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Parsha and Manuscript: Korach – ‘What did Korach take?'

Friday, 26 June, 2020 - 4:16 pm

In the Torah portion of Korach, it discusses the rebellion of Korach, accompanied by two hundred and fifty men, against Moses, for having appointed himself leader and his brother, Aaron, as high priest.[1] In describing the rebellion the Torah states:[2]

 

And Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, and Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben And they rose up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”

 

In this essay, we will explore the meaning of the ambiguous description: ‘And Korach took,’ without an obvious reference to what exactly Korach took in the context of his rebellion against Moses. We will first present a survey of the interpretations of this description, culled from the classic works of the Midrash and Talmud, the medieval commentators, up until the 19th century, followed by an examination of the commentary of Rashi. In the context of Rashi’s commentary, we will explain the significance of two variants in the commentary found in the Hebrew manuscripts at Oxford.

 

Literal

 

The commentaries, in their interpretation of the statement: ‘And Korach took,’ have two approaches: a. literal[3] – Korach took something, b. figurative. Interpreting the statement: ‘And Korach took’ literally, we may interpret it in the following ways: a. Korach took ‘people’ (anashim) with him.[4] 2. Korach took Dathan and Aviram. In this context the word: ‘and’ (the Hebrew letter vav) before ‘Dathan’ should be ignored, as may be the case in biblical Hebrew.[5] 3. Korach took the two hundred and fifty men - mentioned in the following verse.[6] In this context the verse is disjointed. 4. ‘And Korach took’ refers to the statement: ‘to rise up’ that is mentioned in the following verse.[7] In this context also the verse is disjointed. 5. Korach took his cloak (tzitzit), which is mentioned in the earlier chapter,[8] juxtaposed to this verse. 6. Korach took his cloak with the tzitzit to demonstrate his arguement against Moses - that just as a cloak that is completely blue should be exempt from tzitzit, so too the people who are all holy should not require a high priesthood.[9]

 

Figurative - other

 

Figurative interpretations include the following: 1. Korach persuaded people through argument to join him in his rebellion.[10] 2. Korach purchased a bad acquisition for himself,[11] as he was punished because of his actions.[12] 3. He took counsel from his wife, who supported him in his rebellion. [13] 4. Korach took himself. This interpretation is based on the Aramaic translation (Onkelos) - ‘separated’ (itpalag). This may refer to: a. He set himself apart from the rest of the people in dissention.[14] b. He became separated.’[15] c. He separated himself from the righteousness of his ancestors.[16] d. His separation is similar to the concept of the separation of the waters in Genesis in the second day of creation that represents in Jewish theology, the division between the spiritual and the material. In this context he was opposed to the Torah that represents harmony.[17]

 

Rashi – two interpretations

 

The commentary of Rashi combines the two interpretations in his commentary: he separated himself from the community and taking or persuading others through speech. Rashi states:[18]

 

And Korach took: He betook himself on one side with the view of separating himself from out of the community so that he might raise a protest regarding the priesthood to which Moses had appointed his brother. This is what Onkelos means when he renders it by (v’itpleig) - “he separated himself” from the rest of the community in order to maintain dissension. Similar is,[19] “Why doth thy heart take thee aside”, meaning, it takes you aside to separate you from other people.[20] Another explanation of ‘And Korach took’ is: he attracted (won over) the chiefs of the Sanhedrin amongst them (the people) by fine words. The word is used here in a figurative sense just as in:[21] “Take Aaron”;[22] “Take words with you”.[23]

 

Manuscripts

 

In the Oxford manuscripts the development of the text of Rashi pertaining to the interpretation of ‘And Korach took’ appears to be in three stages: In all the manuscripts, in the main text, the second interpretation that Korach persuaded others with speech is not found. This includes: MS CCC 165 (12th c), MS Canon. Or. 81 (1396), MS. Huntington 389 (1301-1400), MS. Huntington 445 (1376-1400), MS Michael 384 (1399), MS. Oppenheimer 34 (1201-1225) and MS. Oppenheimer 35 (1408). In MS Canon. Or. 81 (1396), the second interpretation about persuading others is found in the margin. In the printed editions, the interpretation was lifted from the margin into the main text.

 

Two arguments

 

A second variation in the manuscripts of Rashi pertains to the argument that Korach made before Moses. In the Midrash two arguments are presented making the case that since all the people are holy, there is no need for a single individual to be appointed high priest:[24] The first argument is based on the law pertaining to the blue wool in the tzitzit:

 

What is written in the preceding passage (Numbers 15:38)? ‘Bid them that they make them… tzitzit (fringes)…and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (techelet).’ Korach jumped up and asked Moses: ‘If a cloak is entirely of blue, what is the law as regards its being exempted from the obligation of tzitzit?’ Moses answered him: ‘It is subject to the obligation of tzitzit.’ Korach retorted: ‘A cloak that is entirely composed of blue cannot free itself from the obligation, yet the four blue threads do free it!?’

 

The second argument is based on the law of the Mezuzah:

 

Korach asked again: ‘If a house is full of scriptural books, what is the law as regards its being exempt from the obligation of mezuzah. Moses answered him: it is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah. Korach argued: ‘The whole Torah, which contains two hundred and seventy five sections, cannot exempt the house, yet the one section in the mezuzah exempts it?! These are things that you have not been commanded, but you are inventing them out of your own mind!’

 

Rashi in his commentary in the printed version only brings one of these arguments -pertaining to the tzitzit:[25]

 

What did he do? He arose and assembled 250 men, fitted to be heads of the Sanhedrin, most of them of the tribe of Reuben who were his neighbours, viz., Elizur the son of Shedeur, (the prince of the tribe of Reuben;),[26] and his colleagues, and others of a similar standing…and he attired them in robes of pure purple wool. They then came and stood before Moses and said to him, “Is a garment that is entirely of purple subject to the law of tzitzit or is it exempt”? He replied to them: “It is subject to that law”. Whereupon they began to jeer at him: “Is this possible? A robe of any different coloured material, one thread of purple attached to it exempts it, and this that is entirely of purple should it not exempt itself from the law of “tzitzit”?[27]

 

In the printed edition and majority of the manuscripts also only the argument of the tzitzit is found. In MS Michael 384 (1399), however, the argument about the mezuzah is also included. What is the significance of the fact that the argument about the mezuzah is omitted in all the versions, including the printed version, besides MS. Michael 384, since the Midrash includes both arguments?

 

We would like to argue that a reason for the latter variation about the omission of the argument about the mezuzah offers insight into former variation, omitting the second interpretation about Korach persuading the people to accompany him. 

 

Three opinions when the rebellion of Korach occurred

 

There are three opinions when the rebellion of Korach occurred: Ibn Ezra maintains that the argument of Korach took place in the Sinai desert when the firstborns were first exchanged for the Levites in prominence. Korach argued that Moses did this on his own accord, to raise his bother Aaron, the sons of Kehot, his relatives, and all the sons of Levi, his family, above everyone else. The Levites thus rose up against Moses because they were slated to be under the authority of Aaron and his sons. Dathan and Aviram rebelled because Moses took away the rights of the firstborn from their father Reuven and gave it to Joseph. As Korach was a firstborn as well, he rebelled.[28]

 

Rashi maintains[29] the rebellion took place in Chatzeirot, justbefore the story of Miriam, who got leprosy for speaking against Moses for separating from Tzippora. The chronology of the narratives according to Ibn Ezra and Rashi is, first came the rebellion of Korach. This was followed by the story of Miriam, and then came the story of the spies.[30] Ibn Ezra and Rashi only differ whether the rebellion of Korach took place earlier in the Sinai desert or later in Chatzeirot but both agree about the order they occurred.

 

Nachmanides maintains the events with Korach occurred in the order that the Torah presents them: in the Paran desert, at Kodeish Barnea, after the incident of the spies. The reason why they waited until they arrived in the desert of Paran to rebel was due to the fact that many people had died in Taveirah[31] and Kivros Hataavoh,[32] the leaders of the tribes had died in a plague in the story of the spies, and the decree befell the people not to enter the land and to die in the wilderness. As a result, the people were embittered, and Korach saw an opportunity to dispute with Moses, as the people would be prepared to listen to him.[33]

 

Rashi manuscripts – tzitzit and mezuzah argument

 

Based on the above we can argue the following: According to view that the story of Korach follows the spies, as the opinion of Nachmanides, the laws of the tzitzit that comes at the end of the story of the spies, is also just before the story of Korach. If this is the case, there is no intrinsic connection between tzitzit and the rebellion of Korach beyond the fact that they are in chronological order in the text. Accordingly, it makes sense that the arguments of Korach in fact may have had two components: the case of the tzitzit and the case of the mezuzah. According to Ibn Ezra and Rashi, however, that the story of Korach belongs before the story of Miriam and is not in chronological order, a distinct reason for the juxtaposition of the story of Korach next to the tzitzit laws is required. In this context, the reason for the juxtaposition is in connection with the use of the tzitzit in Korach’s argument: why there should not be a high priesthood, since the whole camp is holy. In this regard, the second argument about the mezuzah – with no juxtaposition - is not relevant.

 

And Korach took

 

This explains also why some manuscripts of Rashi omits the interpretation that ‘And Korach took’ refers to the taking of the tzitzit. Based on the above, that according to Rashi, the laws of tzitzit and rebellion of Korach are not in chronological order, only the argument of Korach utilising the laws of tzitzit connects to the two texts, but this is not at all relevant to the literal understanding of the text: ‘And Korach took.’ Since they are not in fact chronological order, according to the view of Rashi, it does not make sense to say that ‘And Korach took’ means that Korach physically took tzitzit – the subject of the text just prior that did not in fact take place at that time

 

This brings us to the reason why Rashi also does not mention in the manuscripts – in the main text – and the printed edition the interpretation that ‘And Korach took’ means ‘persuaded’ the people to accompany him. In many of the above interpretations the statement ‘And Korach took’ is either connected to the prior text – the tzitzit laws – or afterwards: the people whom Korach persuaded. While Rashi expounds on the connection between the conceptual argument of Korach and the laws of tzitzit, Rashi distinctly does not connect the statement ‘And Korach took’ with the interpretations of the text of the Torah itself that appears before the statement ‘And Korach took’ - and likewise not after.

 

The problem with connecting to the text after the statement ‘And Korach took’ is that it would be disjointed, as the 250 people that Korach took only appears in a later verse. Alternatively, it would entail adding a word: ‘people’ (anashim) after the statement ‘And Korach took’ or, as mentioned above, removing the word - ‘and’ before ‘Dathan’ in the text. If in fact Rashi were to choose from these two possible connections – the text prior or after – it would have perhaps made more sense, if not for the fact that they are not chronologically connected, to interpret the statement ‘And Korach took’ with the prior text about the tzitzit, as it is less disjointed and does not require any adding, removing or passing over a part of the text. For this reason Rashi chooses to select the interpretation found in the Aramaic translation that offers a stand-alone interpretation of the statement ‘And Korach took,’ suggesting that Korach took himself – separated - in dissention, thereby also highlighting the main aspect of the sin of Korach, namely: dissention and quarrelling, as opposed to maintaining unity and peace amongst the Jewish people.

 

 


 

[1] He was provoked by the fact that his nephew Eltzafan ben Uziel – the youngest of the four sons of Kehot was appointed prince over the Kahat clan, instead of Korach, who was the first born of Yitzhar, the second oldest son of Kehot.

[2] Numbers 16:1-3.

[3] Genesis 12:5. See Rashbam on Numbers 16:1.

[4] Rashbam: ‘And Korach took: It is like (Genesis 12:5): ‘And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Here too ‘And Korach took.’ Similarly, Rabbi Avraham (Ibn Ezra): ‘And Korach took (people):’ this is written in an abbreviated manner, as in I Samuel (16:20): ‘And Jesse took a donkey (laden with) bread, and an earthenware jug of wine, and a kid; and he sent them with David his son, to Saul.’ Similarly, it should be read: ‘And Korach took people.’’

[5] Chizkuni on Numbers 16:1, quoted also in Nachmanides: ‘And Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, and Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab’ - should be read similar to the verse in Genesis (36:24): ‘And these are the sons of Zibeon: (and) Aiah and Anah he is Anah who found the mules in the wilderness when he pastured the donkeys for his father Zibeon.’ Where it states ‘and Aiah,’ it should be read without ‘and;’ similarly, the correct reading of the verse should be: ‘And Korach took Dathan…’ – omitting ‘and’ before ‘Dathan.’

[6] Nachmanides agues that one does not need to omit letters that appear extra or add missing words to make the verse make sense but can be understood as it is, whereby the object sometimes appears later on in the verse and one must read the text accordingly, as can be found in II Samuel (18:18): ‘And Absalom had taken and established for himself in his lifetime, the monument which is in the king's valley for he said, "I have no son in order to cause (people) to remember my name;" and he called the monument after his own name, and they called it Yad Absalom until this day.’ One may interpret this verse: ‘And Absalom had taken the monument and established for himself in his lifetime.’ Similarly, one should red the verse: ‘And Korah took two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community and they combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them…’

[7] Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi (quoted in Ibn Ezra): ‘And Korach took’ refers directly to the following verse: ‘to rise up against’ someone.

[8] Numbers end of chapter 15.

[9] Bamidbar Rabba 18:3: Now Korah took. What is written in the preceding passage (Numbers 15:38)? ‘Bid them that they make them… tzitzit (fringes)…and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (techelet).’ Korach jumped up and asked Moses: ‘If a cloak is entirely of blue, what is the law as regards its being exempted from the obligation of tzitzit?’ Moses answered him: ‘It is subject to the obligation of tzitzit.’ Korach retorted: ‘A cloak that is entirely composed of blue cannot free itself from the obligation, yet the four blue threads do free it!?’ Korach asked again: ‘If a house is full of scriptural books, what is the law as regards its being exempt from the obligation of mezuzah. Moses answered him: it is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah. Korach argued: ‘The whole Torah, which contains two hundred and seventy five sections, cannot exempt the house, yet the one section in the mezuzah exempts it?! These are things that you have not been commanded, but you are inventing them out of your own mind!’ This interpretation is reflected in the Aramaic translation of Talmudic sage Rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel (Numbers 16:1): ‘But Korach bar Tizhar bar Kehat, bar Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On bar Peleth, of the Beni-Reuben, took his robe which was all of hyacinth.’

[10] Bamidbar Rabba 18:2: ‘The expression ‘taking,’ cannot but denote ‘drawing along with persuasive words’ all the chiefs of Israel and the Sanhedrin having been drawn after him. Thus, in the case of Moses it says, ‘And Moses and Aaron took these men’ (Numbers 1:17). Similarly, ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him’ (Leviticus 8:2). In the same strain it says, ‘Take with you words’ (Hosea 11:5). Also, ‘And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house’ (Genesis 12:15). This bears out the explanation that ‘Now Korach took’ means that he drew their hearts with persuasive words.’

[11] As in Genesis 23:13: ‘I am giving the money for the field; take [it] from me, and I will bury my dead there."’ See Talmud Kiddushin 2.

[12] Sanhedrin 109b: ‘Reish Lakish says: He purchased [lakaḥ] a bad acquisition for himself,[12] as through his actions he drove himself from the world.’

[13] Sanhedrin 110a: Korach’s wife said to him: See what Moses is doing. He is the king, he appointed his brother High Priest, and he appointed his brother’s sons deputy priests. If teruma comes, he says: Let it be for the priest; if the first tithe comes, which you as Levites take, he says: Give one tenth to the priest. And furthermore, he shears your hair and waves you as if you are as insignificant as excrement (Numbers 8:5–11), as though he set his sights on your hair and wishes you to be shaven and unsightly. Korach said to her: But didn’t he also do so; he shaved his hair like the rest of the Levites? She said to him: Since it is all done for his own prominence, he also said metaphorically: “Let me die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30); he was willing to humiliate himself in order to humiliate you. She said to him: And furthermore, with regard to that which he said to you, to prepare sky-blue dye for your ritual fringes, one could respond to him: If it enters your mind, Moses, that using sky-blue dye is considered a mitzva, take out robes that are made entirely of material colored with sky-blue dye, and dress all the students of your academy in sky-blue robes without ritual fringes; why could one not fulfill the mitzva in that manner? Clearly, Moses is fabricating all this.’ This commentary may be reflected in the Targum Jerusalem on Numbers 16:1: ‘And Korach took counsel, and made division.’

[14] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2, quoted also by Rashi on Numbers 16:1: As in Job 15:12: “Why doth thy heart take thee aside (יקחך)”, meaning, it takes you aside to separate you from other people.

[15] Onkelos translates ‘And he took’ ואתפלג — ‘he separated himself.’ Rashi follows this interpretation (Numbers 16:1): ‘And Korach took — He betook himself on one side with the view of separating himself from out of the community so that he might raise a protest regarding the priesthood to which Moses had appointed his brother. This is what Onkelos means when he renders it by ואתפלג — “he separated himself” from the rest of the community in order to maintain dissension. Similar is, (Job 15:12) “Why doth thy heart take thee aside (יקחך)”, meaning, it takes you aside to separate you from other people (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2).

[16] Noam Elimelech by 17th century Polish Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787) on Numbers 16:1: The phrase ‘And Korach took’ may be understood in connection with the immediate following words regarding his lineage: ‘son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi.’ In this context, drawing on the translation offered by Onkelos ‘v’itpalag’ – he became separated, has the following meaning: he separated himself as wicked through which by contrast the great righteousness of his ancestors – Yitzhar, Kehat and Levi -  becomes pronounced. This is similar to the interpretation of the verse in Genesis:[16] ‘And G-d said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water.”’ The firmament refers to the righteous, who are refined as the firmament, and the water is compared to the Torah, through which the righteous has the ability to repair the world.

[17] 19th century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (1799-1866),[17] further develops the idea of separation in the context of ‘Let it be a separation between water and water’ - that the aim of Korach with his dissention was more broadly to maintain a separation between G-d and existence. The two waters represent the level of Divine understanding (binah) and the emotions (za) and kingship (malchut) – the source for the existence of the world. The purpose of the Torah was to bring peace between the spiritual and existence, whereas Korach desired to maintain the separation of the world as an apparent independent existence from the Divine.

[18] Numbers 16:1.

[19] Job 15:12.

[20] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2. There are two ways to understand Rashi’s commentary: 1. Nachmanides writes: The words of the Midrash is not however like the words of Rashi, but rather the meaning of the Midrash is that ‘And he took’ means separation in the sense that his heart took him, as in Job (15:12): “Why doth thy heart take thee aside. Taking here means in the context of counsel and thought, as in the idea that a person may think that G-d does not know or judge. This is similar to Job (22:13): ‘Is not G-d in the height of heaven, and [does He not] behold the topmost of the stars, which are lofty? And you say, 'What does G-d know? Does He judge through the dark cloud?’ This is further similar to Proverbs (8:10-11): ‘Take my discipline and not silver; knowledge is chosen above gold. For wisdom is better than pearls; all desirable things cannot be compared to it,’ and Jeremiah (17:23): ‘But they did not hearken, neither did they bend their ear[s], and they hardened their nape not to hearken and not to receive instruction.’ This is what Onkelos means when he renders it by ואתפלג — “he separated himself” – he is referring to the idea but the not the word ‘take’ itself. This is also similar to the what Onkelos translates (Numbers 17:14): ‘The number of dead in the plague was fourteen thousand, seven hundred, besides those who died because of the matter of Korah’ – the separation of Korach, and in (Numbers 31:16): ‘They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice (dvar) to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord.’ 2. Rashi according to Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi – counsel took Korach: ‘Rashi commentary is referring to Korach separating himself in his ideas but not physical separation from the people. In this sense, Korach did not take counsel, as Nachmanides suggests from Proverbs (8:10-11): ‘Take my discipline and not silver,’ but rather counsel took hold of Korach. In this context, it is as if the verse states: ‘And he took Korach (Vayikach et Korach),’ or ‘Korach was taken (Vayukach Korach),’ as opposed to ‘And Korach took.’ 3. Bartenura: Korach took argument for himself.

[21] Leviticus 8:2.

[22] Hosea 14:3.

[23] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 1.

[24] Bamidbar Rabba 18:3. Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2.

[25] Rashi on Numbers 16:4.

[26] Numbers 1:5.

[27] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2.

[28] Nachmanides counters that this was done by Jacob, not Moses, and is therefore the reason for the rebellion.

[29] According to Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi on 13:1, the reason why Rashi asks the reason for the juxtaposition of spies with the story of Miriam is because the stories are in fact in chronological order in any event, since the story of Korach should have been before the story of Miriam, as indicated in Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1.

[30] This is based on the verse in Deuteronomy (1:1): ‘These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.’ Rashi comments: ‘Concerning the insurrection of Korach, which took place in Hazeroth (Eileh Hadevarim Rabbah , Lieberman). Another explanation: He said to them, “You should have learned from what I did to Miriam at Hazeroth because of slander; [nevertheless,] you spoke against the Omnipresent” (Sifrei).’

[31] 11:1.

[32] 11:33.

[33] This reasoning is indicated in Korach’s statement: “To kill us in the desert.”

 

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