Pinchas first aliyahThe story of Pinchas ben Elazar is found, naturally enough, at the end of parashat Balak. What did Pinchas do? The Israelites misbehaved with the Midianite women, who seduced them into misbehaving with the local gods, and divine wrath was visited upon them, and while everyone was mourning, a chappie named Zimri decided it would be an absolutely topping idea to have a quick knee-trembler with a Midianite woman on the temple doorstep, more or less. Pinchas was entirely enraged, snuck up on them with a spear, and made Israelite-Midianite kebab, as to say "Bad plan, yo." And the divine wrath was abated.


The first half-column or so of parashat Pinchas (once you're a scribe, you start thinking in terms of column inches, not verse numbers) has three scribally-interesting features.

The little yud

Little yud in PinchasThe parasha starts "God spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned away my wrath from the Israelites..." This instance of "Pinchas" has a little yud. Why?

A boring explanation (I forget which commentator, sorry. One of the standard ones) is that it's a possible spelling error alert, like the dots we sometimes see above the letters. The problem with this explanation is that Pinchas peh-yud-nun-het-samekh appears four times in the Torah, and Pinchas peh-nun-het-samekh appears not once, so there's not much reason to suspect that particular spelling mistake.

Other explanations of little letters tend to go into the mystic realms, and I'm still too young to appreciate mystic commentaries on Torah (there is something to this idea that one shouldn't start learning kabbalah until the age of forty; I like my Torah logical). However, I quite like this one: yud stands for God (yud-hey-vav-hey), and for Israel (Yehudah, Yisrael), also for individuals (yud, hand) and community (numeric value of yud = 10). What did Pinchas do? STABBED PEOPLE TO DEATH. And God? WAS APPEASED. The small yud tells us that everyone was diminished by this episode - Pinchas, God, the individuals, the community.

The broken vav

Broken vav in PinchasGod continues " displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not destroy them in my anger. Therefore I shall say, see, I give him my covenant of peace."

The vav in the word "peace," "shalom," is traditionally written broken. Unlike big and small letters, which are kosher but unusual, broken letters are Very Not Kosher, and vavs with broken legs risk being yuds, so having a broken vav is not just a cute little thing, it's deeply jarring, in that this is a non-kosher letter, dammit.

One interpretation is that although it was a covenant of peace, the covenant, like the people involved in it, was inherently flawed. It may be shalom, but it isn't very good shalom.

Kiddushin 66b says:
How do we know that a physically malformed cohen may not perform certain priestly duties? Rav Yehudah said that Shmuel said, because of the verse "Therefore I shall say, see, I give him my covenant of peace" - when he is complete (shalem) and not when he is lacking. But [objects the anonymous voice of the gemara] it doesn't SAY "shalem," it says "shalom"! Rav Nahman answered, The vav in shalom is broken.

One of the scribal rulebooks, and I can't for the life of me remember which one, talks about the forms of the letters, and under vav says something along the lines of "You shouldn't make your vavs broken." I have often wondered whether he's talking about this vav in particular and saying you shouldn't make it broken.

The broken verse

A few verses later, the text goes: "It happened, after the plague...



...That God spoke to Moses and to Elazar ben Aharon the priest, saying. Take a count of the children of Israel, those of twenty years and older, according to their familial houses, all who are fit to stand in the standard."

The verse just breaks off in the middle of a paragraph. Paragraph breaks don't work like that.

This is quite an easy plague to forget about. Sandwiched between the drastic kebab story and a lot of census-taking, you sort of forget that a twenty-four thousand people died because a plague was visited on them. The unnatural break perhaps reminds us of that.

I fell to wondering how many other plagues there are in Torah. A search for "plague," "מגפה," yields three plagues, all in the book of Numbers:
the spies who spoke badly of the land (ch 14);
when Israel were cross with Moses and Aaron for smushing Korach and his crew (ch 17);
our bit, when Israel has been worshipping Baal-peor (ch 25).

No conclusions, I'm afraid: I don't know enough about this one. The standard commentators don't have much to say, and my days just now are full enough that I'm not going to get around to learning more about that this year.

If anyone wants to dig out some less standard commentators and see what they have to say, do feel free; I might even send you some cookies. Real cookies, not internet ones. :)

From: (Anonymous)

Three plagues in Numbers

Hi, Jen

I was just surfing out the small yud and broken vav, and came across your site. Concerning the three plagues you mentioned in Numbers, please not that I am not Jewish, and have not read any Talmudic commentaries; so I will not give you an acceptable answer. I did scan all three instances, though, and noticed that in every case of a plague, the children of Israel were in PERSISTENT rebellion: Even after Hashem began to judge them, they continued to rebel:

Numbers 14: Even AFTER the plague that killed the spies who gave the wicked report, the people continued to defy Moses and Hashem, and vainly went up against the Canaanites and Amalekites.

Numbers 17: Even AFTER the earth opened up and swallowed Korah and his family, the people murmured against Moses and Aaron

Numbers 25: Even while the children of Israel were in mourning before the Tent of Meeting, Zimri went into the tent with Cozbi

The provocations were all extreme, and Hashem answered with extreme punishment: He didn't just strike Israel with plagues; He intended to WIPE OUT Israel; but Moshe and Pinchas intervened.

As I said, this isn't an acceptable commentary, since I am not Jewish; it's an observation. No cookies, I suppose :(

From: (Anonymous)

Pinchas and the Scary Friend

Read this commentary by Virginia Spatz titled "Pinchas and the Scary Friend."

From: (Anonymous)

Re: Pinchas and the Scary Friend

Oh, and don't forget to click on and read the Handout included in the Pinchas commentary by Virginia Spatz. The handout goes into the matter of the broken vav.

posted by Amy Brookman


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