Phinehas ben Jair

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PHINEHAS BEN JAIR (second half of second century), tanna renowned both for his saintliness and his ability to work miracles. He was a son-in-law of *Simeon b. Yoḥai, with whom he studied, and achieved a reputation as a keen halakhist (Shab. 33b). Nonetheless, few of his halakhic statements are recorded, and he is better known as an aggadist. Indeed his legendary saintliness made him, like his father-in-law, a prominent aggadic personality. His place of residence was "a city in the south," probably Lydda, from where he testified that he used to go down with his friends to Ashkelon (tj, Yev. 7:3). In several passages, Phinehas is reported as traveling to redeem captives and being deflected from his mission neither by a river in flood (which he is said to have parted miraculously), nor by a pressing invitation to dine with Judah ha-Nasi (Ḥul. 7a; 7b). Phinehas was famed for his great independence, and it was said of him that from the day he grew up he would not eat from his father's table, let alone that of another. "Not that I have taken a vow to that effect," he protested wryly to Judah ha-Nasi, "Israel is a holy nation, and worthy for one to break bread with it. But one wants [to give] and has not, and another has but does not want to give. You both have and want, so with you I shall eat!" However, even here, when he saw that Judah had white mules on his estate, which were regarded as dangerous, he turned away and would not eat (Ḥul. 7b). The grandeur of the court was not for him.

Phinehas took a gloomy view of the moral and material state of Israel in his time. "Since the Temple was destroyed," he lamented, "learned and free men are put to shame, the mighty and the informers have vanquished, and none seeks Israel's welfare, and we have no one to rely upon but our Heavenly Father" (Sot. 49a). He was strict not only in his personal discipline but also in halakhic decisions for others, and would not join with Judah ha-Nasi in allowing work on the land in the Sabbatical Year (tj, Ta'an 3:1). Even Phinehas' donkey was celebrated for its piety and the tale that it refused to eat untithed corn is developed by the Talmud into a general proposition, "If God does not bring a stumbling block through even a beast of the righteous, how much more will He not bring a stumbling block through the righteous themselves!" (Ḥul. 5b). A number of tales told about him, including the one about his donkey, are also told of his contemporary, *Ḥanina b. Dosa. Midrash Tadshe, a late Midrash dealing with symbolic interpretations of the vessels of the Tabernacle, was also attributed to Phinehas as it opens with one of his sayings. In the Zohar, Phinehas appears as a particularly revered member of Simeon b. Yoḥai's mystic circle, though here he is represented as Simeon's father-in-law and not his son-in-law (Zohar 3:240, 2 and 288).

Fittingly, Phinehas is the author of the famous ladder of saintliness: "Caution [against evil] leads to Eagerness [for good], Eagerness to Cleanliness, Cleanliness to Purity, Purity to Asceticism, Asceticism to Holiness, Holiness to Humility, Humility to Fear of God, Fear of God to Attainment of the Holy Spirit [divine inspiration], and Attainment of the Holy Spirit to Resurrection of the Dead" (Sot. 9:15). A millennium and a half later, this dictum was amplified as the path to holiness by Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto in his classic ethical work Mesillat Yesharim, and in this way it became the guiding principle of the *Musar movement.


Bacher, Tann; Hyman, Toledot; Heilprin, Dorot, 2 (1905), 313–4; A. Epstein, Mi-Kadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim (Kol Kitvei, 2) (1957), 130ff.; I. Konovitz, Ma'arekhot Tanna'im, pt. 4 (1969), 101–6.

[Benjamin Cohen]