Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Korah 5769/ June 20, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Korah’s Company – Immediate versus Long-Range Interpretation


Rabbi S. Zvi Tal (Teich)


Instructor in Jewish Philosophy, Ministry of  Education Religious-Secular Rapprochement Discussion Leader at the University


In this article I want to show the difference between interpreting the story of Korah and his company in its immediate context, as opposed to the grave interpretation of their acts by the Sages, who took a longer historical perspective.  Although several commentators do avail themselves of this or that Midrash in order to explicate the text, they did not take it in the broad historical context as I seek to do here.

The Sages relate to the story of Korah in Tractate Sanhedrin (109a-b) as part of a discussion of all the individuals and groups since Creation whose deeds brought punishment on themselves in this world, and some even in the world to come:

The Sodomites have no part in the world to come … the generation of the Tower of Babel have no part in the world to come … the spies have no part in the world to come, for it says, “those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague” (Num. 14:37) – they   died, in this world; of plague, in the world to come.  Korah’s company have no part in the world to come, for it says the earth closed over them – in this world, and they vanished from the midst of the congregation – in the world to come; such are the words of Rabbi Akiva.   Rabbi Eliezer says:  to them the Scriptural verse refers, “The Lord deals death and gives life, casts down into Sheol and raises up” (I Sam. 2:6).

In the above discussion, the Sages turn to homiletic interpretations of verses from Psalms and to traditions whose origin is unknown to us, in order to fill in details about the people mentioned.  Also in the case of the Korah affair their treatment of the actions of Korah and his company goes beyond analysis of a local event in the wilderness and is compared in a single breath with historically distant events.  The continuation of the Midrashic discussion in the Talmud takes an interesting turn:

Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra says:   “They are like a lost item ( avedah) that is sought after, as it is said:   ‘I have strayed like a lost sheep ( ke-seh oved); search for Your servant, for I have not neglected Your commandments’ (Ps. 119:176).” 

On the basis of the common root a-b-d [of Korah the Bible says, "and they vanished ( va-yovdu) from the midst of the congregation" (Num. 16:33)], ben Bathyra arrives at the optimistic interpretation that Korah’s company is destined to repent and return to the Lord.   This idea is clarified in Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Korah par. 11), where Korah’s sons repent and have a place reserved for them in the Garden of Eden, as those of Korah’s company who were swallowed up by the earth acknowledge the truth of Moses’ Torah.

The talmudic discussion now continues with a remark by Rabbi Jose:  “Anyone who challenges the sovereignty of the House of David deserves to be bitten by a snake.”   This is followed by Rav Hisda’s remarks:

Anyone who challenges his rabbi is like one who challenges the Divine Presence.   Rabbi Hama b. Rabbi Hanina said:  Anyone who quarrels with his rabbi is like one who quarrels with the Divine Presence.   Rabbi Hanina bar Papa said:  Anyone who raises his voice against his rabbi is like one who raises his voice against the Divine Presence.  Rabbi Abahu said:  whoever doubts his rabbi is like one who doubts the Divine Presence.

Clearly, the Sages use the story of Korah as a springboard for a broader discussion of challenging one’s rabbi.  In so doing they extend the understanding of this event from a local occurrence to an issue of faith having broad significance and scope.

Although the Talmud is full of differences of opinion, including some between disciples and their rabbis, when a controversy arises that challenges authority or the validity of tradition, it is viewed as taking issue with the Holy One, blessed be He.  Drawing a connection between the Korah affair and the question of challenging one’s rabbi indicates a severe view of what Korah did, interpreting it not as an argument between two individuals about who should serve in a certain office, rather as an act of challenging Heaven.

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer takes issue with Rabbi Akiva and holds that Korah’s company does have a place in the World to Come, since it says in I Samuel 2:6:   “The Lord deals death and gives life, casts down into Sheol and raises up.”   This shows that obscure biblical verses can be applied in a variety of ways.  It is not without reason that they chose to rely on a verse from the prayer of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, who was descended from Korah. [1]

The place in which the Talmud chose to deal with Korah and his company sheds light on several unknowns in this story.  Note that Moses does not answer Korah’s question, “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3), to the point, rather he suggests holding an incense test the following day.   But if we accept the interpretation that Moses immediately perceived that he was dealing with heresy and rebellion against the Lord, then we also understand his extreme reaction.

This was how the Sages viewed the Korah affair, putting them in the context of a list of groups that have no part in the World to Come.  Thus they lent expression to the severity of the misdeeds by each of the groups.

Other sources as well compare Korah and his company with negative figures.  The basis for the comparison is philological: [2]

“He said to the woman, ‘Did G-d really say (Heb. af ki amar):  You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’”  Rabbi Hanina bar Sansan said:  Four figures began what they said with the word af, and they came to perdition with the word af, and these are they:   the snake, the chief baker, Korah’s company, and Haman.  The snake: “He said to the woman, ‘Did G-d really say (Heb. af ki amar)…’”;  the chief baker: “In my dream, similarly (Heb. af ani behalomi)” (Gen. 40:16);  Korah’s followers:  “Even if you had brought us to a land (Heb. af lo el eretz)” (Num. 16:14); and Haman:   “What is more … Esther … did not have anyone but me (Heb. af lo heviah)” (Esther 5:12).

Another source reads: [3]

How long will you simple ones love simplicity – this refers to the generation of the wilderness; you scoffers be eager to scoff – this refers to Korah’s company; and you dullards hate knowledge? – this refers to the evil kingdom   (i.e., Rome), which refused to accepted the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven and of the Torah.

Here, too, Korah is compared with other well-known unsavory figures and in this manner is judged to be like them.

In Psalms, when David reviews the history of the Israelites in the wilderness, he describes them, not according to the chronological order of events, but from the point of view of judging their actions.   Therefore, the Korah affair appears before the sin of the golden calf although contiguous to it, thus imputing allegations of idolatry and heresy to Korah’s actions (Ps. 106:16-25):

There was envy of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord.   The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan, closed over the party of Abiram.   A fire blazed among their party, a flame that consumed the wicked.  They made a calf at Horeb and bowed down to a molten image.   They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass.  They forgot G-d who saved them, who performed great deeds in Egypt, wondrous deeds in the land of Ham, awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.   He would have destroyed them had not Moses His chosen one confronted Him in the breach to avert His destructive wrath.  They rejected the desirable land, and put no faith in His promise.  They grumbled in their tents and disobeyed the Lord.

In his commentary on this passage, Radak illustrates the expression, “there was envy of Moses,” by providing examples of negative figures.  Thus he paints Korah as black, as we see in the following examples:

There was envy of Moses [Heb. le-Moshe], as if it were written be-Moshe.  Likewise we have [the preposition le] in the following phrases:  “slain a man for wounding me” (Gen. 4:23); “before you by the sword” (Lev. 26:7); “about the waters of Meribah” (Num. 20:24), and the like, for when the word kin’ah (=envy or zealousness) is used with a lamed it is in a positive sense, as in “took impassioned action for his G-d” (Num. 25:13); “I am moved by zeal for the Lord” (I Kings 19:14).   But when it occurs with the preposition be, it is in a negative sense, as in “so his brothers were wrought up at him” (Gen. 37:11); “for I envied the wanton” (Ps. 73:3).

Radak’s commentary distinguishes between the use of the verb k-n-’ with the preposition le-, which has favorable connotations, and k-n-’ with the preposition be-, which has negative connotations, and he therefore is obliged to interpret the phrase va-yekan’u le-Moshe as if it were written va-yekan’u be-Moshe.

Korah’s company are again equated with the spies and complaining Israelites in another talmudic discussion, this time concerning apportionment of the land, and thus they are again judged harshly.  The question here was not an innocent one of equal apportionment of senior offices, rather a complaint against G-d.  In other words, it makes a difference whether one reads the Korah affair in the context of the order of the events described in Numbers, or whether one takes it in the context of a discussion of revolts against the Lord and makes a historical comparison of the punishments meted out to each.   In Bava Batra (118b), the Talmud says:

The murmurers ( mitlonenim) and the company of Korah had no share in the land.  But has it not been taught that Joshua and Caleb took the share of the spies, of the murmurers and of the company of Korah?   This presents no difficulty:   [one] Master compares the murmurers to the spies, [while the other] Master does not compare the murmurers to the spies.  For it was taught:   Our father died in the wilderness – i.e., Zelophehad, and he was not one of the faction – i.e., the spies, Korah’s faction – with the obvious meaning, which banded together against the Lord – i.e., the murmurers.  [Thus one] master compares the murmurers to the spies, and [the other] Master does not.  Rav Papa further said to Abaye:   But according to him who compares the murmurers to the spies, have Joshua and Caleb had [their shares] multiplied received so [many times] that they inherited all the land of Israel?  He said to him:  We mean the murmurers in the company of Korah.

In other words, Joshua and Caleb were rewarded with a double share of the land, receiving the portion that would have been allotted to the company of Korah.

Here, too, the Korah affair takes on historical significance in the context of the grave offences committed in the wilderness and thus the entire affair is interpreted with a different intensity.

[1] I Chron. 6:7-8:  “The sons of Kohath:   his son Amminadab, his son Korah, his son Assir, his son Elkanah, his son Ebiasaph, his son Assir,” and Samuel was a descendant of Korah, as is noted in Radak’s commentary on I Sam. 1:1.

[2] Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck ed.) ch. 19, s.v. va-yomer el ha-ishah.

[3] Midrash Mishlei (Buber), ch. 1, s.v. [22] ad matai.