“You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” (Lev. 19:17)
When Eli served as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in Shiloh, there were serious issues for women who wished to bring offerings at the Tabernacle. Eli’s two sons, Phinehas and Hophni, would not quickly and eagerly tend to their offerings. The women knew the kohanim were unreliable, so they would remain in Shiloh until they saw with their own eyes that their offerings were brought on the altar.
The Torah decries the irresponsible behavior of Phinehas and Hophni in severe terms. Because of the distress and suffering they caused these women, keeping them away from their homes and families, the text says that the two kohanim “would lay with the women who assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (I Samuel 2:22; Shabbat 55b).
The Sages noted that Phinehas and Hophni were not equally guilty in this wrongdoing. Later on, we read that Ahiya was descended from Phinehas, the son of Eli (14:3). Why would Ahiya proudly proclaim that his lineage goes back to such a villain?
But if Phinehas was not involved, why does the Torah tell us that both brothers mistreated the women who came to Shiloh?
The Sages explained that Phinehas did not directly participate in the improprieties at Shiloh. However, he could have objected to his brother’s deeds, but didn’t. Since he failed to admonish Hophni, the Torah considers him an accomplice to his brother’s misconduct (Shabbat 55b).
The Sages found three hints in the text indicating that only one brother was truly guilty. The first hint is in the phrase, “they would lay.” Without the vowels, it could be read, יִשְׁכָּבֵן — “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, בְּנִי — “my son” (and not, “my sons”). And the third hint is in the phrase, “they pass on evil reports,” which may be read, מַעֲבִירָם — “he passes on.”
When we analyze the consequences of a particular wrongdoing, we may discern several negative repercussions that are incidental to the actual violation. These include:
(a) the spiritual damage to the offender’s soul;
(b) the gravity of offense due to the position and esteem accorded to the offender;
(c) the extent of the incident’s wider impact on society, as immoral activity in the public sphere is more detrimental to the community as a whole.
In all of these aspects, there is a clear difference between
the offender and 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 of the abuse (“he would lay”);
(b) in their culpability due to their standing as sons of the High Priest (“my son”);
(c) in the infamy generated by public abuse at the Tabernacle (“he passed on evil reports”).
In all three aspects, Phinehas, who was not actively involved, was less affected by the offense and was less responsible for its repercussions.
All of these elements are, however, byproducts. The offense itself can only happen if the offender’s moral sensitivities have been dulled to such an extent that his soul’s natural demand for justice and holiness has been silenced.
This intrinsic aspect of the offense is the same for the perpetrator and the one who fails to object. The fact that Phinehas failed to 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 corruption of their souls, and their insensitivity to injustice — 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 their souls. The Torah commands us, “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)