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Parsha and Manuscript: The disparagement of Phinehus

Friday, 26 July, 2019 - 8:34 am

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 150 (1396) Pinchas.png The portion of Phinehas discusses the bold act of Phinehas, who took the life of the prince of the Israelite tribe of Shimon and his paramour, a Midianite princess, who attempted to lure the prince to idolatry. Through the act of Phinehas, a plague that had broken out in the camp was terminated and Phinehas was rewarded with the covenant of peace and the priesthood for his heroism. The Torah states:[1]

 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.

 

In a post biblical teaching, recorded in numerous classic Talmudic and Midrashic texts, Phinehas was however criticized and disparaged by the tribes for this killing. The disparagement of Phinehas is mentioned in five classic texts in the Talmud and Midrash. We will focus in this essay on the variations pertaining to this disparagement, how it is found recorded in the classic works of the Midrash and Talmud, through to the medieval commentary of Rashi, and the numerous variations of this commentary as found in the Oxford Hebrew manuscripts.

 

Midrash – the tribe of Shimon

 

The Midrash Sifri states that the origin of the criticism came from the tribe of Shimon, whose prince was the object of Phinehas’ action:[2]

 

The tribe of Shimon contended against the tribe of Levi: “Would the son (Phinehas) of the daughter of this "fattener" (Yithro, who fattened calves for idolatry) seek to uproot an entire tribe (Shimon) from Israel! Don't we know whose son he is?” When the L-rd saw them cheapening him thus, He began tracing his illustrious lineage,[3] “Phinehas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen turned My wrath away from the children of Israel” — a Kohen, the son of a Kohen; a zealot, the son of a zealot (Levi);[4] turner away of wrath, the son of a turner away of wrath (Aaron)[5] turned My wrath away from the children of Israel.” 

 

CCCMS165 P. 122 Pinchas.pngTalmud – Tribes - Shevatim

 

The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin suggests that the disparagement was not limited to a specific tribe:[6]

 

Tribes (Shevatim) began to demean Phinehas: Did you see this son of Puti,[7] one whose maternal grandfather fattened [shepittem] calves for idol worship, and he killed (veharag) a prince in Israel. In response, the verse comes and declares his pedigree: “Phinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest”.[8]

 

Another source in the Talmud as found in tractate Sotah also implies that the disparagement was not limited to a specific tribe:[9]

 

tanna taught: It was not for nothing that specifically Phinehas went to war with Midian; rather, it was to exact the rightful judgment of his mother’s father, Joseph, as it is stated: “And the Midianites sold him into Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s.”[10] The Talmud asks: Is this to say that Phinehas came, on his mother’s side, from the family of Joseph? But it is written: “And Elazar, Aaron’s son, took himself a wife from the daughters of Putiel; and she bore him Phinehas.”[11] What, is it not that Phinehas came from the family of Yitro, who was also called Putiel because he fattened [pittem] calves for idol worship? They answer: No; he was descended from Joseph, who mocked [pitpet] his desire by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. The Talmud asks: But is it not the case that, according to an oral tradition, tribes (shevatim) were denigrating Phinehas after he killed Zimri, saying: Did you see this son of Puti, the son whose mother’s father fattened cows for idol worship? Should this man kill a prince of Israel? Evidently, his grandfather Puti was Yitro, not Joseph. The Talmud answers: Rather, Phinehas was descended from both Joseph and Yitro. If his mother’s father descended from Joseph, his mother’s mother descended from Yitro. And if his mother’s mother descended from Joseph, his mother’s father descended from Yitro. The Gemara confirms this resolution: The language is also precise, as it is written: Elazar took a wife “from the daughters of Putiel,” which implies that she came from two daughters of men named Putiel. The Gemara concludes: You may learn from the verse that this is so.

 

MS. Huntington 425, fol. 56 (1403) Pinchas.pngMidrash – The tribes - Hashevatim

 

In two further midrashic texts it suggests that it was in fact all the tribes who took issue with the behaviour of Phinehas. The Midrash Rabba states:[12]

 

What reason had the Holy One, blessed be He, for stating the pedigree of Phinehas after this particular incident? You find that when Zimri was stabbed, the tribes (Hashevatim) rose up against Phinehas and said:  Did you see this son of Putiel, whose maternal grandfather fattened [shepittem] calves for idol-worship, has slain a prince in Israel. Consequently, Scripture comes and declares his pedigree, by stating: “Phinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest.”[13]

 

Midrash Tanchuma[14] also states:

 

Phinehas son of Elazar: What reason had the Holy One, blessed be He, for stating the pedigree of Phinehas after this particular incident? When Zimri was stabbed with Cosbi, the tribes[15] (Hashevatim) rose up against him and said: Did you see this son of Puti, whose mother’s father fattened [shepittem] calves for idol worship; he killed the prince of a tribe of Israel. Therefore, the verse comes and provides his lineage as “Phinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest.”[16]

 

MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 93 (1201-1225) Pinchas.pngRashi

 

In the 11th century, Rashi quotes the above teaching in his commentary. The text as found in the printed edition appears to follow the text as found in the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma. The Rashi commentary states:

 

Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen: Since the tribes (Hashevatim) were disparaging him, saying, Have you seen the son of Puti, whose maternal grandfather [Jethro] fattened calves for idols,[17] and who killed (וְהָרַג - veharag) a prince of an Israelite tribe? For this reason, Scripture traces his pedigree to Aaron.

 

MS. Huntington 445.pngVariations in the manuscripts

 

In the manuscripts there are eight versions of this text of Rashi with almost none of them identical to the other. The variations that we will relate to concerns the following minor differences: 1. The opening quotation from the biblical text listing the pedigree, 2. An opening question about the pedigree, 3. The specific word ‘Tribes,’ 4. The mention of a number of tribes, 5. the additional word ‘son’ (ben), whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idols. 6. The word ‘slain.’

 

We will present these manuscripts, highlighting the variations compared to the printed edition, based on the above list of variations:

 

In CCCMS165[18] the following variations can be found: 1. The opening has only Phinehas son of Elazar, omitting ‘son of Aaron the Priest,’ 2. It states: Tribes (Shevatim) without the definite article ‘The’ before ‘Tribes’ (Hashevatim), 3. It has the word slain not as in the past that he killed but rather the question: ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ 

 

In MS. Oppenheim 34[19] (1201-1225) the following variations can be found: 1. The opening has only Phinehas son of Elazar with etc. alluding to ‘son of Aaron the priest,’ 2. It states: Tribes (Shevatim), 3. It has an erasure of the word ‘two’ before tribes. 4. It adds a second time the word ‘son,’ whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idols, 5. It has the word slain not in the past (harag) but rather the question: ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’[20]

 

In MS. Canon. Or. 81[21] (1396), the following variations can be found: 1. The opening has Phinehas son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Priest – with ‘son of Aaron the Priest’ in smaller text, 2. A correction in the margin that instead of ‘Tribes’ (Shevatim) it has an additional Hebrew letter ‘hei’ that corresponds to the definitive article ‘the’, making the text: ‘The tribes’ (Hashevatim).

 

In MS. Huntington 389[22] (1301-1400) and MS. Huntington 425[23] (1403) the following variations can be found: 1. It states: Tribes (Shevatim), 2. It adds a second time the word ‘son’ whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idols.

 

In MS. Huntington 445[24] (1376-1400), the following variations can be found: 1. The opening has only Phinehas son of Elazar, 2. It includes the question: What reason does the verse have to include his pedigree? 3. It states: Tribes (Shevatim), 4. It has the word slain not in the past (harag) but rather the question: ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ 

 

In MS. Michael 384[25] (1399), the following variations can be found: 1. The opening has only Phinehas son of Elazar, 2. It states: Tribes (Shevatim), 4. It has the word slain as a question: ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ 

 

In MS. Canonici Or. 35[26] (1401-1425) the following variations can be found: 1. It states: Tribes (Shevatim), 2. It has the word slain without ‘And’ (the proceeding Hebrew letter vav).

 

In MS. Oppenheim 35[27] (1408) the following variations can be found: It states: Tribes (Shevatim).

 

The version 16th century Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) and 17th century commentator Rabbi Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass (1641–1718) had is as the printed version with the word ‘the tribes’ (Hashevatim). In addition, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi has ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’

 

MS Hunt. 389.pngSummary of differences

 

One may summarise the differences in the manuscripts by two of the most significant ones that appear, one of which is noticeable by the fact that in one of the manuscripts the word in question is corrected: 

 

1. In all the manuscripts, besides MS. Canon. Or. 81[28] (1396), it states that ‘tribes’ disparaged Phinehas without the definitive article ‘the’ before ‘tribes.’ In MS. Canon. Or. 81[29] (1396) it first writes ‘tribes’ and there then follows a correction in between the lines with the Hebrew letter ‘hei’ corresponding to the definitive article ‘the’ that turns the word ‘tribes’ into ‘the tribes.’

 

Furthermore, in MS. Oppenheim 34[30] (1201-1225) it first writes what appears to be the word ‘two’ before ‘tribes.’ The word ‘two’ appears erased and the text remains with just the word ‘tribes,’ as is the case in the majority of the manuscripts. This would suggest the following chronology from the manuscript to the printed edition. It first had - perhaps in a very old copy of the commentary - the text: ‘Two tribes.’ It was then corrected to just ‘tribes,’ indicating the possibility that there existed at an earlier stage in the evolution of the text a specified number of how many tribes there were that took part in this disparagement. A further correction to the commentary was the change from ‘tribes’ to ‘the tribes.’

 

2. The second significant variation is the difference between the past definitive tense ‘killed’ (harag) or ‘and he killed’ (v’harag) and the rhetorical future tense: ‘Should this man slay a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ 

 

Source of Rashi

 

As mentioned, the source for the various versions of the manuscripts of Rashi is evident from the classic texts above: The Sifrei that indicates that ‘two tribes’ - Shimon and Levi - were involved in the disparagement of Phinehas, is reflected in manuscript MS. Oppenheim 34 of Rashi that says ‘two tribes’ before being erased. The Talmud in both tractates, Sanhedrin and Sotah, that has the view that ‘tribes’ (Shevatim) disparaged Phinehas, without stating how many, suggesting more than one tribe disparaged Phinehas, is reflected in MS. Oppenheim 34 of Rashi that says ‘two tribes’ and the majority of the mansucripts that write just ‘tribes.’ Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma that write ‘the tribes’ (Hashevatim) disparaged Phinehas, are reflected in MS. Canon. Or. 81 that has the correction in the margin: ‘The tribes’ (Hashevatim), as can be found in all the printed editions of Rashi.

 

The same tracing of the source of the variations of the manuscripts can be done regarding the change from the past definitive tense ‘killed’ (harag) or ‘and he killed’ (v’harag) to the rhetorical future tense: ‘Should this man slay a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ The rhetorical future tense: ‘Should this man slay a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ as found in the earlier manuscripts, CCCMS165, MS. Oppenheim 34[31] (1201-1225), MS. Huntington 445[32] (1376-1400) and MS. Michael 384[33] (1399) is the text as it is found in the Talmud in the tractate Sotah, whereas the past definitive tense ‘killed’ (harag) or ‘and he killed’ (v’harag) is the text as found in the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma.

  

In summary, this analysis of the text and its sources clearly indicates that, while the thrust of the commentary is similar, the precise text of the Rashi commentary began with its source from the Talmud where ‘tribes’ and the rhetorical ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ can be found, and then gradually transitioned to utilizing the wording of the commentary as found in the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma, where ‘the tribes’ and the past tense ‘slain’ can be found – and followed also in the published edition.

 

The question we would like to pose is: what is the underlying reason for this minor variation in the classic texts of the Midrash and Talmud and the subsequent variations of the commentary of Rashi as found in the manuscripts and the printed edition?

 

Different question

 

There are seven approaches in the medieval to modern commentaries suggesting a reason for the tension between Phinehas and the tribes.

 

1. Tosafists[34] explain that the tribes simply hated Phinehas for having killed Zimri, a prince of the Jewish people. The response of the Torah is that they should not be angry as Phinehas saved them from destruction by avenging G-d’s anger.

 

2. 13th century Rabbi Chizkuni ben Monoach[35] explains that the tension was between Aaron and the people who belittled him and excluded him from the census, for his son, Elazar, having married the daughter of an idolater and questioned his pedigree. The act of Phinehas as a zealot, similar to his ancestor Levi, son of Jacob, who, also a zealot, killed the people of Shechem after having raped their sister Dina, showed the pedigree of Aaron, as Phinehas was a Kohen son of a Kohen and a zealot son of a zealot.

 

3. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550 - 1619), author of Kli Yakar, explains the tension was due to the consideration that, as Phinehas was son of Elazar, son of Aaron Hakohen, he should have refrained from this act, so not to be seen as hypocritical: since, firstly, his father, Elazar, married a Midianite woman (daughter of Yitro), so how could he avenge regarding a Midianite? Secondly, since his maternal grandfather, Yitro, fattened calves for idolatry and his paternal grandfather, Aaron, made the golden calf, how could he avenge against idolatry?

 

4. Rabbi Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) explains that the tension was distinctly with the tribe of Shimon and the relatives of Zimri, who wanted to harm him for having killed Zimri.

 

5. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1793), author of Ohr Hachaim, explains that the tension originated with Aaron who caused many to fall in the plague after the sin of the golden calf and this was remedied by Phinehas who saved the Jewish people from a plague by his deed. For this reason the verse states: Phinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron.

 

6. Polish Rabbi Jacob Moses Ashkenazi (1625-1700), author of Yedei Moshe on Midrash Rabba, explains the tension was with Elazar, who married a Midianite woman. The Torah aims to argue by praising Phinehas that one should not consider Elazar to have sinned as it was before Mount Sinai, when Elazar got married.

 

7. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, explains[36] that the tension was between Phinehas and all the tribes who shamed Moses for not having remembered the law[37] and accused him of killing Zimri in part[38] influenced by his cruel nature, seemingly inherited from his grandfather, Yitro, who would fatten calves for idolatry only to slaughter them afterwards for idolatry. With this he explains the text of Rashi in the printed edition ‘the tribes’ instead of just the tribe of Shimon.[39]

 

Understanding the Rashi commentary

 

The above commentaries can be summarized into two categories: 1. The tension originated between Phinehas and some of the tribes, due to questions relating to either pedigree, or lingering from the tragedy of the golden calf, thus undermining Phinehas’ claim of being a moral person. 2. The tension existed between all the tribes and Phinehas, due to a sense of desire to protect the dignity of Moses.

 

The first reason for the tension suggest the possibility of either just the tribe of Shimon, perhaps together with Levi, and other like minded tribes, who shared Shimon’s sentiments, criticising Phinehas for having killed the prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri. The need for shaming Phinehas was not however necessarily universally felt among all the tribes. This would justify the versions of the Talmud and the Sifri and the subsequent manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary that indicate only a few (shevatim) of the tribes – in any event more than one - criticised Phinehas. The second reason – the desire to protect the dignity of Moses is however an idea that would have resonated equally among all the tribes. This would explain the version of the text as found first in the Midrash Rabbah and Tanchuma[40] and subsequently in the commentary of Rashi, first, as found in the corrected manuscript MS. Canon. Or. 81, and then in the published editions, that states ‘the tribes’ – all the tribes – disparaged Phinehas for his behaviour - only for the Torah to correct the sentiment, highlighting by listing his pedigree that his behaviour was a selfless act of heroism that saved the Jewish people from greater tragedy.

 


 

Footnotes 

 

[1] Numbers 25:10-12.

[2] Sifri Numbers 131:3.

[3] Numbers 25:11.

[4] Genesis 34:25.

[5] Numbers 17:13.

[6] Sanhedrin 82b.

[7] So-called because his mother was one of the daughters of Putiel (Yitro) (Exodus 6:25). See Rashi on Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.

[8] Numbers 25:11.

[9] Sotah 43a.

[10] Genesis 37:36.

[11] Exodus 6:25.

[12] Numbers Rabba 21:3.

[13] Numbers 25:11.

[14] Numbers, Phinehas 1.

[15] In Midrash Rabbah Soncino English translation, it states: the tribe.

[16] Numbers 25:11.

[17] See Rashi, Exod. 6:25.

[18] P. 122.

[19] Fol. 93.

[20] In this manuscript, MS. Oppenheim 34 and MS. Oppenheim 35 it has ‘hare’item’ as found in the printed edition, as opposed to just ‘re’item’ that can be found in all the other manuscripts.

[21] Fol. 150.

[22] Fol. 77.

[23] Fol. 56.

[24] Fol. 52.

[25] Fol. 112.

[26] Fol. 185.

[27] Fol. 87.

[28] Fol. 150.

[29] Fol. 150.

[30] Fol. 93.

[31] Fol. 93.

[32] Fol. 52.

[33] Fol. 112.

[34] Da’at Zekeinim on Numbers 25:11.

[35] Numbers 1:54.

[36] Likkutei Sichot 8:162.

[37] Rashi on Numbers 25:6.

[38] Likkutei Sichot 8:162, footnote 20.

[39] Likkutei Sichot 8:163.

[40] The change from to utilising the source of the commentary from the Talmud to the Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma is also reflected in the change from the rhetorical future tense: ‘Should this man kill a prince of Israel (yaharog)?’ as found first in the Talmud in tractate Sotah and in some of the manuscripts, to the past definitive tense ‘slain’ (harag) or ‘and he slain’ (v’harag), as found in Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma

Kindly edited by Sora Feldman 

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