Bamidbar 25:13 – It shall be for him [Pinchas] and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah [priesthood], because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel
Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin, Chapter 9, Halacha 7: “One who has [public] sex with an Aramean, zealots are allowed to strike him.” This teaching is not in accordance with the will of the Sages and Pinchas [also] did not act according to the will of the Sages. Rabbi Yuda the son of Pazi said that they wanted to put Pinchas in cherem [excommunication.] They would have, were it not for a holy spirit that broke forth and said, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him as an eternal covenant of priesthood.”
Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #31:
The commentators toiled greatly to explain the above Gemora. However, the truth is that it is very easily explained in a straightforward manner. When the Gemora says that [Pinchas] did not act in accordance with the will of the Sages, it means simply that the law that a zealot can strike/kill one who is having public sex with an Aramean is, [itself], not pleasing to the Sages.
The rationale for the Sages not approving of this law is because the law depends on the zealot who is killing the perpetrator being filled with a genuine and true zealotry on behalf of G-d. That being the case, it is impossible to give a general permission to people to strike/kill someone who is having public sex with an Aramean.
Who would be able to judge the zealot? Perhaps he is doing this for some ulterior [impure] motive and just saying that he is doing this out of a being filled with a genuine zealousness for G-d? In the meantime, he will have killed a person who was not liable for the death penalty according to the law.
This is similar to the law in Gemora Yevamos 39b where it says that it is better to perform the chalitza ceremony rather than marry your deceased brother’s wife. The reason why it is better to do chalitza rather than fulfill the mitzvah of carrying on your brother’s name is because perhaps you would be doing the mitzvah for ulterior [impure] motives. If that were the case, you would then be transgressing the [severe] prohibition of having relations with your brother’s wife!
The question is raised “is it possible that the Sages would criticize a deed that Pinchas did?” The answer is “certainly, yes.” Had it not been for the heavenly spirit breaking forth and saying that Pinchas will have an everlasting covenant because he was a true zealot, they would have actually excommunicated him. Since the Divine Spirit testified on Pinchas’ behalf saying that he was a genuine zealot, he was then exempt from excommunication.
Note that this opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud is not according to the teaching in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 82a that teaches that Pinchas actually asked Moshe for permission first. Truly, in the Babylonian Talmud itself there are two opinions as to whether Pinchas asked Moshe permission first or not. The Jerusalem Talmud’s opinion is that he did not ask first.
Note that according to the opinion in the Gemora Sanhedrin [in the Babylonian Talmud] that Pinchas did not ask permission first before killing Zimri, the purpose of the divine spirit [heavenly voice] breaking forth was to show that Pinchas was also not guilty of the sin of “teaching halacha in front of his teacher.” [This is a highly criticized, disrespectful thing to do.]
We see in the Gemora Eruvin 63a that the punishment for teaching halacha in front of one’s teacher is to descend to hell without having any children and further that one is brought down from one’s high position. However, since the heavenly voice came out [and testified on Pinchas’ behalf], therefore he merited to have many children and also greatness. These rewards that Pinchas received correspond exactly to what would have been the punishments if he had been liable for the sin of teaching Halacha in front of his teacher. These two exact rewards are what show that the heavenly voice saved Pinchas from being found guilty of this sin [also].
Editor’s Note: Here the Torah Temimah is explaining to us his opinion as to exactly why the Sages looked down upon Pinchas’ zealotry in killing Zimri for having public sex with an Aramean. Perhaps genuine zealotry is praiseworthy as long as it does not involve injuring anyone else. In a legal system zealotry cannot be part of the equation in judging guilt or innocence. This is because the quality of being a genuine zealot cannot be judged by human beings. Someone who appears a zealot may actually have other motives.