Priestly Pacifism

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Pinchas

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Is a Priest who kills automatically disqualified from blessing the Jewish people?

“Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aharon 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. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:11-12)

How would it be possible for Pinchas to serve as a priest? The Talmud (Berachos 32b) tells us:

Rabbi Yochanan said: Any priest who killed a person may not lift his hands [in the Priestly Blessing] as it is stated: “(And when you spread forth your hands I will hide My eyes from you…) your hands are full of blood.”

Thus, Pinchas, by virtue of killing the sinners Zimri and Cozbi, should be disqualified from service, as those very hands were used to kill another human being?

(A) The Moshav Zekeinim L’Ba’alei Tosafos answer that this issue is precisely what God is addressing with the words “I grant him My covenant of peace.” While Pinchas should have been disqualified from priestly service, God granted him a dispensation due to his selfless act of zealotry. (Cf.  Zohar 210 who espouses a similar view.)

(B) The Moshav Zekeinim L’Ba’alei Tosafos further provide the opinion of R. Yechiel M’Paris who suggests that since Zimri had committed an egregious sexual sin, he was already a gavara keteila, a dead man in the eyes of Jewish law. Thus, Pinchas was not committing an act of murder, but rather filling in where the court did not have the technical power to enforce the sentence that Zimri deserved.

(Following this line of reasoning R. Akiva Eiger on Kesubos 29a posits that one who commits the sin of public relations with a non-Jewish woman and causes property damage at the same time would be exempt from paying restitution under kim lei b’derabah minei. Since he is already in principle liable to the death penalty, Jewish law would not also extract monetary compensation. Another practical ramification of assuming that a zealot, like Pinchas, would be operating as an informal arm of the court might mean that he would be forbidden from carrying out the sentence on Shabbos. Though, the unique in-the-moment nature of zealotry makes this assumption debatable.)

However, the more basic reading the Gemara in Sanhedrin (82) indicates that Zimri was not in principle liable to the death penalty. We are told that if  “Zimri would have turned and killed Pinchas (in self-defense), he would not have been executed for [killing] him, as [Pinchas] was a pursuer.” The fact that Zimri had the halachic right to resist Pinchas suggests that he was not in principle deserving of capital punishment. (See the Ramah and Ran’s comments ad loc. And further see the Mishneh L’Melech in Hilchos Roetzieach 1:15 regarding how a blood-redeemer only has permission to kill, but is not fulfilling a verdict or obligation.)

(C) Tosafos (Sanhedrin 35b) suggests that there is something unique to the Priestly Blessing, which requires nesias kapayim (raising of the hands), that distinguishes it from the other priestly duties. The principle of ein kateiger naseh saneiger, that the “accuser” cannot also serve as the “defender,” instructs us that it would be inappropriate for the same hands that caused death to also be used to promote blessing and life. (This is akin to the prohibition of utilizing metal, which is associated with weaponry, for the altar which is meant to extend life – see Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:2 and Avodah Zarah 52b.)

Interestingly, R. Mordechai Carlebach points out that on this basis some have suggested that a Priest who kills someone with another part of his body, such as his foot, would not necessarily be disqualified from performing the Priestly Blessings, since this service is specifically done with one’s hands.

In either event, we see that there is a special disqualification imposed on the hands of the priest. Whereas, a regular Israelite’s hands cannot become invalidated for the Priestly Blessing because these laws are naturally not legislated to non-priests. Therefore, since, at the time of killing Cozbi and Zimri, Pinchas had not yet been promoted to priesthood this disqualification would have never taken effect upon his hands.

(D) The final resolution we will provide is given by the Ra’avyah, cited in the Hagahos Maimaniyos (Hilchos Tefilah 15:3), who does not identify the disqualification as residing strictly in ones hands but in one’s entire personage (gavra). The Jerusalem Talmud (Gittin 5:9) expresses a concern: 

Lest you say, probably this person is an adulterer or a murderer, and he shall bless us? The Holy, praise to Him, said: Who blesses you?

The disqualification is not for someone who one time killed another person – especially if clearly justified. Rather it is for someone who is classified as a “murderer,” such that it defines his very essence. Therefore, Pinchas, who committed a one-time act of killing to defend the glory of God would would not be classified as a murderer, and therefore he would still be permitted to bless all of the Jewish people and continue to promote peace in the ways of God.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 


About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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