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The Difference Between Zealotry and Machlokes


Pinchas is considered the first zealot in Jewish history. Why is his zealotry, so effusively praised in this week’s parasha? When is a conflict considered a conflict for G-d’s sake, and how is it different from regular, ugly fighting? Why did Moshe Rabbenu try to placate Dasan and Aviram if they were wrong? What is the Torah’s approach to battling wicked people? When should they be ignored, and when is open battle required? Does a machlokes l’shem Shomayim (a conflict for G-d’s sake) exist today? Of this and more in the coming article.


The two previous articles highlighted the adverse results of machlokes and the prohibitions it involves. This week’s article will turn to the flip side of machlokes – zealotry. Pinchas set out to battle evil and is praised and eternally rewarded for his deed. What differentiates praiseworthy zealotry, and despised machlokes?

Fighting Evil – the Obligation

Rabbenu Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3:58-59) lists the negative prohibition of: “Not be like Korach and his assembly” (Bamidbar 17:5) and explains (based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin 110a): “One who upholds a dispute transgresses a negative commandment.” Immediately following, he mentions that speaking lashon hara about ba’alei macholkes (those who instigate disputes) is permitted, and one who avoids confronting negative people is punished along with them and transgresses the prohibition of: “…You shall not bear a sin on his account” (Vayikra 19:17).

Rabbenu Yona continues, listing incidents in Tanach where those who stood by instead of fighting back against wicked people were punished along with them.

This concept presents a very real dilemma. Almost every machlokes has the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) convincing us it is a mitzva to get involved, and this is a machlokes L’shem Shomayim (a conflict for G-d’s sake).  If we stand by and don’t interfere, we may fall in with the wicked ones as we just learned, but if we do go to battle — it may end up being a horrible fight which carries the terrible results described in our previous articles. How does one differentiate?

Furthermore, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) derives the prohibition of taking sides in a dispute from Moshe Rabbenu who went to try to pacify Dasan and Aviram. The two were the quintessential baalei machlokes – shouldn’t Moshe Rabbenu have been obligated to not get involved with them, or fight back against them? Later, Moshe Rabbenu does take this stance in face of the conflict: he instructs the nation to, “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs” (Bamidbar 16:26). Why did he initially try to make peace with them? When is peace called for, and should one engage in an all-out war against evil?

I Was Right

Is the prohibition to fuel a fight only relevant when we are wrong, or even when we are right? Rabbenu Yehonoson of Luniel (Sanhedrin 110a) understands that the reason the Gemara learns the prohibition to continue a fight from Moshe Rabbenu’s attempt at peacemaking is because even when we are right and our opponent is wrong we must try to make peace. And furthermore – had Moshe Rabbenu not done so he would have transgressed the prohibition of, “Not be like Korach and his assembly.”

Rabbi Yehsayah of Tirani, (better known as the Riyaz) writes (Piskei Riaz, Sanhedrin 11:32): “It is appropriate for every person to overcome his traits and not maintain a dispute.” Apparently, in his opinion Moshe Rabbenu’s peacemaking attempts were not a full obligation, but rather a praiseworthy action.

Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (Moria 169-170 p. 63) divides the prohibition of: “Not be like Korach and his assembly” into two parts: one, not to instigate a fight, which is a negative prohibition. The other is to make a positive effort to lower the flames, even when it is not your fault.

The Divrei Chaim was known to have said: “Why did Moshe say ‘With this you shall know that the Lord sent me to do all these deeds, for I did not devise them myself. If these men die as all men die and the fate of all men will be visited upon them, then the Lord has not sent me’ (Bamidbar 16:28-29)? Why would they die on their beds if their arguments were incorrect? The answer is that for instigating a fight they deserve to die, whether or not their claims are true, and only a strange death is proof their claims were false.

Apparently, even with opponents wicked as Dasan and Aviram we must try to make peace and not maintain a machlokes.

Interestingly, once they turned down his olive branch, Moshe Rabbenu instructs the nation to: “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs” (Bamidbar 16:26). Where did the obligation to make peace disappear?

The question intensifies when we consider that the only place in which Moshe Rabbenu specifically prays for Hashem to punish the wicked is here, in Korach’s Dispute. And why? Korach was wise enough to make his claims against Moshe seem sensible, and people got involved for a variety of reasons, some of which were seemingly for G-d’s sake. Once they had positive intentions included in the reasons for machlokes, special prayer was necessary to excise them from the nation.

Characteristics of a Positive Machlokes

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos reads: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; and that which is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure” (5:17). Rabbi Yehonoson Eibeshitz (Ye’aros Dvash II, Drush 8) wonders why we would be happy to know a machlokes will endure? Wouldn’t it be better for machlokes to one day blow over? And furthermore – how is a machlokes ‘for the sake of Heaven’ identified? Aren’t both sides always sure they are correct, and their campaign is maintained only for positive reasons? How do you know when to desist and make peace?

Rabbi Yehonoson Eibishitz explains that a macholkes ‘for the sake of Heaven’ is one in which both sides are truly correct, as the Gemara writes of the Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel machlokes: “A Heavenly voice was heard saying: ‘Those and those are the words of the Living G-d, and halacha follows Beis Hillel” (Eiruvin 13b). Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were two valid Torah approaches, but since in This World only one road can be taken, halacha follows Beis Hillel. Nevertheless, since both approaches are necessary for understanding the Torah, both endure.

The defining feature of a dispute ‘for the sake of Heaven’ is when both sides retain the same relationship hey enjoyed before the dispute. If the argument causes anger, hatred, or other interpersonal prohibitions, it is a clear sign the fight is of the negative sort.

The Prohibition of Hatred

The She’iltos (Korach, 131) explains that the prohibition to maintain a machlokes is because it involves hatred, which transgresses the prohibition of: “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” It is interesting to note that the prohibition here does not involve actively doing anything to someone else, but rather what happens to one’s own heart when fighting with another. Creating machlokes injects us with hatred, and carrying hatred in a Jewish heart is forbidden. We must do everything possible to remove all traces of hatred for another Jew from our hearts.

This explains why Moshe Rabbenu’s first reaction to Korach’s Dispute was to try and make peace with Dasan and Aviram. His first step was to establish that his own part in the dispute against Korach was for G-d’s sake, L’shem Shomayim, and he bore no ill will towards the opposing party. Only then, when his peace effort was fruitless could he pray for Hashem to punish them, and instruct the rest of the nation to separate from them.

Five Minutes

Rabbi Meir Kessler Shlita told me the following fascination story that illustrates this point.

When the Alter of Slobodka left Lithuania for the Holy Land and establish the Chevron Yeshiva, he appointed his son in law, Rabbi Izick Sher to fill his position as Rosh Yeshiva. This created a dispute in the yeshiva because there were many who maintained he had no right to hire him, and it would have been more appropriate to appoint Rabbi Avraham Kalmanovich for the position (who later went on to become the Mir Rosh Yeshiva on American shores). Rabbi Avraham presented his claims to Rabbi Donial Movshovitz of Kelm, who told him: “One must ensure that not only the first five minutes of a fight are l’shem Shomayim. While one may start a fight for spiritual reasons, he can easily slip into the machlokes-mode and run into a regular fight.”

Rabbi Avraham, in purity of heart, fainted on the spot when he realized there was a touch of non-l’shem Shomayim in the fight he withdrew from the conflict.

Who’s Right?

The Gemara (Yoma 87a) describes a dispute between Rav and a butcher who had earlier behaved improperly towards Rav.

The day before Yom Kippur, Rav announced that he was going to make peace with the butcher. His disciple, Rav Huna, suspecting the outcome commented that Rav was going to kill someone. Rav approached the butcher to make peace with him, but the butcher wouldn’t be placated. “Go away,” he told Rav, “I have nothing to do with you.” The butcher didn’t realize it was he who had wronged Rav, not the opposite way around, and he died on the spot.

Before taking sides in an arguement we must ensure that every single word uttered and every single action done is sanctioned by the Torah; and even in the heat of the moment never get carried away.

Combatting Evil

The Beis Yosef (OC 1) writes that while the attributes of aggression and impudence are generally negative, when one is being mocked for doing mitzvos these attributes should be utilized in a positive manner by continuing to serve G-d even when all around everyone else is doing something else. Fighting, even here, is not called for. The Machatzis Hashekel explains that (OC 1:2): actual fighting ruins one’s own personality, changing him into a brazen person.

The Mishna Brura (1:5) follows this ruling, adding that while this is generally true, when heretics try to interfere in the Jewish community and make changes that harm those who keep Torah and mitzvos, fighting against them is a great mitzva, and they should be combatted in any way possible.


The Noda B‎’Yehuda writes (YD 1): “And now, please heed my advice and make room for peace. There is nothing worse than machlokes. And in our times a machlokes for G-d’s sake is uncommon, only the Satan dances.” The Chasam Sofer writes (Parashas Korach) that nowadays there is no such thing as a machlokes l’shem Shomayim. He adds (Sanhedrin 110a) that even when one is sure he is correct, he must refrain from machlokes. For who is greater than Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus, who when arguing with Chachomim – which was surely for G-d’s sake — when they determined he had gone too far they excommuned him.

The Tanya writes (Igros Kodesh, 32) that one should be very cautious of a machlokes, especially one that is supposedly ‘for the sake of Heaven’: “As most of the disasters and tragedies are a result of machlokos ‘for the sake of Heaven’, may the Merciful One save us from them.”

The Chaffetz Chayim (Shmiras Halashon 1:15) writes that once the Yetzer Hara succeeds in making someone angry, he can no longer overcome his Yetzer Hara. The Yetzer Hara ensures he has all the halachic justifications to fight and subdue his opponent, and once caught in his snare, extracting one’s self is almost impossible.


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