“You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” (Lev. 19:17)
During the days when Eli served as High Priest at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, there were serious problems for women who wished to bring offerings. Eli’s two sons, Phinehas and Hophni, would not eagerly offer their sacrifices. As a result, the women knew they could not rely on them, and they would stay in Shiloh until they saw with their own eyes that their offering was completed.
The Torah decried the irresponsible behavior of Phinehas and Hophni in severe terms. Because of the great anguish they caused these women, keeping them away from their husbands and homes, the Torah writes that the two kohanim would “lay with the women who assembled at the opening of the Tent of Meeting” (I Samuel 2:22; Shabbat 55b).
However, the Sages noted that Phinehas and Hophni were not equally guilty in this wrongdoing. Later on (14:3), we read that Ahiya was descended from Phinehas, the son of Eli. Why would Ahiya proudly proclaim that his lineage goes back to such a villain? Yet, if Phinehas was not involved, why does the Torah tell us that both brothers abused the women who came to Shiloh?
The Sages explained that while Phinehas did not directly participate in these terrible activities, he could have objected to Hophni’s deeds, but didn’t. Since he failed to admonish his brother, the Torah considers him an accomplice to his brother’s misconduct (Shabbat 55b).
The Sages noted three small hints in the text that intimate that only one brother was truly guilty. The first hint is in the phrase, “they would lay.” Without the vowels, it reads, “he would lay” — referring to Hophni, the actual perpetrator. The second hint may be found in Eli’s speech as he rebuked his sons. Without vocalization, the text may be read, “my son” (and not, “my sons”). And the third hint is in the phrase, “they pass on evil reports,” which may be read, “he passes on.”
When we analyze the consequences of a particular wrongdoing, we may discern various negative influences that are incidental to the crime itself. These include: (a) the damaging impression that committing the offense makes on the offender’s soul; (b) the heightened gravity of the act due to the high position or respect accorded to the offender; and (c) the extent of the crime’s impact on society — immoral activity in the public sphere is more detrimental to the community as a whole.
For all of these consequences, there is a clear difference between the actual offender and the one who fails to object. Therefore, precisely in these areas, the Torah’s account differentiates between Phinehas and Hophni. The text indicates a difference: (a) in the impact that the criminal act made on them (“he would lay”); (b) in their culpability due to their standing as sons of the High Priest (“my son”); and (c) with respect to the infamy generated by this public abuse at the Tabernacle (“he passed on evil reports”). In all of these aspects, Phinehas, who did not actively abuse the women, was less affected by the offense and was less responsible for its negative repercussions.
However, all of these negative influences are in fact byproducts. The offense itself can only take place if the offender’s moral sensitivities have been dulled to such an extent that his soul’s innate demand for holiness and good has be silenced.
This intrinsic aspect of the offense is the same for the one committing it and the one who fails to object. The fact that Phinehas did not admonish his brother indicates that he felt no moral outrage at the ill-treatment the women suffered at his brother’s hands. In terms of the inner corruption of their souls, and their insensitivity to injustice and immorality, the two brothers were equal.
Therefore, when the Torah labels Phinehas and Hophni as “base men“ (v.12), it unambiguously refers to both. This phrase does not describe the repercussions of their actions, but the tarnished state of both brothers’ souls. “You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” Phinehas’s failure to object to Hophni’s activities demonstrated that, fundamentally, he shared his brother’s moral flaws.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 51-52)