This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Yesterday's Hero*

The spark that ignited the revolt against the persecutions of Antiochus was when the elderly priest Mattathias beheld the shocking spectacle of a Jew offering up heathen sacrifices at an altar in Modi'in.

According to the author of 1 Maccabees,

When Mattathias saw this, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu."

The appeal to the biblical precedent of Phinehas was appropriate for the circumstances. According to the book of Numbers, Aaron's grandson Phinehas, upon seeing an Israelite leader and his Midianite consort openly participating in the licentious cult of Baalpeor, impetuously took up arms and executed the sinners.

In a similar spirit, the author of 4 Maccabees, when recounting the stirring tale of the widow who allowed her seven children to be killed by the Greeks rather than bow down to idols, wrote that the mother invoked Phinehas as an inspirational model for their heroic self-sacrifice.

Rabbinic texts that were composed after the destruction of the Second Temple indicate in diverse ways that they associated Phinehas' violent impetuosity with the typical attitudes of the Second Temple era, especially during the period extending from the Hasmonean revolt to the destruction of Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.

This correlation is implied in their expositions of an enigmatic passage in the Mishnah: "If one has relations with an Aramean woman, zealots attack him." One opinion in the Talmud associate this tradition with the episode of Phinehas, while another tradition attributes it to "the court of the Hasmoneans."


An additional example of how the rabbis associated Phinehas' exploits with the zealotry of the Second Commonwealth may be discerned in an ostensibly trivial detail that they injected into their retelling of the biblical narrative. When Phinehas took his spear to execute Zimri, the rabbis stated that he concealed the blade under his cloak in order to avoid detection as he entered the tent.

This interpretation vividly evokes the image of the "Sicarii," the extemist Zealot faction in the great revolt against Rome who derived their name from their notorious practice of concealing daggers [Latin: sica] under their garments, with which they assassinated their opponents, both gentile and Jewish.

On the whole, the rabbis were quite accurate in their perception that Phinehas' hotheaded zealotry was emblematic of the late Second Temple era, a time when devotion to the Israelite covenant often took the form of armed resistance to Hellenistic or Roman authority, or to fellow Jews who were judged to have deviated from the true path.

Evidently, the rabbis were aware that the attitude of those earlier generations was different from their own.

In their retelling of the story of Phinehas and Zimri, the rabbis went out of their way to introduce supernatural elements that had the effect of making Zimri's offense unmistakable to the crowd of observers, so that no factual doubts could be raised about the sinners' guilt.

By linking the Torah's approval of Phineas' violence to a sequence of uniquely miraculous circumstances, the Talmud was implicitly declaring that it could not serve as a precedent for denying due process in similar situations in the future.

Rabbi Judah ben Pazi went so far as to assert that Phinehas's contemporaries would have placed him under a ban of excommunication had the Almighty not intervened personally on his behalf.

Rabbi Johanan declared that that he would never instruct a person to emulate Phineas' behaviour. In fact, latter-day zealots who ventured to do so might face prosecution for murder, while their targets would be vindicated for killing them in self-defense.

These rabbinic interpretations demonstrate an unmistakable shift in attitude vis à vis the dominant values of Second Temple documents, all of which extolled Phinehas' zeal as a model to be emulated, and as a hero whose resolutely violent response to sacrilege and immorality earned him divine commendation.

The upshot of the expositions in the midrashic and talmudic sources was to relegate the episode to the past, if only as recent a past as the Second Commonwealth.

The talmudic sages may well have been reacting to the violent excesses that had led to tragic consequences in the previous era, excesses that they ascribed to the "baseless hatreds" of religious fanaticism and factionalism. The roots of the zealot ideology could be traced back to the Hanukkah story, and its ongoing cultivation had helped create the conditions for the destruction of Jerusalem.

The annals of history are full of heroic liberators and rebels who failed at the mundane tasks of peacetime leadership. The Hasmoneans, whose brilliant victory degenerated into despotism and factionalism, might well fit this characterization.

The rabbis' marginalization of Phinehas may be read as an expression of their disenchantment with the culture of extremism that undermined the initial promise of the Hasmonean triumph.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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