What was Korach’s Sin?

Rabbi Richard Borah

The parsha of Korach describes the rebellion of Korach and his 250 followers (Bamidbar 16:1-3):

Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.  They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav”) analyzes the approach taken by Korachand his followers and how it is essentially similar in form to many current day reproaches of the Torah system of laws. This attack is on both the structure of Jewish law and questions the need for expert scholars to determine the application of the law in a particular case. Korachassumed that Jewish law did not require the intuitive and refined thinking of an expert to derive the law, but only a “common sense” understanding of the facts of the case. The Rav writes in the essay “The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority” in the sefer “Reflections on the Rav” by Rabbi Avraham Besdin:


Korach's rationale can be understood more readily if we clarify three terms denoting the various levels of reason and intelligence. “Hokhmah” refers to specialized knowledge and scholarship which are acquired by extensive and detailed study. “Bina” is the capacity to analyze, to make distinctions, to draw inferences and apply them to various situations. When “binah” is combined with “hokhmah”, we have the especially gifted and creative thinker. “Daat” deals with common sense, basic intelligence, and sound practical judgment. Korach's appeal to common sense in Judaism was basically a claim that only daat and not hokhmah, is involved in the application of Halakhah….

A second dimension of Korach's attack on Moshe’s leadership was his claim that Moshe misunderstood the structure of Jewish law. Specifically, Korachdenigrated Moshe’s understanding the structure of the legal obligation to be separate from the desired outcome or “reason” for the law. Korachderided Moshe for holding, for example, that a room full of Torahs required a mezuzah and a garment of blue color required the blue thread of the tzitzit.  The Rav explains how Korachtried to formulate the law to make the Torah’s system of laws as explained by Moshe seem absurd. He states:

On the basis of Korach's theory, the mitzvah would have to correspond to the mood that prompts it. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind… If these mitzvoth ceased having this impact upon people, their observance would be open to question and new rituals, more responsive to changing sensitivities, should be enacted. What follows from his reasoning is that the mitzvah may be modified according to changing times or even according to individual temperaments of different people. There is to him, no inherent redemptive power in the mitzvah beyond its therapeutic effects, its capacity to evoke a subjective experience. 

The Rav explains that the Torah law’s obligations are not altered in a particular case to achieve an outcome that is perceived as more aligned with the supposed reason or purpose for the mitzvah. The law must remain consistent in all cases, regardless of the particular outcome. Rabbi Soloveitchik was quite consistent in his view that halachic observance has its own validity as a means to the human being “walking with God" and achieving holiness within one’s earthly life. Halacha is not to be understood as receiving its validity from its efficaciousness according to some other system of truth. Kashrut (the laws of kosher foods) is not validated because it may have health benefits; prayer is not validated due to its psychological benefits. Halacha is valid within its own objectives of drawing man close to God and providing human beings with a way to serve the Creator in all aspects of their lives. 

Halachic authorities would not deny that halachic observance may have extra-halachic benefits, but these are neither the purpose of the system or its source of value or validity. If a doctor prescribed exercise to a person to improve the person’s health and it happened to help him or her work better at business and be more productive, this ancillary benefit would not impact the medical benefit of the exercise, for which it was prescribed.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the Rav’s work “Halachic Mind” in his essay, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Early Epistemology”. Rabbi Sacks writes:

The central argument of The Halakhic Mind is that religion constitutes an autonomous cognitive domain. R. Soloveitchik has no taste for apologetics, for the justification of religion in terms drawn from outside itself. He (the Rav) notes “the passionate desire of every philosopher of religion [is] to legitimate the cognitive validity and truthfulness of religious propositions. Yet the problem of evidence in religion will never be solved. The believer does not miss philosophic legitimation; the skeptic will never be satisfied with any cognitive demonstration” (“Exploring the Thoughts of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”, edited by Rabbi Marc D. Angel).

Korach, according to the Tanchuma brought down by Rashi, did more than rebel against the leadership of Moshe. He also attacked Moshe by attacking the Torah itself, portraying certain laws as absurd. The Tanchuma states:

He clad them (Korach dressed his 250 followers) in garments made entirely of blue wool, they came and stood before Moses, and said to him, “A garment made entirely of blue wool, does it require fringes or is it exempt?” Moses said to them, “It does require.” They began to laugh at him, “Is it possible that with a garment made of another material, one thread of blue wool exempts it (makes it ritually correct) yet this which is made entirely of blue wool shall not exempt itself?”

In the case that was brought down in this Tanchuma we should note that the question itself is not the sin. One is permitted and encouraged to question one’s teacher, even if that teacher is Moshe Rebbenu, regarding a Jewish law. This process takes place endlessly in the Talmud where debate and discussion are intense and a law is clarified by questions about unusual cases that are brought into the heart of the discussion. In the case of Korach and his followers this was certainly not the case. The situation of dressing the group in the blue garment and the laughter the Tanchuma mentions when Moshe explains that the blue wool garment requires the techielis (blue fringe) show clearly that this question was one brought to Moshe, not for clarification, but as a means of disparagement and derision of Moshe and of the Torah itself. 

The Torah and rabbinic laws regarding how the student conducts himself before his teacher are described by Maimonides in the 6th chapter of the Mishneh Torah, “Hilchos Talmud Torah” (Laws of Torah Study). When asking questions of his teacher there are many parameters of how to do it in a respectful and efficient manner. Questioning is, nonetheless encouraged and praised. Maimonides states:

…A teacher should take care of his students and love them, because they are like sons who bring him pleasure in this world and in the world to come. Students increase their teacher’s wisdom and broaden his horizons. Our Sages declared: “I learned much wisdom from my teachers and even more from my colleagues. However, from my student ( I learned) most of all. Just as a small branch is used to light a large bough, so a small students sharpens his teacher’s (thinking process), until, though his questions, he brings forth brilliant wisdom. (Hilchos Talmud Torah 6:12-13)

The honor afforded one’s teacher is greater even than that given to a parent and include specific prohibitions regarding the issuing of an halachic ruling in the presence of one’s teacher.  The violation of the honor of the teacher, although Maimonides does not bring down a court-based punishment, does result in the person’s being deserving of death and the loss of one’s portion in the world to come.  Maimonides states:

There is no greater honor than that due a teacher, and no greater awe than that due a teacher. Our Sages declared: “Your fear of your teacher should be equivalent to your fear of Heaven.” Therefore, they said, “Whoever disputes the authority of his teacher is considered as if he revolts against the Divine Presence, as implied (BaMidbar 26:9) …who led a revolt against God.” (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:1)

The pasuk quoted (26:9) describes the rebellion of Korach. Maimonides continues in this Halacha:

Whoever engages in controversy with his teacher is considered as if he engaged in controversy with the Divine Presence, as implied (BaMidbar 20:13): “…where the Jews contested with God and where he was sanctified.” Whoever thinks disparagingly of his teacher is considered as if he thought disparagingly of the Divine Presence, as implied by (BaMidbar 21:5): “And the people spoke out against God and Moses” (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:1)

Maimonides continues, in the next halacha to describe what is meant by disputing the authority of one’s teacher. He states:

A person who establishes a house of study where he (the teacher) sits, explains and teaches without his teacher’s permission in his teacher’s lifetime. This applies even when one’s teacher is in another country. It is forbidden to ever render a halachic judgment in one’s teacher’s presence. Whoever renders a halachic judgment in his teacher’s presence is worthy of death. (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:2)

Maimonides adds in the 4th Halacha of this chapter,

Any student who is not worthy of rendering a halachic judgment and does so is foolish, wicked and arrogant. (Mishlei 7:36) “She has cast down many corpses” applies to him. (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:4)

There are also strict laws of respect for any Torah sage, even if he is not one’s own teacher. Maimonides states in the 6th chapter of the Mishneh Torah: Hilchos Talmud Torah):

It is a mitzvah to respect every Torah sage, even if he is not one’s teacher as (Vayikra 19:32) states: “Stand up before a white-haired (man) and respect an elder.” (The word) zakane (translated as “elders”, alludes to the Hebrew words meaning) “one who has acquired wisdom”….( Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:4).

Maimonides continues later in this chapter regarding the sin of disgracing or hating a Torah scholar.

It is a great sin to disgrace Torah sages or to hate them. Jerusalem was not destroyed until (its inhabitants) disgraced its sages, as implied by (II:Chronicles 36:16) “And they would mock the messengers of God, despise His words, and scoff at His prophets” – i.e., they would scorn those who taught His words. Similarly the Torah’s prophecy (Vayikra 26:16): “If you despise My statutes” (should be interpreted): “If you despise the teachers of My statues.” Whoever disgraces the sages has no portion in the world to come and is included in the category: “Those who scorn the word of God” (Bamidbar 15:31). Even though a person who disgraces a Torah sage will not receive a portion in the world to come, if witnesses come (and testify that) he disgraced him, even if only verbally, he is placed under a ban of ostracism. (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:4)

It seems to me that Korach certainly violated the laws of disrespecting his teacher, as Moshe was Moshe Rebbenu and the teacher of all of Israel at that time. He also violated the law of disgracing and hating the Torah scholar through his disparaging of Moshe and laughing at his answer regarding the techeiles required on a garment of blue wool. But he violated another law for which the punishment is much more severe. Korach denied the validity of the Oral Law. Moshe is his lifetime was the absolute authority of the Oral Law and the original source of its communication to the Jewish people. To deny the validity of Moshe’s halachic ruling was a clear denial of the validity of the Oral Law. In the beginning of the 3rd chapter of Hilchos Mamrim (Laws of the Rebellious Ones) in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states:

A person who does not acknowledge (the validity) of the Oral Law is not the rebellious elder mentioned in the Torah. Instead he is one of the heretics...He is like all the rest of the heretics who say that the Torah is not Divine in origin, those who inform on their fellow Jews, and the apostates. All of these are not considered as members of the Jewish people….To whom does the above apply? To a person who denied the Oral Law consciously, according to his perception of things. He follows after his frivolous thoughts and capricious heart and denies the Oral Law first, as did Tzadok and Beitus, and those who erred in following them.  (Hilchos Mamrim: 3:1-3)

This violation would certainly apply to Korach and his followers who disputed and rejected Moshe explanation of the law of tzitzit and the situation which required the techeilis thread. By rejecting and disparaging Moshe Rebbenu’s position, they were more than rejecting Moshe as a teacher or sage - they were rejecting the very validity of the Oral Law which rested on the validity of Moshe Rebbenu as the primary source of the Oral Law communication to the Jewish people.