Korach (parsha) - in Classical Rabbinic Interpretation - Numbers Chapter 16

Numbers Chapter 16

A Midrash taught that Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On all fell in together in their conspiracy, as described in Numbers 16:1, because they lived near each other on the same side of the camp. The Midrash thus taught that the saying, “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor!” applies to Dathan and Abiram. Numbers 3:29 reports that the descendants of Kohath, among whom Korah was numbered, lived on the south side of the Tabernacle. And Numbers 2:10 reports that the descendants of Reuben, among whom Dathan and Abiram were numbered, lived close by, as they also lived on the south side of the Tabernacle. (Numbers Rabbah 18:5.)

Amram Izhar Hebron Uzziel
Miriam Aaron Moses Korah Nepheg Zichri Mishael Elzaphan Sithri

A Midrash taught that Korah took issue with Moses in Numbers 16:1 because Moses had (as Numbers 3:30 reports) appointed Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as prince of the Kohathites, and Korah was (as Exodus 6:21 reports) son of Uzziel's older brother Izhar, and thus had a claim to leadership prior to Elizaphan. (Midrash Tanhuma Korah 1.)

Resh Lakish interpreted the words “Korah . . . took” in Numbers 16:1 to teach that Korah took a bad bargain for himself. As the three Hebrew consonants that spell Korah’s name also spell the Hebrew word for “bald” (kereach), the Gemara deduced that he was called Korah because he caused a bald spot to be formed among the Israelites when the earth swallowed his followers. As the name Izhar (יִצְהָר) in Numbers 16:1 derived from the same Hebrew root as the word “noon” (צָּהֳרָיִם, tzohorayim), the Gemara deduced from “son of Izhar” that Korah was a son who brought upon himself anger hot as the noon sun. As the name Kohath (קְהָת) in Numbers 16:1 derived from the same Hebrew root as the word for “set on edge” (קהה, kihah), the Gemara deduced from “son of Kohath” that Korah was a son who set his ancestors’ teeth on edge. The Gemara deduced from the words “son of Levi” in Numbers 16:1 that Korah was a son who was escorted to Gehenna. The Gemara asked why Numbers 16:1 did not say “the son of Jacob,” and Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac answered that Jacob had prayed not to be listed amongst Korah's ancestors in Genesis 49:6, where it is written, “Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united.” “Let my soul not come into their council” referred to the spies, and “unto their assembly let my glory not be united” referred to Korah’s assembly. As the name Dathan (דָתָן) in Numbers 16:1 derived from the same Hebrew root as the word “law” (דָּת, dat), the Gemara deduced from Dathan’s name that he violated God’s law. The Gemara related the name Abiram (אֲבִירָם) in Numbers 16:1 to the Hebrew word for “strengthened” (iber) and deduced from Abiram’s name that he stoutly refused to repent. The Gemara related the name On (אוֹן) in Numbers 16:1 to the Hebrew word for “mourning” (אנינה, aninah) and deduced from On’s name that he sat in lamentations. The Gemara related the name Peleth (פֶּלֶת) in Numbers 16:1 to the Hebrew word for “miracles” (pelaot) and deduced from Peleth’s name that God performed wonders for him. And as the name Reuben (רְאוּבֵן) derived from the Hebrew words “see” (reu) and “understand” (מבין, mavin), the Gemara deduced from the reference to On as a “son of Reuben” in Numbers 16:1that On was a son who saw and understood. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109b.)

Numbers 16:1–2 reports that the Reubenite On son of Peleth joined Korah’s conspiracy, but the text does not mention On again. Rav explained that On’s wife saved him, arguing to him that no matter whether Moses or Korah prevailed, On would remain just a disciple. On replied that he had sworn to participate. So On’s wife got him drunk with wine, and laid him down in their tent. Then she sat at the entrance of their tent and loosened her hair, so that whoever came to summon him saw her and retreated at the sight of her immodestly loosened hair. The Gemara taught that Proverbs 14:1 refers to On’s wife when it says: “Every wise woman builds her house.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109b–10a.)

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot deduced that the controversy of Korah and his followers was not for the sake of Heaven, and thus was destined not to result in permanent change. The Mishnah contrasted Korah’s argument to those between Hillel and Shammai, which the Mishnah taught were controversies for the sake of Heaven, destined to result in something permanent. (Mishnah Avot 5:17.)

Rabbi Levi taught that God told Moses “enough!” in Deuteronomy 3:26 to repay Moses measure for measure for when Moses told Korah “enough!” in Numbers 16:3. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 13b.)

Rav Adda bar Abahah taught that a person praying alone does not say the Sanctification (Kedushah) prayer (which includes the words from Isaiah 6:3: (קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ, Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tz'vaot melo kol haaretz kevodo, “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts, the entire world is filled with God’s Glory”), because Leviticus 22:32 says: “I will be hallowed among the children of Israel,” and thus sanctification requires ten people (a minyan). Rabinai the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba taught that we derive this by drawing an analogy between the two occurrences of the word “among” (תּוֹךְ, toch) in Leviticus 22:32 (“I will be hallowed among the children of Israel”) and in Numbers 16:21, in which God tells Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from among this congregation,” referring to Korah and his followers. Just as Numbers 16:21, which refers to a congregation, implies a number of at least ten, so Leviticus 22:32 implies at least ten. (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 21b.)

A Midrash expanded on the plea of Moses and Aaron to God in Numbers 16:22 and God’s reply in Numbers 16:24. The Midrash taught that Moses told God that a mortal king who is confronted with an uprising in a province of his kingdom would send his legions to kill all the inhabitants of the province — both innocent and the guilty — because the king would not know who rebelled and who did not. But God knows the hearts and thoughts of each and every person, knows who sinned and who did not, and knows who rebelled and who did not. That is why Moses and Aaron asked God in Numbers 16:22, “Shall one man sin, and will You be wrath with all the congregation?” The Midrash taught that God replied that they had spoken well, and God would make known who had sinned and who had not. (Midrash Tanhuma Korach 7.)

Rabbi Berekiah read Numbers 16:27 to teach how inexorably destructive dispute is. For the Heavenly Court usually does not impose a penalty until a sinner reaches the age of 20. But in Korah’s dispute, even one-day-old babies were consumed by the fire and swallowed up by the earth. For Numbers 16:27 says, “with their wives, and their sons, and their little ones.” (Midrash Tanhuma Korach 3.)

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot taught that the opening of the earth’s mouth in Numbers 16:32 was one of ten miracles that God created at the end of the first week of creation at the eve of the first Sabbath at twilight. (Avot 5:6.)

Rabbi Akiva interpreted Numbers 16:33 to teach that Korah’s assembly will have no portion in the world to come, as the words “the earth closed upon them” reported that they died in this world, and the words “they perished from among the assembly” implied that they died in the next world, as well. But Rabbi Eliezer disagreed, reading 1 Samuel 2:6 to speak of Korah’s assembly when it said: “The Lord kills, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up.” The Gemara cited a Tanna who concurred with Rabbi Eliezer’s position: Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra likened Korah’s assembly to a lost article, which one seeks, as Psalm 119:176 said: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 108a, 109b.)

A Tanna in the name of Rabbi deduced from the words “the sons of Korah did not die” in Numbers 26:11 that Providence set up a special place for them to stand on high in Gehinnom. (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 14a, Sanhedrin 110a.) There, Korah’s sons sat and sang praises to God. Rabbah bar bar Hana told that once when he was travelling, an Arab showed him where the earth swallowed Korah’s congregation. Rabbah bar bar Hana saw two cracks in the ground from which smoke issued. He took a piece of wool, soaked it in water, attached it to the point of his spear, and passed it over the cracks, and the wool was singed. The Arab told Rabbah bar bar Hana to listen, and he heard them saying, “Moses and his Torah are true, but Korah's company are liars.” The Arab told Rabbah bar bar Hana that every 30 days Gehinnom caused them to return for judgment, as if they were being stirred like meat in a pot, and every 30 days they said those same words. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 110a–b.)

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