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The Torah relates the story of Pinchas, who, after seeing Zimri committing an act of immorality, in front of the leaders of B'nei Yisrael, took initiative and took action. The Torah says:

And, behold, one of the children of Yisrael came and brought to his brethren a Midyanite woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Yisrael, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. (Bamidbar 25:6)

The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:25) says that the leaders of the generation, after seeing this act of immorality took place before their eyes and the eyes of the whole community, were not able to come up with an immediate response to that situation.

It is simply that, while they were involved in give and take on the matter of whether or not [the culprit] was liable for death, that man (Phinehas) stood up from the midst of the congregation and volunteered [to carry out the sentence].

Rashi explains that Pinchas on the other hand, was reminded of the halacha dealing with all of this.

He saw what was being done and he was thereby reminded of the law on this subject (Sanhedrin 82a).

What whas Pinchas reminded of? Well, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 82a relates the conversation between Pinchas and Moshe Rabbeinu. Pinchas says that Moshe told him, during his descent from Har Sinai, that:

One who engages in intercourse with a gentile woman, zealots strike him?

My question is as follows: the elders had ruach hakodesh, and surely, the leaders of the generation were of great statue. How could they not know how to respond? Didn't Moshe Rabbeinu teach them the same halachos he related to Pinchas (as told in the Gemara in Sanhedrin 82a)? Also, Moshe Rabbeinu, as per the Gemara mentioned above, knew the halachos concerning this matter. Why then, does the Midrash says they did not know how to respond? And how does it come that no one, even Moshe and Aharon, did not respond to this matter?

Are there some great sources/ pearls on this that discuss this?

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  • Sometimes in life, people know what is correct, but ain't got the guts to stand up for what is right and go ahead and do what is right. Jul 7, 2023 at 13:42

3 Answers 3

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The Midrash says:

When Cozbi came along, [Zimri] desired her, but she said to him: “I will not yield to you, because my father told me that I must yield only to Moses.” To which he replied: “I am greater than Moses, for he belongs to the third tribe, whereas I belong to the second. Shall I show you that I am greater than Moses? Well, in front of him will I take you,” ... so impudent was he towards him. He said to Moses: “Is she forbidden or permitted?” To which Moses replied: “She is forbidden to you.” Zimri then retorted: “Are you the most faithful follower of the Torah, on whom God prides himself saying, ‘My servant Moses ... is trusted in all My house’”? You tell me that she is forbidden? Well, the wife that you have taken is also forbidden to you, for both are Midianite women; and whereas this one is the greatest of her family, your wife is the daughter of a heathen priest.” [Exodus Rabbah 33:5]

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg comments: A zealot must have pure motivations. This is why Moses did not kill Zimri himself: His wife, Tzipporah, was also a Midianite. Of course, Moses' case was different, because he married before the Torah was given. Nevertheless, in his humility, Moses feared that if he killed Zimri, he might derive satisfaction from taking revenge on the person who insulted him.

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  • Wonderful explanation, thank you! So, according to Rav Weinberg, Moshe did not act upon this act, because he was insulted personally, they attacked him because of his family? Where did you read this?
    – Shmuel
    Jul 4, 2023 at 20:52
  • Love this. It’s like moshe was a נוגע in the matter lol Jul 4, 2023 at 21:54
  • I forgot, but I just found a site that talks about it : rabbidunner.com/motivated-reasoning Jul 4, 2023 at 22:05
  • Fascinating. Tried to search on otzar hachochmah, but nowhere do the sources say where Rav Weinberg explains this.
    – Shmuel
    Jul 5, 2023 at 15:07
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    @MarsSojourner -- Moshe was concerned with mar'it 'ayin. He was afraid the people would misinterpret his action as a personal act of vengeance, Jul 7, 2023 at 14:39
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The Sefas Emes on this passuk year 5640 explains that it was designed to allow Pinchas to rise up and receive the reward of becoming a kohen

ומה שמרע"ה לא הרג את זמרי רק פינחס לא הי' פחיתות למרע"ה רק שבא פינחס ונטל את שלו

He further explains that the idea of a kanai is best suited for the generation after Moshe, to take what they learned and apply it not necessarily exactly as it is written but modified based on the situation.

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  • So, according to the Sfas Emes, it was time to put the learning into practice so to speak?
    – Shmuel
    Jul 4, 2023 at 20:52
  • That’s what he explains
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 4, 2023 at 21:07
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The simple answer as to why Moshe did not intervene according to the Midrash is because Hashem caused Moshe to forget.

It writes in Bereishis Rabbah 96:3:

כְּשֶׁעָשָׂה זִמְרִי אוֹתוֹ מַעֲשֶׂה מַה כְּתִיב שָׁם (במדבר כה, ח): וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה, וְהֵיכָן הָיָה משֶׁה, וּפִינְחָס מְדַבֵּר לִפְנֵי משֶׁה, אֶלָּא לְקַיֵּם וְאֵין שִׁלְטוֹן בְּיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, וְאֵין מָוֶת אֶלָּא לָשׁוֹן הַשְׁפָּלָה, נִתְּנָה הַיְשׁוּעָה לְפִינְחָס וְהִשְׁפִּיל אֶת משֶׁה

When Zimri performed the act, what does it write there? (Bamidbar 25:8) "He followed the Israelite man into the chamber" - And where was Moshe? And Pinchas spoke before Moshe, rather this was to fulfil the precept that there is no sovereignty over the day of death (see Koheles 8:8), and there is no death but the tongue of humiliation, salvation was given to Pinchas and he humiliated Moshe.

Explains, the Eitz Yosef there:

אלא לקיים ואין שלטון ביום המות. כלומר שהי' מה' שתתעלם ההלכה ממשה ופנחס יהא רואה ויזכור הלכה שהבועל כו' קנאין פוגעין בו. משום ואין שלטון ביום המות ואין מות אלא השפלה כמו כי מתו כל האנשים דהיינו שירדו מנכסיהן כדלעיל פרק ע"א. וכלו' שלא יועיל השלטנות כלל ביום שהגיע עת השפלתו והעברת השררה לאחר

There is no sovereignty over the day of death - This means that Hashem hid the Halacha from Moshe and Pinchas saw and remembered the Halacha that one who has (illicit) relations etc. zealots strike him. Because there is no sovereignty over the day of death and there is no death but humiliation as all the people died, that is, they lost their property like it says previously chapt. 71. And this means that the rulership will not be useful at all on the day when the time has come for his humiliation and the transfer of power to another.

In other words, Pinchas was given the job as the time had come for Moshe to hand over his authority to others and thus Moshe was made to forget the halacha so Pinchas could step in and take over the reins.

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  • So Pinchas would take the place of Moshe Rabbeinu? Why was the halacha not given to Yehoshua, since he was the next in-line to be the leader.
    – Shmuel
    Jul 5, 2023 at 15:00
  • @Shmuel - maybe because this was the precise area that Pinchas had to take the lead in i.e. see Zevachim 101b that Pinchas only became a Kohen following this act of killing Zimri - sefaria.org/Zevachim.101b.10?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en and also Bamidbar Rabbah 22:4 where Moshe specifically sent Pinchas in the war against Midian as the one who started the good deed should finish it - sefaria.org/…
    – Dov
    Jul 5, 2023 at 15:11

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