suffering because of it, and he was rewarded for it. However even the Massoretes must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas' action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.

Above: an example of the broken vav that I wrote for illustration purposes. Photo © Mordechai Pinchas.

One of my funniest moments as a scribe came when a Rabbi called me up and said they had a found a letter with a break in it and could I come in and repair it. It was only one letter so it wouldn't take long.
"It isn't in parshat Pinchas in the word shalom in a vav?" I asked innocently.
"Yes" said the Rabbi somewhat surprised, was I perhaps telepathic or otherwise possessing some kind of super human powers, "how did you know that?"
"It's supposed to be there. It's a special visual midrash."


Rabbi Haim Ovadia offers two explanations for this. The first is that occasionally peace must be broken for a higher purpose, such as resisting a dangerous enemy. The second argues that peace achieved through violence will always be incomplete.


Another way of looking at the broken vav:

In the Talmud, tractate Kidushin, folio 66, attention is drawn to the fact that the letter ו in the word שלום is written with a break in the stem of that letter, to indicate that when a priest is not totally whole in all of his limbs, he is not fit to perform the service in the Temple. His service would be rendered invalid retroactively.

-Daat Zkenim