Entering the Covenant

Pinehas By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 3, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

This past Shabbat the Schorsch family celebrated the bris of their seventh grandchild. The previous Shabbat, our younger daughter had given birth to her second child. Once again we made use of the small, faded blue velvet kippah, hand sewn and embossed with my Hebrew name by my father’s artist friend in Germany, Fanny Dessau. As it covered my head at my bris, it has now graced the bris of our son and that of three out of four of our grandsons. To me, it is not just a treasured artifact of family pride, but also a symbol of just how valuable is the transmission of consciousness and culture from one generation to the next.

As so often, I find my life in sync with the Torah portion of the week. On the afternoon of the day of the bris we began to read in the synagogue parashat Pinhas which contained the verse with which the mohel opened the ceremony earlier that day in the Seminary synagogue: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinhas son of Eleazar son of Aaron 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 pact of friendship (Numbers 25:11–12).'”

What Pinhas had done, you may recall, was to end an Israelite orgy of idolatry and promiscuity at Shittim by killing two of the leading perpetrators, a Midianite princess and a chieftain from the tribe of Simeon. The spectacle had all the earmarks of a recurrence of the orgy with the Golden Calf, except that now the outraged rebuke erupted from Pinhas rather than Moses, for which God gratefully rewarded Pinhas and his progeny with status and protection.

The passage caught my eye this time because the mohel had linked it to the bris. Though not part of the formal liturgy, the verse is not inappropriate. Informing the selection is the midrashic assertion that the figures of Pinhas and the later prophet Elijah are indeed one and the same. And the role of Elijah at the bris is conspicuous. An empty chair known by his name denotes his presence at every bris, in contrast to Elijah’s cup at the seder which denotes his absence. The mohel places the infant about to be circumcised on Elijah’s chair and then invokes him as “the angel of the covenant” to assist him in the induction of the child into the covenant of Abraham.

Of course, the association of Elijah with every bris is itself a puzzle. The standard explanation derives from a late midrashic work (Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer, ch. 29) that depicts Elijah in a period of religious persecution during the reign of King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, castigating the Israelites for abandoning the rite of circumcision. Fear must never be allowed to erode loyalty to God. For that heroic stance of religious zeal, Elijah was rewarded by God with the joy of witnessing the triumph of his message: “You are constantly zealous. You were aroused at Shittim because of sexual promiscuity and now again over circumcision. I assure you that no Israelite will ever again perform a brit milah until you are there to see it personally.” Allegedly, the custom to adorn every bris with a special chair for Elijah, often a communal possession of some artistry, emerged from this text.

But I am dubious. The connection is too strained. Rather, I prefer to find in the identity of Pinhas and Elijah a more plausible source for the custom. And, as Professor Louis Ginzberg convincingly argued back in 1899 in his celebrated doctoral dissertation, Aggada in the Church Fathers (German, pp. 76–80), this identity is far older than the 8th or 9th century. From the extensive biblical material on Elijah, we learn nothing about his ancestry. Using Christian as well as Rabbinic texts, Ginzberg first established that Elijah, like Pinhas, was held to be a priest. Conversely, on the basis of an elliptic verse in I Chronicles 9:20, Ginzberg recovered a midrashic view that Pinhas was still alive in the days of King David, some 500 years after the event recorded in the Torah! It is this unnatural longevity, coupled with the common ancestry and religious passion of both Pinhas and Elijah, which prompted allusions in both the Rabbis and the Church Fathers to the belief that Pinhas was none other than Elijah. For it was only of Elijah that the Bible reported that he “went up to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11),” that is, escaped the fate of human mortality. In short, circles within both the early synagogue and church seemed to share the anomalous view that Pinhas was an incarnation of Elijah.

Thus midrashic thought placed Elijah at Shittim, an instance of egregious sexual misconduct, and his recurring presence at every rite of circumcision is testimony to a silent prayer that this infant will one day be an adult Jew set apart not only by the mark on his flesh but also by the quality of his character. In an imperfect world, the natural needs to be enhanced by the holy. To enter the covenant of Abraham is to embark on a journey from an imposed fate to a freely internalized faith of universal significance.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Pinhas have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.