OzTorah: Torah reading – Pinchas.



One of the favourite hobbies of Biblical scholars is tracing the etymology of the names in the Bible. The Tanach itself starts the process when it explains the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and so many others. The Midrash continues and fills in many more details. It surprises us, however, that no-one seems certain about where Pinchas got his name.

There is a suggestion in Alfred Jones’ book, “The Proper Names of the Old testament Scriptures” published as long ago as 1856, that “Pinchas” = “mouth of brass”, combining “pi”, mouth of, and “nechoshet”, brass. Maybe the reference to brass (i.e. a bronzed look) links the name with an Egyptian word for a Nubian, a coloured man, which allows rabbinic commentary to suggest that what disposed Pinchas to violence was his alien origin. Some even say that his ancestors had prepared calves for idol-worship.

The Talmud (Sanh. 82b) quotes a view that Pinchas was descended from Jethro (Rashi to Ex. 6:25), though it is also said that he descended from Joseph. He was known as a kohen: he is called Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen.

Perhaps the most we can say of the traditions that Pinchas’s lineage had non-Israelite elements is that he took to his Jewish identity with great zeal and would not allow anything to happen in the Israelite camp which brought dishonour on the Jewish God and His Torah.



Num. 25:19 tells us that after the drama involving Pinchas there was a plague in the camp. The next verse, Num. 26:1, relates that God commanded Moses and Elazar the priest to carry out a census of the people.

A Miniature out of the Toggenburg Bible (Switzerland) of 1411; depicting victims of the Black Death.

The connection is provided by Ibn Ezra, who says that the plague was caused by the immorality in the camp, and it became necessary to re-group and re-organise the people on the basis of statistics of the survivors of the episode. It was these survivors upon whom the future of the people would depend, beginning in the first instance by the entry into the Promised Land.



The dates and procedures of the festivals take up an important section of today’s sidra. All the Biblical festivals are there ­ except for “yom tov sheni shel galuyot”, the second days observed in the Diaspora but not in Israel (except for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, which is observed everywhere).

How the second day came into being has to do with the ancient procedure whereby Rosh Chodesh was declared after eye witnesses testified that they had seen the new moon. Without such testimony it was not certain whether a given month would be 29 or 30 days.

But it took time for the news that it was Rosh Chodesh to reach outlying communities. Hence Diaspora centres added an extra day to Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot in order to ensure that one at least of the two days was the correct date as observed in Eretz Yisra’el. Eventually the calendar was fixed by mathematical calculations, but the second day yom tov, having become firmly entrenched, was retained and the rabbis insisted on its sanctity being upheld.

Some enjoy the second day. Others grumble about it. But there is a positive way to handle it ­ two in fact.

One: if one day is really enough for you, why not consider living in Israel? Two: give each of the two days a different feeling and flavour. Choose a different shule for the second day if you can; select different menus for the festival meals; invite different guests; go for a different yom tov stroll; prepare different divrei Torah; sing different songs at the table.

In short, let each day make its own distinctive contribution to your Jewish experience.



Rabbinic tradition tells us that Pinchas and Elijah are one and the same (Bava M’tzi’a 114b, etc.). What a strange assertion when we think of how many centuries separate the two figures.

The common denominator is that both are filled with a fiery passion for the sake of God. Both are indignant at the existence of evil, and are affronted when they see how easily their contemporaries are prepared to forsake the Almighty. Both resort to dramatic means to demonstrate the falsity and futility of other gods. Both are ready to risk their rank, status and destiny for the sake of their ideals. Both are believers in peace, but not peace at any price.

Hundreds of years lie between them, but they are joined by a common cord.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.  Blog: http://www.oztorah.com



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