The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
The Earth's Mouth
Professor Yaakov Spiegel
Department of Talmud
When Moses wishes to prove to the Israelites that he has indeed been sent by God--as against the complaints of Korach and his associates--he asks Him to punish them in a special manner: "And if the Lord makes a new creation and the earth opens her mouth and swallows them up, with all their possessions, and they go down alive to Sheol [the underworld]." His request is answered:
And it was, when he had finished speaking all these words, that the earth which was below them cleaved open. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their houses and every man who was for Korach, and all the property. And they and all that was theirs went down alive to Sheol and the earth covered them, and they perished from among the community. And all Israel who were round about them fled at their voice, for they said, "Lest the earth swallow us up."( Num. 16:31-33)
From this description, it would seem that the "creation" made by God was an earthquake which opened up the clefts in the ground into which Korach and the rest were swallowed. Ibn Ezra, for example, comments, "And many countries have previously been rent apart, and the people dwelling in them have gone down to Sheol." But this interpretation presents difficulties since the word used in the text is "create" (the root bara), and bara always means something newly formed and without precedent, as indicated in Genesis: "In the beginning God created (bara) the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). "Created" clearly refers to something which had not previously existed. That cannot be said of an earthquake, as if it represents a novelty never experienced before the rebellion.
Since the assumption that the root bara always connotes a new creation leaves us facing an exegetical difficulty,perhaps the assumption itself is not correct. The root may possess further senses or may be capable of various interpretations. Ibn Ezra says as much in several places in his commentary on the Bible, discussing the point at length. We may note his opinion that bara has another meaning--to cut, cleave or split. Moses petitions, in other words, that God may "cause a cleavage in the ground and that the earth open its mouth." The consequent splitting apart of the ground does not and need not represent anything intrinsically new.
Most commentators, however, understand bara as indicating the creation of something that has never existed before. A great many interpretations have been put forward to explain what was "new" about this particular earthquake. Of these, we shall quote one only, that of Ramban (Nahmanides):
And it is correct to say that [the word bara] refers to something that has never been seen before ... that the earth should cleave apart is not a new creation, but that it should open its mouth to swallow people up is a total innovation, for when the earth splits open, as it frequently does in an earthquake ... it remains open and the cleft fills up with water, like a lake, but that it should open and close again at once, like someone opening his mouth to swallow and then closing it, this is the thing that was created on that day, as if ex nihilo...
Clearly this interpretation rests upon the phrase found in the text: "The earth opened its mouth"(17:32), and a mouth can be closed as well as opened. Possibly the Sages were thinking along these lines when they remarked in Ethics of the Fathers 5, 6: "Ten things were created on the eve of the first Sabbath: the mouth of the earth (i.e. the earthquake in our Parasha), the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey, the rainbow, manna..."
We should like to cite another interpretation which gives a different explanation of what was "new" about the earthquake. It is found in Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller's Mishna commentary Tosafot Yom Tov (Prague, end of the 16th century)on the passage from the Mishna we have just quoted. It is based on various linguistic points, only one of which can be quoted here.
Commenting on the verse (17:34), "And all Israel around them fled at their shrieks [kolam]," Rashi writes, "Because of the sound that broke out over their being swallowed up." One of the great commentators upon Rashi, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, known as Re'em, who lived in Turkey in the sixteenth century, explains that this does not refer to the noise made by the people who were overwhelmed in the convulsion;On the contrary, says Rabbi Mizrachi, this was a sound that "caused people to come and ... to see this wonder, the likes of which there had not been since the six days of creation." He therefore thinks that Rashi is referring to a "sound that came out of the cleft, like thunder, that made people panic and flee."
Muffled sounds issuing from the depths of the earth are indeed a recognized feature of earthquakes--which incidentally accounts for the term used in the Bible for an earthquake, ra'ash (noise, tumult). But this explanation of the kol (noise) brings us back to the question raised above. Given that the phenomenon is a familiar one, what was "new" about this earthquake that could qualify it as a "creation"? Tosafot Yom Tov solves the difficulty by explaining that the noise heard as the earth opened was the sound of speech, a voice declaring out of the ground that the people who had been swallowed up had gone down to the lowest level of Sheol, the underworld (what the Sages call She'olah). This sound of speech was of course something never before encountered, and it was what made everyone flee for fear of being themselves engulfed.
Tosafot Yom Tov strengthens its case by citing the mishna from Ethics of the Fathers which we have quoted above, in which we are told that "the mouth of the donkey [of Balaam]" was also created on the eve of the first Sabbath. On the surface it is difficult to see why a donkey's mouth should call for a special act of creation, as Tosafot Yom Tov says: "All mouths are equal, and what is there in the mouth of the donkey that required it to be created on the eve of the first Sabbath?" There must nevertheless have been something special about it, and Tosafot Yom Tov understands it as the power of speech granted to Balaam's donkey (see Num. 22:28). It goes on to suggest that from the juxtaposition in Pirke Avot of "the mouth of the donkey" with "the mouth of the earth," we are to understand that the power of speech was similarly granted to the earth.
It should be noted that "the mouth of the well" is mentioned in the same passage. Is the same point supposed to apply? Tosafot Yom Tov says that this would appear to be the case, and explains "the well" as the well which accompanied the children of Israel in the wilderness and which had, he said, the capacity to sing--for this is how he understands the verse, "Go up, O well, reply to it" (Num. 21:17). The people of Israel reply to the well, or more correctly to its song.
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