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Q & A: Reincarnation?


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QUESTION: I am told that Eliahu was a reincarnation. Who was he?
R. Gold
Bronx, NY
ANSWER: We refer to a previous discussion, where we described Eliahu as being a reincarnation of Pinhas ben Eleazar ben Aharon HaKohen. But first let us delve into the matter of reincarnation.The term “reincarna-tion” refers to the re-establishment of the soul in a different body. In Hebrew it is called gilgul - the phenomenon of a soul that wanders and transmigrates into another body. This topic is discussed in sifrei Kabbala such as the Zohar, and by authors ranging from Nachmanides to the Ari (R. Isaac Luria) to name but a few. In his Sefer Hagilgulim, Rabbi Chayyim Vital, who was the great disciple of the Ari, attributes to his teacher great power of discernment in matters of gilgulim. The concept found its way into Hasidism as well (see Otzar Erchei HaYahadut p. 126). On the other hand, there  were great scholars, among them the Rambam and Raavad, who expressed opposition to this concept.

A related topic is the dybbuk, a term that is derived from “lehiddabbek,” to attach oneself. In this case a soul that is hopelessly wandering attaches itself to a living person. An incident of this kind is described in Shiv’chei HaAri, a collection of stories on the life of R. Isaac Luria. It involved his disciple, R. Chayyim Vital, also known as Chayyim Calabrese (the family originated from southern Italy). The story also appears in the monumental English work The Dybbuk by Gershon Winkler. Rabbi Chayyim Vital exorcised a dybbuk that was tormenting its host, an elderly widow. This incident appears to have taken place in the middle of the 16th century.

There is also a more recent incident, connected to the Chofetz Chayim, that is described by Rabbi Usher Katzman, Rosh Yeshiva in Mesivta Torah Vodaath, as well as in Gershon Winkler’s cited work. It concerns driving away a dybbuk from a young girl in Fascoli, a village not too far from Radun (Radin), in 1909. At the head of the group of sages “commissioned” by the Chofetz Chayim to effectuate the exorcism was the martyred sage, R. Elchonon Wasserman. Also involved were the famous R. Yeruchem Levovitz, the mashgiach ruchani in Radun and later in Mir; R. Elya Dushnitzer, a talmid of the Chofetz Chayim, and later the Rosh Hayeshiva of the Lomzhe Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah (Israel); and the Chofetz Chayim’s son-in-law, R. Hirsh Levinson. This story was independently confirmed to Rabbi Katzman by Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman, the late Ponivezher Rav in Israel.

The common trait in these two episodes was that the wandering souls were wicked ones that were destined to be at the constant whim of the “kaf hakela” (literally “the hollow of a sling,” used to indicate an instrument of torture to which the wicked are subject in the hereafter - see I Samuel 25:29).

In fact, the term gilgul, especially in its connection to a dybbuk, is seen as representing a soul that has not found an entry to the hereafter and comes back to this world for restoration and completion.

In light of the above we can hardly use the term “reincarnation” or “gilgul” in connection with Pinhas ben Eleazary ben Aharon HaKohen, since he, more than anyone else, exemplifies the fulfillment of obligations, as seen in the text of Scripture. We are told (Bamidbar ch. 25) of the terrible plague that befell the people because of the immorality of Zimri b. Salu, a leader of a father’s house of the Tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi b. Tzur, the daughter of the Midianite King: “Vayar Pinchas ben El’azar ben Aharon Hakohen vayyakam mitoch ha’eda vayyikach romach be’yado. Vayyavo achar ish Yisrael el hakubba vayyidkor et sheneihem, et ish Yisrael ve’et ha’isha el kovatah, va’tei’atzer hamagefa me’al bnei Yisrael.” “Pinhas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest saw [what had happened], and he arose from among the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He went after the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman through her stomach, and the plague was halted from the Children of Israel.” Pinhas took action because he saw that Moshe was perplexed about the law that states that when an Israelite cohabits with a Gentile, “kana’im pog’im bo,” namely, a zealous one may slay him (see Rashi, Tractate Sanhedrin 82a).

The following portion, Parashat Pinchas, describes how Hashem was assuaged by this behavior of Pinhas (Bamidbar 25:11-13): “Pinchas ben El’azar ben Aharon Hakohen heshiv et chamati me’al bnei Yisrael bekan’o et kin’ati betocham velo chiliti et bnei Yisrael bekin’ati. Lachen emor, Hineni noten lo et briti shalom. Ve’hay’ta lo u’lezar’o acharav brit kehunat olam tachat asher kinei l(e)Elokav … ” “Pinhas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Priest, turned away My anger from upon the Children of Israel when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My anger. Therefore say, Behold, I bestow upon him My covenant of peace (i.e., the priesthood). And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was zealous for his G-d …” We have to understand this reward in the context of the fact that at the time that Aaron and his sons were designated as priests, Pinhas was in a “no man’s land” in regard to priesthood. He was not anointed because he was still a minor, and he could not qualify, like the unborn offspring, for priesthood from birth. It was with this zealous action that he acquired the priesthood that was rightfully his.

Ibn Ezra points to the word acharav, meaning “after him,” as proof that Pinhas eventually died and that he was not Eliahu. On the other hand, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4) sees in the words “briti shalom,” “My covenant of peace,” that Pinhas lived on. It cites a verse from Malachi (2:5), “Briti hay’ta ito hachayyim ve’hashalom - My covenant was with him for life and peace,” meaning that he was given both everlasting life and everlasting priesthood.

R. Bachye notes that the word mila (circumcision) is an acrostic for “he will not die.” That would explain the tradition that “Pinhas is Eliahu” – Pinhas continued to live and eventually became known as Eliahu. The Alsheich also agrees that “Pinhas is Eliahu.” The Or HaChayyim deduces that “Pinhas is Eliahu” from the Prophet Elijah’s statement (I Kings 19:10), “Kano kineiti laShem Elokei Tzeva-ot ki azevu [b]rit’cha bnei Yisrael – I have been very zealous for the L-rd G-d of hosts (says Eliahu): for the Children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant.” This is understood to mean that at the time of the wicked King Ahab the Israelites had abandoned the performance of circumcision. The similarity of terms (“bekan’o et kin’ati” and “kano kineiti”) is used to explain the Sages’ opinion that Pinhas is Eliahu, and he will be the bearer of good tidings at the conclusion of our final exile.

There are also Talmudic sources that seem to support the premise that Eliahu is Pinhas. Tractate Bava Metzia (114a) relates the incident of Raba b. Abbuha who encountered the Prophet Elijah in a cemetary of idolators and began to ask him halachic questions. When the questions were answered Raba asked him: Are you not a priest? Why, then, do you stand in a cemetery? (Priests are forbidden from entering a cemetery.) Whereupon Elijah asked Raba: Have you not learned a baraitha in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai stating that the graves of idolators do not defile? Rashi (ad loc.) points out that this passage indicates that Eliahu is Pinhas.

It is stated in Tractate Kiddushin (70a): Rabbah son of R. Adda also said - others state, R. Salla said in R. Hamnuna’s name - that he who marries a wife who is not fit for him, Eliahu restrains him and the Holy One, blessed be He, lashes him. And a Tanna taught (in another baraitha) that concerning all these Eliahu writes (inscribes) and the Holy One, blessed be He, seals: “Woe to him who disqualifies his seed, blemishes his family and him who takes to wife one who is not fit for him, Eliahu restrains him and the Holy One, blessed be He, lashes him.” The Maharsha (ad loc.) states that this refers to bringing illegitimate children into the world.

This last Talmudic passage is consistent with Pinhas’ action of meting out punishment to Zimri, as recorded in Bamidbar.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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