Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5770/ June 5, 2010

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,



Tzitzit and Korah


Prof. Amos Frisch


Department of Bible


How does the passage on tzitzit fit into context?  This question is part of a broader issue concerning the way commandments are integrated into the general story of the book of Numbers.  The broader question is beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully we can shed some light on the general question by analyzing the one specific passage on tzitzit.

The connection between this commandment, which concludes the weekly reading of Shelah, and the beginning of the reading has been widely discussed.   We call to mind, for one, the remarks of Rabbi Dr. Judah Moriel:

The beginning and end of the weekly reading are tied together by a common expression.  At the beginning the Lord commands twelve men to be sent to scout [Heb. t-u-r] the land, … but they followed their heart [the same verb in Hebrew, t-u-r, is used in the parasha of tzitzit in the phrase velo taturu-"you shall not follow after your heart and eyes" (Num. 15:39)], not trusting sufficiently in  G-d, and all that they saw with their eyes they interpreted according to the preconceptions of their heart. [1]

I would like to propose another connection that does not look back to the beginning of this week’s reading, but forward, to the reading of Korah.  It should be noted that the Sages observed this connection in their homiletic interpretations.  Tanhuma Buber, Korah, par. 4 has this to say on the connection between the commandment of tzitzit and the story of Korah and his band: [2]

Now Korah … betook himself.   What does Scripture say right before this?  “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes” (Num. 15:38).   Korah said to Moses, “Moses, if a tallit were entirely of blue wool (tekhelet), might it not be exempt from the commandment of fringes?”  Moses answered, “It must have fringes.”  Korah replied, “A tallit which is entirely woven of blue threads does not itself fulfill the commandment, but four threads do!?  If a house were full of scrolls, should it not be exempt from the commandment of mezuzah?”   Moses answered, “It must have a mezuzah.”   Korah continued, “The entire Torah contains 275 passages, yet it does not fulfill the commandment for the house; but the two passages in the mezuzah do?”   He accused him, “You were not commanded these things; rather, you dreamed them up in your heart!”   This is the meaning of Korah … betook himself.

In this homily, the passage on fringes which preceded at the end of Shelah serves as a tool for Korah to attack Moses.   We would like to take a closer look at both tzitzit and the Korah story to show how this commandment actually undermines the words of Korah and his followers.

Two charges were made against Moses (and Aaron) in the Korah story.  One is the claim of Korah’s entire group:   “You have gone too far!   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?” (Num. 16:3), and the other, the claim of Dathan and Abiram:   “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” (Num. 16:13).  Both charges accuse Moses of taking authority to himself and seizing control over the people.  The first charge focuses on the role of the priests and Levites, the second on the act of taking the people out of Egypt, which is presented as Moses’ doing (“you brought us from…”).

Upon reading the claims of Korah and his followers, one might sympathize with some of their points, so the Torah takes steps against this eventuality by obliquely refuting their argument before it is even voiced.  The passage on tzitzit precludes their claims, placing the refutation in the mouth of the Lord as an offhand comment, in accordance with a known style in Scripture – stating in advance the generally agreed estimation regarding the reliability of a claim that will later be made by one of the figures in the narrative. [3]

Let us start by looking at the second claim.   Dathan and Abiram ascribed the exodus from Egypt to Moses, and saw it as a negative action endangering the people; but just before, at the end of the passage on tzitzit, the Lord proclaimed:  “I the Lord am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d:   I, the Lord your G-d” (Num. 15:41).   It was G-d’s design, and this founding action established a covenantal relationship between the Lord and His people.  Being taken out of Egypt goes with accepting G-d’s dominion, as the Lord had told Moses from the outset of his mission, in the four expressions of Redemption:

I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G-d.  And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.  (Ex. 6:6-7) [4]

Countering the first claim advanced by Korah and his followers, that “all the community are holy,” the Lord presents being holy as a challenge, not a reality that has been achieved:   “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.” [5]

The obvious connection between the passage on tzitzit and Parashat Shelah which we saw above lies in the phrase, “so that you do not follow [lo taturu] your heart” (Num. 15:39), and the mission assigned to the spies, “send men to scout [latur] the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:2).  The other connection which we presented here also has an important linguistic aspect:   as against the word tzitzit we have the tzitz (= sprouts, Num. 17:23) in the Korah narrative, [6] the flowering of Aaron's staff which symbolizes fresh vitality, an expression of his having been chosen by Heaven.  Further, paralleling the function of the tzitzit as a reminder to observe the commandments and not be rebellious, in the Korah narrative we also have an object that serves as a reminder to the Israelites – the copper fire pans which were hammered into plating for the altar:

… instruct them to make for themselves fringes …   That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge (Num. 15:38-39).

It was to be 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 (Num. 17:8).

We mentioned that the passage on tzitzit is connected to the preceding story of the spies and the punishment given them.  When that passage is also connected to the Korah narrative, which comes immediately after, it creates a certain relationship between the two stories enveloping the group of commandments in which tzitzit is included (Num. 15:1-41).  By connecting the story of Korah’s uprising with the story of the spies, the sin of Korah and his gang becomes all the more egregious, first and foremost for their not having learned their lesson and having sinned again.  Moreover, there are two points in which the words of the latter rebels (especially Dathan and Abiram) are more serious than those of their predecessors, the similar phrases magnifying the greater severity. We refer to their criticisms of Moses:   “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” (Num. 16:13). 

1)      The spies attributed their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel to the Lord:   “Why is the Lord taking us to that land…?” (Num. 14:3), whereas Dathan and Abiram attributed it to Moses acting on his own initiative.

2)      The spies admitted that Israel was a “land of milk and honey,” and displayed its fruit (Num. 13:27), whereas Dathan and Abiram described Egypt as being the place “flowing with milk and honey” and charged Moses with not bringing them to such a place (Num. 16:13-14). [7]

This is not the place to discuss all the other linguistic similarities between the two stories, but suffice it to bear in mind the lengthy proclamation put in the Lord’s mouth in both cases: the spies-- “How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me.   Very well, I have heeded the incessant muttering of the Israelites against Me” (Num. 14:27); Korah-- “and I will rid Myself of the incessant mutterings of the Israelites against you” (Num. 17:20).  Note:   the complaint shifts from blaming the Lord to blaming Moses and Aaron, but the Holy One, blessed be He, sees Himself as affected in both (“I will rid Myself”).

By contemplating the fringes, the Israelites are supposed to guard themselves from sin, “so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge,” and so that they do not sin by having no faith in the Lord, a sin for which the people had already been punished.   By obeying the Lord and recognizing that “I the Lord am your G-d” – the expression which begins and ends the section on tzitzit – the Israelites are supposed to fulfill their destiny as G-d’s chosen, and part of that obedience is to recognize the various levels of sanctity and chosenness within the Lord’s people.


[1] Y. Moriel, Iyyunim be- Mikra, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv 1990, Vol. 2, pp. 87-88.  For a similar conclusion based on shared vocabulary, cf. J. Milgrom, “ Parashat Tzitzit,” Beit Mikra 28 (1983), p. 16; cf. more recently, Y. Priel, “Ha- Kesher bein Mitzvat Tzitzit le-Sippur ha- Meraglim,” Bar Ilan Weekly Torah Study on Parashat Shelah, 2008 (no. 762).

[2] For a comprehensive study of the approach taken by the Sages, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides to contiguous passages, cf. I. Gottlieb, Yesh Seder la- Mikra:  Haza”l u-Farshanei Yemei ha-Beinayim al Mukdam u-Meuhar ba-Torah, Jerusalem-Ramat Gan 2009.

[3] For example, the description given by the narrator of I Samuel 17:22, which refutes in advance Eliab’s sharp criticism of his younger brother David (I Sam. 17:28).

[4] Note that in other passages in the Torah as well the expression “to free” ( hotzeiti) entails acceptance of G-d:   Ex. 29:47; Lev. 22:33; 25:38, 42; 27:13, 45 (and in other places in Scripture it goes hand in hand with accepting responsibility to observe the commandments in general or a specific commandment:  Ex. 12:17; 13:3; Lev. 19:36-37; Deut. 7:23-25; 13:7).  Perhaps this can help us understand the import of a different verb being used in the accusations made by Dathan and Abiram (“you brought us” as opposed to “I freed”).  The verb “to free” is used precisely in the context of accepting the dominion of Heaven; it is this notion that the passage on tzitzit wishes to convey.  The story of Korah’s uprising actually uses the synonymous verb, `-l-h (to come up), which serves as a leitmotif illustrating the stubbornness of Dathan and Abiram:   “They said, ‘We will not come! [lo na'aleh].  Is it not enough that you brought us [he'elitanu] from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?  Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes?   We will not come [lo na'aleh] (Num. 16:12-14).   Later, when their punishment is pronounced, the antonym (y-r-d, to go down) is used:  “But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of … and they go down live into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord” (Num. 16:30); “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation” (Num. 16:33).  On `-l`h and y-r-d as a pair of antonyms serving as a leitmotif in the Korah narrative, see the detailed discussion by Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be- Farashat ha-Shavua, 2nd series, Jerusalem 2005, pp. 220-221.

[5] Sanctity as a goal but not as an achieved reality is stressed in the commentary of Samson Raphael Hirsch.  Here we shall make do with one quote:  “They are people who have been set aside to be holy to the Lord, but they are not yet holy.   They have yet to rise and unceasingly work to raise themselves to their destined level of sanctity.   They must beware of confusing their destiny with reality” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Numbers, Jerusalem 1990, Num. 16:3-4, p. 180); see Isaiah Leibowitz, Sheva Shanim shel Sihot al Parashat ha- Shavua, Jerusalem 2000, pp. 524-525 (following Rabbi Hayyim ben Atar’s commentary on Lev. 19:2); 680-682.

[6] An instructive connection between tzitzit and tzitz, both in terms of language and content, is drawn by Z. Bruner in “Ha-Tzitz ve-ha-Tzitzit,” Shema`tin 55 [1979], pp. 7-9, however he deals with the tzitz or headdress of the High Priest (Ex. 28:36-38).

[7] See Nehamah Leibowitz’s perceptive account of their words:  “Here everything is turned topsy-turvy, the scale of values placed upside down.   Bondage is presented as freedom, the land of impurity is given the epithet reserved solely for the Holy Land” (N. Leibowitz, Iyyunim be-Sefer Be-Midbar, Jerusalem 1996, p. 224).