The Gemara (Sanhedrin 82A), while relating the story of Pinchas killing Zimri, tells us the following:

"And Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it." (Bamidbar 25:7) Now, what did he see? — Rab said: He saw what was happening and remembered the halachah, and said to him, 'O great-uncle! did you not teach us this on thy descent from Mount Sinai: He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?' He replied. 'He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions]'.

According to the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 12:4), the laws of "He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots" is Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai (Sinaitic Law), and support for this can be derived from Pinchas' slaying of Zimri. (I interpret this to mean that we learn the particulars of the Sinaitic Law from the story of Pinchas [e.g. this law only applies if it is committed in public]. I could be wrong.)

In Halacha 5, the Rambam says that "If the zealous person comes to ask permission from the court to slay him, they do not instruct him [to], even if this takes place at the time [of relations]."

The Chidushei HaRim says (English translation here) that the reason for this is a zealot is someone who reacts to a situation instantly and takes immediate action. Pausing to ask Beit Din what to do shows that he is not a true zealot.

So my question is:

Why wasn't Pinchas asking Moshe "'O great-uncle! did you not teach us this on thy descent from Mount Sinai: He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?'" considered asking Beit Din what to do? Doesn't Pinchas stopping to ask Moshe about the law take him out of the catagory of zealot?

Also, if the Beit Din does not tell someone to go and kill the sinner, why does Moshe tell Pinchas "He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions]"? Wasn't that Beit Din ruling that Pinchas should kill Zimri?

  • 1
    I don't think that Moshe's statement is considered morin. Pinchas knew the halacha, he was trying to clarify if he was missing something since Moshe was not acting.
    – YDK
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 0:48
  • @YDK: Rashi in Bamidbar 25:7 uses a slightly different wording than the Gemara Rashi phrases it as if Pinchas was making a statement, not asking: "He saw the incident and remembered the halachah. He said to Moshe, "I received from you [the teaching] that anyone having relations with a gentile woman..." He replied to him, "Let the one who reads the correspondence serve as its executor."..." However, the Chidushei HaRim learns from here that one must ask his teacher before doing something, even if it is right, and find out whether to do it or not.
    – Menachem
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 18:41
  • Now that I read the Chidushei haRim inside, that is quite strange. I think the big question here is the stirah within the Ri"m himself.
    – YDK
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:20
  • This is interesting. We know that jews no longer kill people simply for sleeping with non jews, lest 25% of american jewish people would be killed (including Monica Lewinski). But how do you reconcile the contemporary practice with the previous ones?
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 11:24
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    @JimThio: Why don't you ask it as a separate question? But, if you read the laws you'll see that we are not killing him for sleeping with a non-jew, but for doing it in public. There are other conditions that must be met as well. Also, it appears that the law only applies to a man, so Lewinsky would be safe.
    – Menachem
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 14:56

3 Answers 3


Is Pinchas asking Moshe for a ruling, or deferring to his teacher and giving Moshe the chance to act before he does?


The Chidushei HaRan in Sanhedrin gives two answers (I hope I'm translating correctly):

  1. Pinchas wasn't asking what the law was, and Moshe wasn't answering him. Moshe said "let he who read the letter be the agent". He was saying that I'm not telling you the halacha, but if zealotry is required here, you're the best man for the job.

  2. Moshe Rabbeinu was not trying to put the matter in the hands of zealots. Rather, he was hinting to Pinchas on a one time basis (Ho'ra'at Sha'ah) what needed to be done to end the plague.

Just to further flesh this out with some thoughts I had, inspired in part by various answers given to this question:

Q: Wasn't Pinchas asking "didn't you teach us..." make him not a zealot?

A: The Gemara relates that when Zimri came and challenged Moshe, saying "is this Midyanite woman permitted to me, and if you say no, how could you marry a Midyanite woman?", Moshe forgot the Halacha. The correct protocol when correcting a father or teacher, one should not say "You're wrong". Instead, they should say "Didn't we learn such and such?".

Since Pinchas saw that Moshe had forgotted the Halacha (and apparently Pinchas himself had forgotten it until right then, as the Gemara says "He saw what happened and remembered the Halacha"), we could say that he wasn't asking what the Halacha was, he was reminding Moshe what the Halacha was in a respectful and halachically correct manner. Perhaps this is why Rashi (Bamidbar 25:7) does not phrase what Pinchas said to Moshe as a question.

Perhaps we can then say this is what the Chidushei HaRim is saying. If someone comes to Beit Din to ask permission to kill the sinner, this shows he is not a true zealot. But reminding someone of the halacha does not make him not-a-zealot. (However, this still leaves us with the Chidushei HaRim apparently contradicting himself, since right before that he seems to emphasize that Pinchas was asking Moshe whether he should do it or not.)

Also, perhaps we can differentiate between asking Beit Din for confirmation that he learned the halacha correctly (which Pinchas did), and asking Beit Din if he has permission to carry out the halacha (which the Rambam says Beit Din does not give him).

And by answering back, "He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions]", Moshe wasn't directly answering the question, since the Halacha is "Ain Morin Lo" (as the Ran said).


In the Sanhedrin 73a there are number of cases when a sinner could be killed by a single person but not by the beis din (also known as 'din rodef'). Rashi says there: ואלו שמצילין אותן. מן העבירה, that means that saving a sinner from making a sin is enough reason to kill him even without a victim.

  • I don't think that Gemara applies here. You seem to be answering that Zimri should have been killed anyway to prevent him from sinning, but he was already sinning, so it was too late to prevent him. Also, the Gemara I quoted clearly states that the reason Pinchas killed Zimri was "a zealot may kill him", and not to prevent him from sinning (which from Sanhedrin 73A seems to be anyone can do it, not just a zealot)
    – Menachem
    Commented Jul 10, 2011 at 20:51
  • I wanted to show that there is no place for much astonishment about the fact that a single person can kill the sinner while the beis din can not. I approve that the gerama I cited doesn't directly applies to your question. Even the opposite is correct: Pinhas was rodef according to Zimri, so Zimri could even kill him if he was able to.
    – jutky
    Commented Jul 10, 2011 at 20:56
  • @Menachem - This is what I was thinking when I read your question too. It means arguing on the Chidushei HaRi"m to say that it is not a disqualification of a zealot that leads Ramba"m to his conclusion that "[the court] do not instruct him [to]", but a siluk from ruling at all, which is equivalent to stating that it is out of their jurisdiction since only an individual may carry out this type of punishment. This also answers that Moshe was not ruling any more than Ramba"m is. He is merely removing himself from the case.
    – WAF
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 12:20
  • @WAF: It looks like the Ran says what you're saying. The Ran says that the zealot is not coming with the power of Beit Din to kill the sinner. When one kills someone to prevent him from doing something wrong, he comes with the power of Beit Din, but the zealot is doing this for revenge (which is why Zimri could have killed Pinchas) hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14458&pgnum=152
    – Menachem
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 20:21

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