A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parashat Korach 5758/1998
What the Ladino-Speaking Jews Had to Say about Korach
Dr. Samuel Raphael
Department of Jewish Literature
The culture of Spanish, Ladino-speaking Jews is rich in references to biblical figures. Important people of the Bible hold pride of place in Ladino literature and folk traditions. Popular sayings, stories, and songs have provided suitable vehicles for representing biblical figures, both the admirable and the less admirable. Korach is one of the figures that has become a household word in Ladino culture. Here we shall focus on the way Korach is presented in Ladino folk tradition and literature.
As might be expected, "to become like Korach" (azirsee Korach) is a common phrase among Ladino speakers, meaning to wax rich suddenly. This saying has a pejorative connotation and was used whenever Ladino speakers wished to describe rapid and unfounded acquisition of wealth. One who becomes rich in this way is likely to end up like the biblical figure of Korach. Another common phrase among Ladino speakers is the expression, "to shower Korach's curses on someone's head." (orare las di Korach a uno) This expression goes along with a parallel saying, "Do not let me open my mouth and shower you with the curses of Korach." Korach is mentioned in another context by small children. When Ladino-speaking children used to swear not to repeat a reprehensible deed, they would work Korach's name into their oath. Thus we see that in Ladino folk sayings Korach is perceived as a cursed figure, parallel to the figures of Pharaoh and Sisera.
Ladino speakers were well acquainted with the figure of Korach from Bible commentaries in Ladino, especially the monumental opus, Me'am Lo'ez, which was first written in Ladino and intended as a popular commentary on the Torah and the Five Megillot, although few people recall this fact. The story of Korach and his followers is set forth in the volume on Numbers. The book from which we quote was published by Hakham N. Zion Benjamin Roditi in 1872. Me'am Lo'ez brings up several issues in its discussion of Korach, his deeds and his spiritual world. The discussion there does not exceed the bounds of exegetical literature in general and focuses on subjects discussed in earlier commentaries. According to Me'am Lo'ez, Korach's rebellion against Moses revolved around the issue of appointing leaders of the tribes. Korach believed that he should be the chieftain of the Levites, but Moses thought otherwise. Korach was not appointed to this position, challenged the appointment that was made, and tried by rational arguments to justify his status. To this end he pointed to the status of his ancestors, his wisdom and his wealth. Essentially, Me'am Lo'ez holds that Korach attempted to undermine the entire ideological foundation of Revelation to Moses at Sinai. This intellectual effort of Korach's cost him his life. He tried to interpret the commandments given at Sinai as rational commandments. The author of Me'am Lo'ez begins his discussion of Korach with the story about tzitzit. A central figure in this legend is Korach's wife, who in Ladino culture is portrayed as a woman who is not very wise. Here is a free translation of the Ladino legend:
You know that when Moses told the children of Israel about the commandment of tzitzit given him by the Holy One, blessed be He, Korach's wife asked Korach, "What new thing did you learn today in the Yeshivah of Moses our Teacher?" Korach answered her, "He gave us a new commandment today, the commandment concerning the tzitzit with blue in it." "What is this commandment about blue tzitzit?" his wife asked him. Korach replied, "Moses told them that the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed us to place three white fringes and one blue fringe on the four corners of our garments." "He is laughing at you," his wife said, "every day dreaming up some new commandment that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded. If blue is so important, why did he not command you to make a garment that is entirely blue? Now I shall go and sew you and all your people garments that are entirely blue. Go to him and see what he has to say to you, and you will see immediately how everything he commands you is dreamed up in his own head. In this way he has taken all the honor and prestige to himself and has made himself king, and his brother he has appointed High Priest and his brother's family assistant priests."
The author of Me'am Lo'ez took the story of the tzitzit from earlier sources, such as Midrash Mishle (Midrash on Proverbs) and Numbers Rabbah. The Ladino version, however, is stylistically close to a folk tale, a genre quite common among the Sephardic Jews. The Ladino version places Korach's wife in center stage, portraying her as a suspicious and crafty woman. She directs the plot and dictates her husband's way of thinking and faith. It is essentially she who incites Korach to rebel against Moses, and it is she who encourages Korach to challenge the unfair appointment of the priesthood. His wife's attempt to sew a garment that is entirely blue is like an attempt to impose social uniformity; whereas it is the opposite that Moses wished to command the children of Israel. This is the origin of the common saying, "a talit which is entirely blue." His wife's attempt to rebel against G-d's commandments is tantamount to rebellion against the foundations of Jewish faith, for the blue fringe and the commandment of tzitzit are bound up with fear of G-d. Blue, as the color of the sea and the sky, symbolizes perfection and power; it was this perfection and power that Korach's wife wished to have for herself.
Another literary work, also identified with the Ladino-speaking Jewish community, interprets Korach's behavior as haughty. Shevet Musar, written by Rabbi Eliyahu ha-Kohen Itamari of Izmir, discusses the Korach episode in several contexts. This book was widespread among Ladino speakers, and its Hebrew version is frequently part of the library of well-read Jewish homes. Chapter Twelve of Shevet Musar deals with pride and its condemnation:
The One and Only Creator of the Universe created boundaries in all the habitation of His universe, for everything has its limits: the lion is king of the animals; the bull, of the beasts; the eagle, of the birds; and man is king over them all. Among all G-d's creatures some are leaders and exert influence, while others are led and influenced... Korach wished to bring about the opposite of this, making all equal, saying, "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?" Korach, who wished all to be leaders, perished from the face of the earth, so that no trace was left of him, his wealth, and all that he had.
Shevet Musar teaches its readers two main points. The first has to do directly with the story of Korach, and the second is related to it indirectly. The first is that creation of the world, from the outset, did not entail equality of position or views. This conclusion advocates a pluralistic outlook and sees society as inevitably organized by class structure. The second conclusion relates to the fact that, as we know well, becoming rich can blind even the wise. Korach's wealth blinded him and, urged on by the empty-minded preaching of his wife, as presented in the folk tale in Me'am Lo'ez, Korach brought on his own downfall. Thus wealth is one of the more popular themes in Ladino folk tradition, but this is a topic for another discussion.