Phinehas ben Jair

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Phinehas ben Jair (Hebrew: פנחס בן יאיר‬) was a Tanna of the 4th generation who lived, probably at Lydda, in the second half of the 2nd century. He was the son-in-law of Shimon bar Yochai and a fellow disciple of Judah I. He was more celebrated for piety than for learning, although his discussions with his son-in-law (Shab. 33b) evince great sagacity and a profound knowledge of tradition.[1]

His piety

An aggadah gives the following illustration of Phinehas' scrupulous honesty: Once two men deposited with him two seahs (a quantity) of wheat. After a prolonged absence of the depositors Phinehas sowed the wheat and preserved the harvest. This he did for seven consecutive years, and when at last the men came to claim their deposit he returned them all the accumulated grain (Deut. R. iii.).[1]

Phinehas is said never to have accepted an invitation to a meal and, after he had attained his majority, to have refused to eat at the table of his father. The reason given by him for this course of conduct was that there are two kinds of people: (1) those who are willing to be hospitable, but can not afford to be so, and (2) those who have the means but are not willing to extend hospitality to others (Hul. 7b). Judah I once invited him to a meal, and exceptionally he decided to accept the invitation; but on arriving at the house of the patriarch he noticed in the yard mules of a certain kind the use of which was forbidden by local custom on account of the danger in handling them. Thereupon he retraced his steps and did not return (Hul. l.c.).[1]

Special weight was laid by Phinehas upon the prescriptions relating to ma'aser (tithes). This feature of Phinehas' piety is described hyperbolically in the Aggadah. The latter relates a story of a mule belonging to Phinehas which, having been stolen, was released after a couple of days on account of its refusal to eat food from which the tithe had not been taken (Gen. R. lx, 8; comp. Ab. R. N. viii., end). To Phinehas is attributed the abandonment by Judah I of his project to abolish the year of release (Yer. Demai i. 3; Ta'an. iii. 1).[1]

Account of His Own Times

Phinehas draws a gloomy picture of his time. "Since the destruction of the Temple," he says, "the members and freemen are put to shame, those who conform to the Law are held in contempt, the violent and the informer have the upper hand, and no one cares for the people or asks pity for them. We have no hope but in God" (Sotah 49a). Elsewhere he says: "Why is it that in our time the prayers of the Jews are not heard? Because they do not know the holy name of God" (Pesik. R. xxii., end; Midr. Tch. to Ps. xci. 15). Phinehas, however, believes in man's perfectibility, and enumerates the virtues which render man worthy to receive the Holy Spirit. The Law, he says, leads to carefulness; carefulness, to diligence; diligence, to cleanliness; cleanliness, to retirement; retirement, to purity; purity, to piety; piety, to humility; humility, to fear of sin; fear of sin, to holiness; holiness, to the reception of the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, to resurrection (Ab. Zarah 20b; with some slight variants, Sotah ix. 15).[1]


The Jerusalem Talmud (Shevi'it 6:1) relates how that Rabbi Phinehas ben Jair, a priest of Aaron’s lineage, and others with him, used to go down into the marketplace of the Saracens in Ashkelon to buy wheat during the Seventh Year, and return to their own city, and immerse themselves in order to eat their bread (Terumah) in a state of ritual purity. The Beth-Din of Rabbi Ishmael ben Jose and Ben HaKapar, when they heard about what Rabbi Phinehas ben Jair had done, a most pious man on all other accounts, but who went down into Ashkelon when it was not permitted for priests to venture outside the Land of Israel, understood thereby that Ashkelon – though not conquered by those returning from the Babylonian exile – was not like other lands of the gentiles, and that defilement had not been decreed upon that city.[2] Therefore, taking as an exemplum the act they heard performed by Rabbi Phinehas ben Jair, they assembled themselves and reverted the old practice, decreeing a state of cleanness over the city’s air, and that, henceforth, Jews (including those of the priestly stock) were permitted to go into the city without harboring feelings of guilt or fear of contracting uncleanness.[3]

Miracles Attributed to Him

The Aggadah records many miracles performed by Phinehas. Among these is that of having passed on dry ground through the River Ginai, which he had to cross on his way to ransom prisoners (Yer. Demai i. 3). According to another version, Phinehas performed this miracle while he was going to the school to deliver a lecture. His pupils, who had followed him, asked if they might without danger cross the river by the same way, whereupon Phinehas answered: "Only those who have never offended any one may do so" (Hullin 7a). To Phinehas is attributed the authorship of a later midrash entitled Tadshe or Baraita de-Rabbi Pinehas ben Ya'ir. The only reasons for this ascription are the facts (1) that the midrash begins with Phinehas' explanation of Gen. i.11, from which the work derives its name, and (2) that its seventh chapter commences with a saying of his on the tree of knowledge. Phinehas was buried in Kefar Biram.[4][1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainW. B. I. Br. (1901–1906). "PHINEHAS BEN JAIR". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. Retrieved Apr 18, 2016.
    Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography:
  2. ^ Cf. Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 14a).
  3. ^ Jerusalem Talmud (Shevi'it 6:1).
  4. ^ Burial Places of the Fathers, published by Yehuda Levi Nahum in book: Ṣohar la-ḥasifat ginzei teiman (Heb. צהר לחשיפת גנזי תימן), Tel-Aviv 1986, p. 252

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