Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinchas 5761/2001

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 Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
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Parashat Pinchas 5761/2001

"The Sons of Korah, however, did not die" -- The Power of Thought

Shmuel Mondani

Department of Talmud

Once again in the book of Numbers the Israelites are counted. When listing the tribe of Reuben, Scripture interrupts the list of names to note the history of Dathan and Abiram - the saga of Korah and his followers. But here the Bible adds a new detail, not previously mentioned in the narrative about Korah, namely the verse, "The sons of Korah, however, did not die." These words are explained by Rashi as follows:[1]

Originally they [the sons of Korah] were in the plot, but at the moment when the rebellion broke out they had thoughts of repentance in their hearts; therefore a high spot was fenced round for them in Hell and they stayed there.

Rashi's comment raises several questions, some of which have been addressed by many eminent scholars.[2] We shall address additional issues here:

1. If, as Rashi says, the sons of Korah repented in time, why were they swallowed up by the earth?

2. If, despite their having had repented (which, apparently, they did a trifle too late or perhaps insufficiently), they were swallowed up, why were they then awarded a good place in Hell instead of a place in Heaven?

3. Why does this verse appear in Parashat Phinehas, and not where the event is described, in Parashat Korah?

Ketav Sofer (by Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer) relates to our first questions, claiming that the key to the answers lies in Tractate Avot (5.18) of the Mishnah, which reads: "Whoever leads the many to sin, to him shall not be given the means to repentance." Why? So that such a person will not end up in Heaven while his disciples end up in Hell. Even if he repents his wrongdoing, his repentance will not be accepted until his disciples repent as well. Therefore his repentance is pending. Accordingly, Ketav Sofer continues:

Even though the sons of Korah repented, it was of no avail to them, since they had led others astray. Their repentance was pending the repentance of those they had already led astray. Even if they had wished the others would repent, it was not within their power; so their repentance was not accepted but was pending. Nevertheless, since they had repented, they could not be sentenced to Hell along with the wicked, because those whom they had led astray might possibly yet repent. Nor could they be judged worthy of Heaven, because their repentance had not yet been accepted. Therefore, a high place was set apart for them in Hell, a special spot where they would remain until the repentance of those whom they had led to sin became evident.

According to the Sukkat David, the "high spot in Hell" of which Rashi speaks refers to some sort of spot at a mast-head. It is as if they were rescued as they reached the gates of Hell and remained in this world, where they begot children, etc. According to this interpretation, even though the sons of Korah stood on the spot where the earth opened its mouth to swallow up Korah and his followers, "nonetheless they [the sons of Korah] were not swallowed up; and even if they had been swallowed up, they did not die." In other words, they remained among the living.

We would like to suggest another dimension. By way of introduction, let us look at the discussion in the gemara, Tractate Berakhot (20b):

It is taught: One who had seminal discharge thinks of it [recitation of the Shema] mentally but does not recite the benedictions either preceding or following it. Gemara: Ravina said this means that thinking is equivalent to speaking … and Rav Hisda said thinking is not equivalent to speaking.

The gemara presents a fundamental disagreement as to the significance of thinking. Ravina contends that it is considered the same as speaking, but Hisda argues, it is not. This controversy has many halakhic implications. We shall mention only the views of two rabbis whose rulings essentially resolve the above-mentioned disagreement of the amoraim.

Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Berakhot,[3] "All benedictions without exception must be said audibly, and if they are not said audibly it satisfies the requirements of the law, whether said only with the lips or thought mentally." Thus we see that Maimonides considered thinking equivalent to speaking.

In contrast, the Shulhan Arukh (Hilkhot Berakhot ha-Torah[4]), ruled with regard to thinking: "Whoever thinks about Torah, need not recite the benediction (of Talmud Torah) ." This implies that thinking is not considered equivalent to speaking, contrary to the view held by Maimonides. Likewise, in Hilkhot Shabbat[5] the Shulhan Arukh ruled: "Thinking about one's affairs is permitted; but in any event, by reason of enjoying the Sabbath, it is a mitzvah not to think about such things at all, and one should consider [thinking about one's work] as if one were actually doing all one's work." Thus we see that the controversy between the amoraim continued between later posekim, who adhered to different views over whether thinking about something carried the same weight as actually doing it.

The questions with which we began our discussion are related to the problematic nature of thinking. The key word is "thinking", or more precisely, the significance of the mental process. We shall suggest an interpretation that resolves the questions presented at the outset.

Thinking to oneself without putting one's thoughts into words said aloud indicates that one does not feel strong about one's decision; therefore such a thought does not have sufficient force, since otherwise the person would have said it outright. Moreover, thinking to oneself only affects the thinking individual. Therefore, in order to inform, caution and teach others, it seems necessary to complement thinking with speaking aloud. Perhaps it was in this respect that the repentance of the sons of Korah was found lacking.

According to this approach, the sons of Korah were swallowed up by the earth because they only thought mentally but did not confess with their mouths. But since they nevertheless did do something (albeit not a complete action), therefore they did not descend into the earth with the rest and die, rather they remained alive in a special spot that had been set apart for them in Hell. I.e., they reached the gates of Hell, but did not really enter; rather, they remained alive in this world. They were not in the Heaven, but at least they were above earth.

Perhaps the verse appears in this week's reading and not in Parashat Korah in order to emphasize Korah's sons status and to stress the moral found therein. The story teaches that Korah's sons did not die with the rest of his followers, but rather were swallowed up alive (or, according to another interpretation, waited at the gates of Hell, until they returned to this world).[6]

Thus, a short and somewhat peculiar verse turns out to contain an important message on repentance - elucidating the value of repentance, on the one hand, and the status of thought, on the other.


[1] Rashi's comment is taken from the gemara, Tractate Sanhedrin 110a.

[2] In relating to the remarks of R. Eliahu Mizrahi, Divrei David (by Rabbi David bar Samuel ha-Levi) cites a legend from Midrash Rabbah (although R. Chavel has noted that he could not find this homily in Midrash Rabbah). In this legend, the sons of Korah emerged above the earth and came to the Land of Israel. They produced prophets such as Samuel and authored several psalms. This homily poses a difficulty for Rashi's interpretation that the sons of Korah were in Hell, since it says that the sons of Korah had children who came to the Land of Israel. Therefore he wrote, "one could say", indicating that there were two stages: first they were in Hell, and later they came to the Land and begot descendants. Also cf. Baer Heitev, Nahalat Yaakov, and Tzedah la-Derekh, which also relate to Rashi's commentary on verse 11 and the above-mentioned difficulty.

[3] Chapter 1, halakhah 7.

[4] Orah Hayyim 47.4.

[5] Orah Hayyim 306.8.

[6] The commentators here disagree on this point. Cf. note 2, above.

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