This week's sidrah: Pinchas

“The name of the Israelite notable who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri, son of Salu” Numbers 25:14


Pinchas is the biblical archetype of the gious zealot taking the law into his own hands as judge and executor when he kills Zimri. Based on this story, the law in Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6 prescribes: “He who has sexual relations with an Aramean woman, zealots kill them.” 

The rabbis of the Talmud are deeply troubled by this law. The Jerusalem Talmud goes as far as stating: “It is taught that this is not according to the will of the sages” (Sanhedrin 16:11 27b). 

The Babylonian Talmud is less explicit but instead uses the fascinating motif of Moses forgetting the halachah to teach us there are some laws that are better forgotten: “Zimri caught Kozbi by her braid and brought her to Moses. He said to him: Son of Amram! Is she forbidden or permitted? And if you say forbidden, who permitted you to the daughter of Jethro? Moses forgot the halachah” (Sanhedrin 82a).

The story presents a challenge to the rabbis on two accounts: intermarriage and zealotry. As Professor Christine Hayes of Yale University suggests, the rabbis felt a “general discomfort with zealots and the severity of punishment called for in the text - execution by an extra—legal agency.” 

Dr Laliv Clenman of Leo Baeck College goes one step further arguing that “Sanhedrin 9:6 was never in accordance with general halachic principles or even with the legal rules and systems relating to intermarriage.” 

The story of Pinchas thus reminds us that even the talmudic rabbis sometimes challenged the law. 

As the Jewish community evaluates its attitude to intermarriage, we can feel encouraged in knowing that even Moses forgot some laws for the sake of finding a pragmatic solution suitable for its time.

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