Parashat Korah 5770/ June 12, 2010
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Leprosy and the Priesthood – a Recovered Derasha?
Rabbi Dr. Yirmiyahu Malhi
Department of Talmud
This week’s reading tells us in great detail about the argument Korah and his band picked with Moses, which ended with the earth opening and engulfing them, while the 250 men who offered incense were consumed by fire that came from G-d. Afterwards Eleazar son of Aaron the priest was commanded to take the incense pans and hammer them into plating for the altar, so that they would be “a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider” should presume to offer incense. This verse raises an exegetical difficulty, especially its conclusion:  “A reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume to offer incense before the Lord and suffer the fate of Korah and his band, as the Lord had ordered him through Moses” (ka'asher dibber Hashem beyad Moshe lo--Num. 17:5). The last clause is unclear and even seems to be redundant.
Because of the difficulty in this verse, Rashi's comment on it has also come down to us in several variations. We shall present his commentary as it appears in printed editions of the Pentateuch, comparing that with Rashi as quoted by Nahmanides.
Printed editions of Rashi read as follows:
So that … not suffer the fate of Korah – so that he not be as Korah. As the Lord had ordered him through Moses – concerning him, that is, He spoke to Moses regarding Aaron, that he and his sons should be priests. Hence the continuation “that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume…” Likewise, whenever it says, “to me (li),” “to him (lo),” or “to them (lahem),” in conjunction with speaking (dibber), it means “concerning, about, me, him, or them.” [This was the simple meaning, peshat.] According to its homiletic interpretation, lo 'concerning him' means concerning Korah. What is meant by 'through Moses' (be- yad Moshe, lit. “by the hand of Moses”), and why did it not say “to Moses” [meaning, 'as G-d spoke to Moses concerning Korah']? This hints that those who challenge the priesthood become afflicted with leprosy as Moses did, for it says, “and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales” (Ex. 4:6); and therefore Uzziah [King of Judah, 769-733 B.C.E.] became afflicted with leprosy. 
Nahmanides cites Rashi as follows:
As the Lord had ordered him through Moses – concerning him, meaning concerning Korah; and why does it say through Moses and not “to Moses”? This intimates that those who challenge the priesthood become afflicted with leprosy, as Moses’ hand became affected; and for this Uzziah became afflicted with leprosy. According to the plain sense, it means that he [an outsider who offers incense] will not be swallowed up and burned, as Korah and his band had been, but rather that he be punished as was done to Moses on his hand, that he was affected with leprosy. Others explain as follows: that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume, as the Lord had ordered him [Aaron] through Moses, that he and his offspring, not outsiders, should be priests; this is a quote from Rabbi Solomon's [ Rashi] commentary.
First let us consider the exegetical problems facing Rashi. 1) What is the meaning of “him” [Heb. lo], at the end of the verse? Is the antecedent, Aaron, Korah, or perhaps someone else? 2) Why does it say, “as the Lord had ordered through Moses,” the more usual formulation being, “the Lord spoke to [el] Moses,” not “through.”
To recap what we have seen above: The printed editions of Rashi’s commentary contain two interpretations. According to the first one, “him” refers to Aaron and means “concerning him,” i.e., that Aaron and his offspring, not outsiders, should be the priests, as Scripture indeed says: “that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume to offer incense before the Lord.” In the second interpretation, dubbed as the midrashic approach (as opposed to the first, which Rashi apparently viewed as the plain sense of Scripture), “him” refers to Korah, hinting to those who would challenge the priesthood, such as Uzziah, that they would be afflicted with leprosy. This is intimated by the use of the expression be-yad Moshe (rendered as “through Moses” but also meaning “by the hand of Moses”) – just as Moses became afflicted with leprosy on his hand (Ex.4:6), so Uzziah became afflicted with leprosy.
Leprosy and the Priesthood
Now we must consider the origin of the derasha that those who challenge the priesthood are smitten with leprosy. This homily appears twice, one source being Targum Pseudo- Jonathan (Num. 17:6), translated into English as follows: 
One not of the offspring of Aaron shall not presume to offer incense before the Lord, nor shall one comport oneself such as to challenge the priesthood, as did Korah and his gang; in the end he will be lost, not as Korah and his gang died, consumed by fire and swallowed by the earth, rather by being quarantined (with leprosy).
The second appearance of this midrashic
theme is in Midrash Tanhuma
Assemble the whole community (Lev.8:3)– the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Pay him tribute in front of all Israel so that they see him today being installed as High Priest, and caution them not to challenge the priesthood as Korah and his band did, being swallowed up, for I know that Uzziah is destined to challenge the priesthood, as it is written, “a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider presume…” (Num. 17:5). He is not from the offspring of Levi, as was Korah, nor is he from the offspring of Aaron. Forthwith, “Uzziah, holding the censer and ready to burn incense, got angry; but as he got angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead.” Moses said to Him: what will You do to him? He answered, “as the Lord spoke by the hand of/through Moses concerning him.” He asked, “And what be that?” He answered: As I did to your hand, “and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales,” so shall I do to him. 
Maimonides, too, was aware of a connection between leprosy and challenging the priesthood and used this connection in another matter. We cite from Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, under the eighth fundament. In his introduction to his list of commandments, Maimonides presents fourteen “roots” or principles by which we are to know when obligations and warnings are to be included in the list of positive and negative commandments, and when they are not to be included. We cite from the eighth root: 
The eighth fundament is that one should not include the
negation of an obligation along with the warning; for you might be commanded to
do a certain thing or not to do a certain thing, just as you might command
someone to eat, and you would say to him, “Eat,” or you might command someone
to abstain from eating, and you would say to him, “Do not eat,” etc.
Indeed negating an obligation is another
matter, such as when a subject is negated from its predicate, and this is in no
way a [negative] commandment. For example,
when it says, “so that one not be as Korah and his
band”; this is a negation and has been interpreted as indicating that the
Almighty told us that whoever challenges the priesthood will not suffer the
fate of Korah and his gang, being swallowed and burned,
but will indeed be punished, “as the Lord spoke by the hand of Moses,” i.e., by
leprosy. For the Almighty said to him,
“Put your hand into your bosom” (Ex. 4:6); and further proof has been brought
from what happened to Uzziah, king of
What is the Connection?
In spite of all we have said, it is still unclear why there should be any connection between challenging the priesthood and leprosy. Is this a homiletic interpretation based on a verse, or is it a fundamental internal connection, some sort of measure for measure?
From the Rashi cited above it seems that we are dealing with a homily based on the expression be- yad Moshe, “by the hand of Moses,” alluding to the leprosy that emerged on his hand. But one could also see this as reflecting a very important inner connection, in the vein of measure for measure. Tractate Arakhin (16a) says: Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani, citing Rabbi Johanan, said: a person becomes afflicted on the tongue for seven things… for being uncouth, as it is written: “When he grew strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly: he trespassed against his G-d… leprosy broke out on his forehead” (II Chron. 26:16-19).
In the case of King Uzziah, he grew arrogant and challenged the priesthood, claiming that he, and not just the sons of Aaron, was worthy of this office. In other words, he wanted to be considered in the elite group. Therefore, he was punished measure for measure, being smitten with leprosy and expelled from all human society, thus suffering the greatest humiliation. So Korah, arrogantly thinking himself worthy of the priesthood, was dissident, and therefore the punishment for someone dissident like him was to be smitten with leprosy.
A Possible Derasha
Nevertheless, it does seem likely that underlying all this there seems to have been a real homily (derasha) which has passed into oblivion. A hint can be found in the Talmud, at the end of Tractate Berakhot (64a). Several homilies are presented there in response to the question why one passage is juxtaposed to another, and what can be learned from the juxtaposition. We quote:
Rav said: why was the passage on Nazirites (Num. 6) juxtaposed to the passage on a wayward wife (ibid. 5)? To indicate that whoever views his wife as wayward ought to refrain from drinking wine. Hizkiya … citing Rabbi Johanan: why was the passage on a wayward wife juxtaposed to the passage on donations and tithes (ibid. 5:9-10)? To indicate that he who has donations and tithes which he has not turned over to the priest, in the end his wife will make him need the priest. For it says (Num. 5:10), “And each shall retain his sacred donations,” and in juxtaposition, “If any man’s wife has gone astray,” and there it says, “the man shall bring his wife to the priest” (Num. 5:15). Moreover, in the end he will need them, as it is written, “and each shall retain his sacred donation” (Num. 15:10).
Thus we have two interpretations of the verse: he who withholds donations from the priests will end the end need the services of the priest, be it on account of his wife, be it on account of becoming impoverished and needing to receive tithes for the poor. Rashi’s comments there in Berakhot is as follows: “This is our reading: ‘and each shall retain his sacred donation’ is juxtaposed to the text, ‘If any man’s wife has gone astray,’ for it is written, ‘the man shall bring his wife to the Kohen…,’ and according to the other, ‘in the end he will need them on account of becoming impoverished,’ and will therefore need to receive poor tithes.” Note that Rashi begins with the words, “this is our reading,” indicating that he had several variants in the Talmud before him and sought to determine which, in his opinion, was the correct reading.
Rashi also used these two homilies in his commentary on the Torah (Num. 5:10-12). The second one, that whoever withholds donations from the priests will in the end become impoverished, he cites as the second interpretation, calling it an aggadic homily, whereas the first, that whoever withholds donations from the priests will in the end need to turn to the priest on account of his wife going astray, he brings as the interpretation of verse 12: “If any man’s wife has gone astray.”
In 1979, the
talmudist Prof. H. Dimitrovsky
published an anthology entitled Seridei
from the Babylonian Talmud],
 in which
he collected pages and fragments of pages from versions of the Talmud coming
from Spain and Portugal, dating from the last decade prior to the expulsion.
These pages contain the Talmud, along with
Rashi’s commentary, but no Tosafot.
concluded that the textual variants on these pages,
 both in
the gemara as well as in Rashi’s
commentary, attests to these Spanish sources forming a “corpus with an
independent tradition, whose differences stem not from the work of copyists,
rather are due to relying on an ancient self-contained source.”
Indeed, we are reminded of phrases commonly
used by the rabbis of
1) S.v., “he should refrain from drinking wine” [in answer to the question of the juxtaposition of the passage on Nazirites to the passage on a wayward wife], since the wayward wife went astray on account of drunkenness.
2) S.v., “moreover, he will need them” – he himself will need the priest on account of affections, as it is written (Num. 5:10), “and each shall retain his sacred donation”: he who withholds his sacred donation, will have need of the priest through the word lo (= to him), i.e., due to leprosy, as it is written (Ex. 4:6), “The Lord said to him further.”
According to this version of the text, the meaning of the phrase, “in the end he will need the priest,” is altogether different from our version: not that he will need him on account of having become impoverished and needing to receive the poor tithe, but that he will have need of the priest to examine his affliction, having become afflicted with leprosy. The homily here is based on a parallel reading of the word lo (= to him), which appears with respect to leprosy – “The Lord said to him further” (Ex. 4:6) – and here – “and each shall retain his (lo) sacred donation.”
This hints that some
no-longer-extant source that once existed in the batei
 [Perhaps for this reason the concluding clause was moved to the beginning of the verse in the New JPS Translation of the Torah—editor's note]
 Uzziah's leprosy is connected in 2Chron.26:16-21 with his desire to sacrifice as a priest. Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 15 connects Uzziah's sin with that of Korah.
 Targum Ps-J is a Palestinian Targum which weaves midrashic homilies into the Aramaic translation.
 This is the formulation, with slight variation, in Tanhuma Buber.
 Cited from printed editions of Sefer ha- Mitzvot, pp. 55, 57.
currently know of at least two editions from that time:
the Guadalajara Talmud (
 The text
of these pages is different from that of Talmuds
 Loc. sit., Introduction, Historic Bibliographic Introduction, p. 12.
 For example, cf. Nahmanides, Milhamot Hashem, Betzah 2.883, and Rashba’s new insights on Yebamot 54.1.
 Y. Malhi, “Al nusah perush Rashi le- masekhet Berakhot she-be-sefer Ein Yaakov,” Sinai, 98, Sept.-Oct. 1986, pp. 49-56.