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Parsha and Manuscript: Korach

Friday, 5 July, 2019 - 1:52 am

 

CCCMS165 fol. 113 Korach1.pngThe Torah portion of Korach discusses the rebellion of Korach and two hundred and fifty men against Moses for having chosen himself as king, his brother Aaron as High Priest and his nephew Eltzafan ben Uziel – the youngest of the four sons of Kehot - as prince over the family of Kehot, as opposed to Korach, the first born of Yitzhar, the second oldest son of Kehot.

 

The Torah opens the story of Korach with the following:[1]

 

 

(1) 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— (2) And they rose up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. (3) 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?”

 

The opening words in the story of Korach ‘And Korach took’ without an obvious reference to what Korach took allows for a great number of commentaries with many possible interpretations. The commentaries can be summarised into two general categories: literal and figurative. The figurative may also be summarised into two categories: speech and thought. The category of thought may be summarised into two: moral and philosophical. We will explore the different perspectives offered by the commentaries on this question, from the Midrash and Talmud through the medieval period up until the 19th century, focusing particularly on the commentary of Rashi. In this context we will look at two variations of Rashi’s commentary as found in the Hebrew manuscripts at the Oxford Bodleian Library and other libraries at Oxford.

 

Literal

 

Many of the commentaries prefer to understand the words ‘And he took’ literally, as is the case in most places in the Torah.[2] In this context, one may read the text in the following ways: 1. The verse is abbreviated and means to say that Korach took ‘people’ (anashim) with him.[3] 2. The verse means to say that Korach took Dathan and Aviram. The word ‘and’ (the Hebrew letter vav) that appears before ‘Dathan,’ should be overlooked, as is the style of the biblical text in other places.[4] 3. The verse is disjointed and should be read that Korach took the 250 men mentioned in the following verse.[5] 4. The verse should be connected with the words ‘to rise up’ in the following verse.[6] 5. The verse should be read that Korach took his cloak (tzitzit), which is mentioned in the earlier chapter[7] that is juxtaposed to this verse. 6. The verse may be read that Korach took his cloak with the tzitzit which he used to argue 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.[8]

 

 

Figurative - other

 

Other commentaries prefer to understand the words ‘And he took’ figuratively through speech. The verse may be thus read: 1. Korach persuaded people through argument to join him in his rebellion.[9] 2. A further interpretation is Korach purchased a bad acquisition for himself,[10] as through his actions he was punished.[11] 3. He took counsel from his wife, who supported him in his rebellion. [12]

 

Figurative – the self

 

A third set of commentaries have the view that Korach ‘took’ in a figurative sense not any other person or from any other person but that he took himself. The translation of the word ‘take’ according to this approach is based on the Aramaic translation of Onkelos - ‘separated’ (itpalag) This can be understood in the following ways: 1. His heart took him to set himself apart from the rest of the people in dissention.[13] 2. The word: ‘And he took’ (vayikach) should be read ‘and he became separated.’[14] 3. He separated himself from the righteousness of his ancestors.[15] 3. Jewish mysticism compares the idea of separation of Korach through dissention and division to the separation of the waters in Genesis in the second day of creation that is not pronounced as good until the third day. Division of the second day and the behaviour of Korach thus represents the division between the higher realm of the Divine and the lower worlds, whereas Moses through the giving of the Torah represents the harmony between the higher and the lower.[16]

 

 

Rashi – two interpretations

 

In the commentary of Rashi, he combines the two latter categories: the taking and separation of the self from the community and the taking of the other through speech. Rashi states:[17]

 

 

(1)  And Korach took: He betook himself on one side with the view of separating himself from 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,[18] “Why doth thy heart take thee aside (יקחך)”, meaning, it takes you aside to separate you from other people.[19]

 

(2)  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:[20] “Take (קח) Aaron”;[21] “Take (קחו) words with you.”[22]

 

 

Manuscripts

 

In the Oxford manuscripts the history of the text of Rashi appears to have had three stages: In all the manuscripts in the main text, the second interpretation about persuading with speech is not found. This is the case in the following manuscripts: 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), MS. Oppenheimer 35 (1408). In a single manuscript, the second interpretation may be found in the margin. This is the case in MS Canon. Or. 81 (1396). The third stage is the lifting of the interpretation from the margin into the main text as we find it today.

 

Two arguments

 

MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 81 (1408) Korach.pngA further variation in the manuscripts of Rashi pertains to the argument that Korach made against Moses. Two particular arguments are presented in Midrash making the case that as all the people are holy, there should be no need for the high priesthood:[23]

 

 

Blue wool argument

 

1.     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!?’

 

Mezuzah argument

 

2.     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 blue wool:[24]

 

 

What did he do? He arose and assembled 250 men, fit 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;),[25] 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”?[26]

 

 

In the printed edition and majority of the manuscripts only one of the arguments is found: the argument of the tzitzit. In MS Michael 384 (1399), however, the second argument about the mezuzah is also included. The question may be asked, why is the second argument about the mezuzah omitted in all the versions, including the printed version, besides the MS. Michael 384, since the source in the Midrash includes both arguments?

 

Chronology

 

I would like the propose that the answer to the second question about he omission of the second argument about the mezuzah may offer some insight into the first subject about the version of Rashi in his earliest manuscript editions that only offers the single interpretation in the phrase ‘And Korach took.’

 

There are three opinions when the rebellion of Korach took place: in the wilderness of Sinai, in Chatzerot and the wilderness of Paran.

 

1. Ibn Ezra maintains that the argument of Korach took place in the Sinai desert when the firstborn were exchanged for the Levites in prominence. It was thought that Moses did this on his own accord, because he wanted to uplift his brother Aaron, the sons of Kehot, his relatives, and all the sons of Levi, his family. The Levites thus rose up against Moses because they were designated 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 them to Joseph. Korach was a firstborn as well.[27]

 

 

2. Rashi is of the opinion[28] that the rebellion of Korach took place not in the wilderness of Sinai but in Chatzerot, just before the story with Miriam, who was punished with leprosy for speaking against her brother Moses after separating from his wife Tzippora. The chronology of the narratives according to Ibn Ezra and Rashi is thus: Korach, Miriam, spies,[29] though they differ how far apart the stories of Korach and Miriam were.

 

3. Nachmanides maintains the event with Korach occurred in the order that the Torah presents it, 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 was due to the fact that many had died in Taveirah[30] and Kivrot Hata'avoh,[31] the leaders of the tribes had died in a plague in the story of the spies, as well as the decree upon the entire people not to enter the land and to die in the wilderness. As a result, the people were embittered, and Korach saw the opportunity now to dispute with Moses, when the people would listen to him.[32]

 

 

If the story of Korach is in the correct order of the Torah, then the laws about the tzitzit would have also been in the order its presented before the story of Korach. If this were the case, there would be no unique connection between tzitzit and the arguments of Korach beyond the fact that they happen to be adjacent to each other due to chronology. The arguments of Korach in fact had two components: the case of the tzitzit and the case of the mezuzah. According to Rashi, however, that the story of Korach actually belongs before the story of Miriam, a 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.

 

This may also explain a reason for the omission of the interpretation in Rashi that ‘And Korach took’ refers to the taking of the tzitzit, since in Rashi’s view they are not in chronological order. Thus, while the argument of Korach might be connected with the laws of tzitzit and thus the juxtaposition – the text of the Torah does not naturally follow from one to the other.

 

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 Korach ‘took’ means ‘persuaded.’ In most of the above interpretations of the work ‘take’ there is either a connection between the words prior – the tzitzit laws – or afterwards, the ‘people’ that Moses took or persuaded. While Rashi expounds on the connection between the argument of Korach and the laws of tzitzit, he, as mentioned, does not use the connection of the text of the Torah as a way to explain in his commentary the ‘taking’ of Korach.

 

In addition to the above consideration about the lack of chronology, the reason for this is since it is not implied in the plain reading of the text that Korach took the tzitzit. In the same vein the other interpretations that Korach took – ‘people’ is also not implied in the text, as there would be either a disjointedness in the text, as the 250 people that Korach took only appears in a later verse or entails adding a word – ‘people’ (anashim) - or removing a word - ‘and’ before ‘Dathan’ in the text. If in fact Rashi were to choose from these two possible connections of the text – the text prior or after – it would have perhaps been more logical, if not for the fact that they are not chronologically connected, to connect the ‘taking’ of Korach 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 a single interpretation drawing from Onkelos’ translation that offers a stand-alone interpretation of the ‘and Korach took,’ suggesting that Korach took himself aside – separated - in dissention, highlighting the main aspect of the sin of Korach, namely dissention and quarrelling, as opposed to maintain unity and peace, amongst the Jewish people.


 

 


 

Footnotes 

[1] Numbers 16:1-3.

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

[3] 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.’’

[4] 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.’

[5] 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…’

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

[7] Numbers end of chapter 15.

[8] 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 Kehath, 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.’

[9] 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.’

[10] 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.

[11] Sanhedrin 109b: ‘Reish Lakish says: He purchased [lakaḥ] a bad acquisition for himself,[11] as through his actions he drove himself from the world.’

[12] 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.’

[13] 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.

[14] 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).

[15] 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:[15] ‘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.

[16] 19th century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (1799-1866),[16] 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.

[17] Numbers 16:1.

[18] Job 15:12.

[19] 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.

[20] Leviticus 8:2.

[21] Hosea 14:3.

[22] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 1.

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

[24] Rashi on Numbers 16:4.

[25] Numbers 1:5.

[26] Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2.

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

[28] 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.

[29] 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).’

[30] 11:1.

[31] 11:33.

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

 

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