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Pinchas and Zimri: The Anatomy of an Argument

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Sometimes, biblical stories are complex or densely and intricately woven; other times, the storyline seems straightforward, morally unequivocal, simple stuff: right and wrong, good and bad. One such seemingly open and shut case is the killing of Zimri at the hands of Pinchas. While pacifists might decry the taking of a life, in this case a moral outrage was spreading in the camp - wanton, orgiastic debauches and idolatry. Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, publicly takes Kozbi, a willing participant from the daughters of Midian. The transgression is flagrant and unmistakable, brazen and unabashed. Pinchas steps in to end the disgrace, to halt the epidemic by means of the sword. The reward he is given leaves little room for doubt: Pinchas is good, Zimri is bad. Pinchas is right, Zimri is wrong. In fact, Jewish tradition sees these two as archetypes of good and evil; the Talmud's expression for the epitome of hypocrisy is "one who acts like Zimri and expects the reward of Pinchas."(1)

Our present parsha begins with a description of Pinchas' richly-deserved reward: a covenant of peace. How self-evident is this particular reward? How clear is it that this should be God's response to Pinchas' act of zealotry? Why is peace the reward for taking another man's life? This act of violence might have had extremely dire consequences for the entire congregation: Violence almost always runs the risk of begetting more violence. How might the congregation have reacted? Were all in agreement that Pinchas acted correctly, or was his behavior less than universally accepted? Rashi records some critical voices, citing a tradition that there were those who accused Pinchas of "un-Jewish" behavior, crediting his actions to alien influences and pagan sensibilities:

Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon HaKohen - because the tribes were humiliating him, "Did you see - this son of Puti,(2) whose mother's father(3) fattened calves for idolatry, killed a prince of a tribe in Israel;" therefore the text connects his genealogy to Aharon.(4) (Rashi, Bamidbar 25:11)

While Rashi does not agree or subscribe to these sentiments, he cites them in order to explain the reward bestowed on Pinchas: Pinchas' personal history left him open to criticism, and the possibility that this would cause a rift among the people was what prompted God to reward him specifically with a covenant of peace.

There is a mystical tradition that views the actions of Pinchas and Zimri not as an isolated incident, not as a tale of individuals involved in sin and zealotry, but rather as part of a much larger story. This mystical tradition does not, for the most part, reject the bottom line - the righteousness of Pinchas and the evil of Zimri(5) - but it does turn the picture on its head, turning our clear, black and white, good versus evil understanding of the story into a far more complex, multi-colored image of Zimri and his behavior.

According to some traditions, Zimri's behavior was no simple, momentary lapse or capitulation to sexual urges. Zimri's behavior was ideologically motivated: He, and many others before and after him, were what may be called "inclusionists", adherents of the philosophy that all spirituality and religious practice are equally valid and should be embraced. Judaism, he believed, should make room within it for other types of spiritual and religious expression. As opposed to what he saw as the extreme exclusionary attitude of Jewish tradition, Zimri believed that non-Jews, and non-Jewish forms of worship, should be brought in to the Israelite camp.

This same question had been brought to the fore generations earlier, when Yaakov and his children dwelled in the land of Canaan in the region of Shechem. An unfortunate episode transpired between Dina, the daughter of Yaakov, and one of the local boys - Shechem the son of Hamor.

And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and abused her. (Bereishit 34:1-2)

Shechem was smitten with Dina and wanted to take her as his wife. Dina's brothers told Shechem and his father Hamor that their sister could only marry a man of their own faith - a man who was circumcised. Only if Shechem's family were all circumcised could they merge with the family of Yaakov. Not only did Shechem and Hamor agree, they even convinced the entire city to become circumcised. On the third day after this "mass conversion," two of Yaakov's sons, Shimon and Levi, took advantage of their lowered defenses and annihilated the entire town. While one might argue that the abuse Dina suffered at the hands of Shechem was sufficient justification of her brother's reaction, or that the entire town was culpable(6) for not punishing the rapist,(7) the massacre of an entire town that had taken a major step toward merging with the Jewish people seems extreme.(8) Were the inhabitants of Shechem sincere? Were they, at the very least, willing to hear about the God of Avraham?

There is a haunting question that is left hanging: What would have happened had Shechem lived? Was there anything positive about him, anything redeemable? We may easily postulate that he had already shown his true character: the man was a rapist, and only interested in his own needs. And yet, the word "rape" is not actually used in the text;(9) instead the word "abuse" is used, and only as a sort of afterthought.(10) There is a gnawing question as to how this relationship would have played out: the Torah attests that Shechem had in fact fallen in love with Dina,(11) and the Torah never tells us how Dina felt about the relationship. Could this love, admittedly born illicitly, have blossomed into the beginning of a messianic-type vision of the spread of monotheism? In other words, was the exclusionary position taken by Shimon and Levi the right choice? And what were the long-term effects and repercussions of this choice?

At least one Midrash says that the entire episode of Dina was a punishment for Yaakov's own "exculsivism." Dina had been kept under lock and key so that Esav would not see her and ask for her hand. This same Midrash suggests that perhaps the wayward Esav could have been rehabilitated under the influence of the righteous Dina. Instead, the Midrash says, Yaakov hid here in a box so she would not be seen.(12)

Our sages have connected these seemingly divergent threads, weaving a canvas that is the backdrop for our present parsha: There is a mystical tradition (attributed to the Ariza'l) (13) that Kozbi, the woman with whom Zimri made his very public "statement," was a reincarnation of the soul of Dina, and the soul of Shechem was reincarnated in the soul of Zimri. The attempted union between Zimri and Kozbi was a second attempt to heal the rupture that had been created generations earlier. The overly-inclusive attitude displayed by Zimri and Kozbi was in fact a reaction to the overly exclusive attitude displayed by the brothers of Dina, and of Dina's father Yaakov.

Other mystical(14) traditions reveal that the number of Shechem's townspeople killed by Shimon and Levi was 24,000 - the same number that perished in the plague that broke out following the outrage of Zimri and Kozbi. This parallel further reinforces the connection between these two seemingly unrelated episodes.

We may take this idea one step further, associating both of these episodes with another case in which 24,000 people die: The Talmud reports that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died, and we may say that their sin was also one of "exclusivity". They were unwilling to accept one another's opinions, and did not treat their fellow scholars with respect:

It was said that R. Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from G'vat to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat one another with respect. (Yevamot 62b)

This same tradition claims that Rabbi Akiva himself was a reincarnation(15) of Zimri/Shechem, and his third wife,(16) who was a convert,(17) was a reincarnation of Kozbi/Dina.(19) The 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who were overly strict are related to the 24,000 who died in the desert for siding with Zimri's over-inclusiveness, and to the 24,000 who died in Shechem for the same reason.(20)

And yet, how does everything we know about Rabbi Akiva jibe with this mystical tradition? If there is one thing we know for certain about Rabbi Akiva, it is that he taught his students to love one another as themselves.(21) He preached tolerance and inclusivity. On the other hand, an aspect of exclusivity may be learned from the stories recorded in rabbinic sources of various attempts to entrap Rabbi Akiva in sins of sexuality - attempts that failed because Rabbi Akiva acted in the opposite manner of Zimri and Kozbi and withstood temptation.(22) (23) Rabbi Akiva (24) was inclusive,(25) but nonetheless was principled.(26) He accepted outsiders, yet had standards. In his life, as in his death, Rabbi Akiva knew how to sanctify the Name of God.(27)

Had Zimri(28) truly felt that Kozbi was his soul-mate, that they were meant to be together, they could have chosen to be married in a proper way, after she had converted.(29) Zimri's philosophical inclusivity had no standards,(30) no red lines, and this ultimately led to his downfall and to his death at the hands of Pinchas.(31)

The reverberations of the action taken in Shechem are extreme: not only was it there that Dina(32) was abused and there that the brothers, Shimon and Levi, were guilty of genocide; it was also to Shechem that Yosef was sent to seek his brothers, and from Shechem, Yosef was sold into slavery and the exile began.(33)

A Tanna taught in R. Yosi's name: [It was] a place predestined for evil; in Shechem Dinah was ravished; in Shechem his brethren sold Yosef; and in Shechem the kingdom of the House of David was divided. (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 102a)

For the mystics, the Torah does not tell a simple, monochromatic story. The story of Zimri and Kozbi is but one scene in a drama that is continually unfolding, in which souls travel in search of tikkun, and the world, still struggling with the repercussions of past mistakes, awaits perfection.



1. Talmud Bavli Sotah 22b: King Yannai said to his wife, 'Do not fear the Pharisees or the non-Pharisees, but the hypocrites who mimic the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect the reward of Pinhas.

2. See Shmot 6:25.

3. See, however, Rashi (Bamidbar 31:6), who states that his mother's father was a descendent of Yosef. See Maharal, Gur Aryeh ad loc., note ten, who reconciles these two positions based on the Talmud Bavli Baba Batra 109b, Sota 43a: A Tanna taught: Not for naught did Pinchas go to the battle [against Midian] but to exact judgment on behalf of his mother's father [Yosef]; as it is said: 'And the Midianites sold him into Egypt etc. Is this to say that Pinchas was a descendant of Yosef? But behold it is written: 'And Elazar, Aaron's son, took one of the daughters of Putiel for a wife; [and she bore him Pinchas]!' Is it not to be supposed, then, that he was a descendant of Yitro who fattened [pittem] calves for idolatry? - No; [he was a descendant] of Yosef who mastered [pitpet] his passion. But did not the other tribes despise him [saying], 'Look at this son of Puti, the son whose mother's father fattened calves for idolatry; he killed a prince in Israel!' But, if his mother's father was descended from Yosef, then his mother's mother was descended from Yitro; and if his mother's mother was descended from Yosef, then his mother's father was descended from Yitro. This is also proved as a conclusion from what is written: 'One of the daughters of Putiel', from which are to be inferred two [lines of ancestry]. Draw this conclusion.

4. The Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 25:11, goes even further and suggests that Pinchas was open to attack even in light of his sainted grandfather Aharon, who himself had an negative history involving idolatry and a certain calf.

5. The exception is Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz, in his Mei Shiloach, Parshat Pinchas, (and those influenced by him) who remarkably thinks Zimri was right and Pinchas was wrong, or at least mistaken.

6. See Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:14, and Ramban, Bereishit 34:13, who disagrees.

7. Whether it was rape or statutory rape is unclear from the verses.

8. The timing of Shimon and Levi's revenge is the basis for a joke which expresses Jewish paranoia: Why did Shimon and Levi insist that the city first convert before killing them? They figured that if a city of non-Jews was annihilated there would be an international outcry, while if a bunch of Jews were killed no one would care.

9. See Ramban, Bereishit 34:2, who insists this was a case of rape.

10. See Bereishit 34:2. Rashi understands that "abuse" refers to the type of sexual relations they had; the description of a rape having transpired is absent from Rashi's comments. He describes a seemingly consensual relationship: Shechem is described as having "lain with her", i.e., conventional sexual relations, and "he abused her" as "unnatural" (anal) sex.

11. This can be contrasted to the infatuation that Amnon had for Tamar; in that case, once the rape was perpetrated the infatuation dissipated and hatred replaced what had earlier been mistaken for love. See 2 Shmuel, 13. In the case of Dina, the Torah tells us that Shechem truly loved her: And it came to pass after this, that Avshalom the son of David had a fair sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her. And Amnon was so distressed that he fell sick because of his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin; and it seemed hard to Amnon to do anything to her. ...But he would not heed her voice; but being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her with exceeding great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her: 'Arise, be gone.'

12. Midrash Tanchuma Buber edition Vayishlach section 19.

13. Cited by the Kehilat Yakov by Rav Yakov Zvi Yelish ( 1778-1825 Jolles, Yales) entry on cuf zayin.

14. See Megaleh Amukot, Vaetchanan aspect 88, who reports this teaching in the name of the Ariza"l; Rav Naftali Bachrach, Emek Hamelech Gate 5 chapter 69; Yalkut Reuveni (Avraham Reuven Hoshke (Sofer) (died April 3, 1673), Parshat Balak; Rabbi Menachem Azarya DeFano, Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot section 20.

15. See Yalkut Reuveni, Parshat Pinchas and Gilgulim; Kehilat Yaakov, entry Ayin Kuf.

16. Based on various Talmudic sources it would appear that Akiva was married before he became a sage, as is evidenced by the story in Talmud Bavli Shabbat 127b, in which an anonymous worker, who had a wife and children, is identified (in the She'iltot of Rav Ahai Gaon, Parshat Shmot) as Akiva ben Yosef. Later, Akiva married the daughter of Ben Kalba Savua, (Ketuvot 62b, Nedarim 50a), and subsequently wed the widow of Turnusrufus.

17. See Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 20a, Nedarim 50b and (Psuedo) Rashi's comments.

18. Taught in the name of Rav Chaim Vital. See Chesed l'Avraham Maayan 5, Nahar 25.

19. See Kehilot Yaakov, ibid.

20. See Megale Amukot ibid.

21. Sifra Kedoshim chapter 2.

22. See Avot d'Rebbi Natan chapter 16.

23. Tosfot quotes a tradition that the wife of his adversary Turnusrufus, upon hearing that Rabbi Akiva constantly bettered him in arguments, suggested that the God of Israel detests licentiousness, and asks for permission to spend the night with Rabbi Akiva. Her husband acquiesces, certain that the moral failing will weaken the rabbi. Rabbi Akiva, though, withstands the advances of this new-age Kozbi. Crestfallen, she asks if there is any chance of their being together; Rabbi Akiva answers - only if she converts and becomes his wife, which is precisely what she did after her husband's death. See Tosfot Nedarim 50b, "Ishto shel..."

24. According to the Midrash Tanchuma Vayikra section 6, even Nevuchadnetzar understand this point and cites the anger of God in the episode of Zimri.

25. See Seder Hadorot section on Tannaim and Amoraim letter ayin.

26. See Rav Naftali Bachrach Emek Hamelech Gate 5 chapter 69.

27. See Yalkut Reuveni, Parshat Balak.

28. There is also a tradition that Zimri was a descendant of the child who was produced as a result of the intimacy of Shechem and Dina. See Rav Naftali Bachrach, Emek Hamelech Gate 5 chapter 69.

29. See Rav Yehonatan Eyebshitz, Yaarot Dvash Part one section two.

30. See Rav Zadok Hakohen from Lublin, Dover Zedek, Vayeshev section 2.

31. See Rav Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, Takanat Hashavin section six.

32. The mystics also see a profound relationship between Yosef and Dina, for according to tradition Rachel was pregnant with a girl and Leah was pregnant with a boy, Leah prayed that her sister would have a son, and the two fetuses switched places. Targum Psuedo Yonatan, Bereishit 30:21, according to the Midrash Sechel Tov Bereishit chapter 30, it was the prayer of Rachel that caused the change. Dina and Yosef both felt isolated from the other tribes; in fact, the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 80:11 states that when Shimon came to liberate her from Shechem she would not leave until Shimon promised to care for her the rest of her days. According to a tradition recorded in the Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 41:45, Osnat the wife of Yosef was the daughter of Dina, which would constitute a merger of the disenfranchised: "...and took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went forth." R. Yehuda said: They dragged her out and departed. ... R. Huna [also] said: She pleaded, 'And I, whither shall I carry my shame?' (II Shmuel 13, 13), until Shimon swore that he would marry her. Hence it is written, 'And the sons of Shimon... and Shaul the son of a Canaanite woman...' (Bereishit 46, 10): (this means, the son of Dinah who was intimate with a Canaanite). R. Yehuda said: It means that she acted in the manner of the Canaanites. R. Nehemiah said: It means that she was intimate with a Hivite [Shechem] who is included in the Canaanites. The Rabbis said: [She was so called because] Shimon took and buried her in the land of Canaan.

33. See Rav Zadok Hakohen of Lublin, Machshavot Charutz section seven.

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