Parashat Korah

July 8-9, 2016 – 3 Tammuz 5776
Annual (Numbers 16:1-18:32): Etz Hayim p. 860; Hertz p. 639
Triennial (Numbers 17:25-18:32): Etz Hayim p. 869; Hertz p. 645
Haftarah (1 Samuel 11:14-12:22): Etz Hayim p. 876; Hertz p. 649

PDF Korah 5776

Korah: Separating the Strands and Blending the Tithes

Dr. Joshua Kulp, Rosh Yeshiva, Talmud teacher, and one of the founders of the Conservative Yeshiva 

Modern Jews who inhabit the world of scientific belief should understand what “biblical criticism” is and how a “biblical critic” interprets the Bible. Equipped with this knowledge, a committed Jew can better see the development of our tradition over time and better act and think as Jews in a world saturated with science.

The essence of biblical criticism is that the Torah text we know is composed of at least five documents created by different sets of people in different periods of ancient history, each with their own concerns and beliefs. An excellent example of this, as well as of how rabbis dealt with such differences, is the laws of tithes, the giving of ten percent of one’s agricultural produce, found in our parasha.  In fact, there are three passages about tithes in the Torah: Numbers 18 (our parasha), Leviticus 27 and Deuteronomy 14. In Numbers 18 the tithes go to the Levites. According to Leviticus 27:30-31, the tithes (including an animal tithe) are holy and they go to God, which probably means that they are paid directly as a tax to the Temple. Deuteronomy 14 provides a system of two tithes, connected to the sabbatical cycle. During the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the cycle, tithes are brought to Jerusalem, and during the third and sixth year, they are given to the poor or the Levite.

Biblical critical scholars do not harmonize these sources. Rather, they posit that each source originated in a different school. The passage from our parasha is ascribed to the priestly school, called P. This school was concerned for the welfare of the priests and Levites who functioned in the Temple, and therefore provided that various taxes be paid directly to them. The passage from Leviticus is ascribed to the Holiness school, H. This group was evidently concerned more with the place of worship itself; therefore it envisions the taxes paid directly to the Temple, instead of to the people who work there. The passage in Deuteronomy is ascribed to the Deuteronomist school (the name’s not terribly helpful), known as D.  The tithe in the D text focuses on three values that the book of Deuteronomy consistently emphasizes: the value of taking care of the poor, the sabbatical cycle as an institution to aid the poor, and the centrality of Jerusalem.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and early midrashim harmonized these sources, creating from them a three-tithe system: “first tithe,” given to the Levite; “second tithe,” brought to Jerusalem in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the sabbatical cycle; and “poor tithe,” given to the poor in the third and fourth year.

I should emphasize that the rabbinic harmonization is not “wrong” just because it does not accord with the original meaning of the text. The meaning of tradition is always refracted through the eyes of the generation interpreting it, trying to make sense of it in its time. Creating a coherent system of tithes reflects the attempt of the rabbis to understand a work that had been compiled many hundreds of years earlier. But studying biblical criticism is not “wrong” either. It helps us see the individual and differentiated threads, often brilliant in their own right, before they were woven into the wondrous and multi-faceted tradition we have been calling Torah for thousands of years.

A Vort for Parashat Korah
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

“And Korah took…” the parasha opens. Rashi says “Korah took himself,” on which R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (Poland, 1765–1827) comments: Korah really had the qualities of leadership to stand at the head of the Jewish people. But, and herein lies the rub, he was not able to wait till the time was right and he would be chosen for leadership. He was impatient; he tried to hurry the process by fostering conflict and disagreement. And here, R’ Simcha said, was a fitting end – “the earth swallowed them up” (Num 16:32) – the earth, to which all are destined to return, could not wait patiently for Korah, and it too hurried, “to take” him.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

In the last Parashot Moshe has intervened on behalf of the people when their actions were perceived by God as offensive.  Now Moshe, who did not choose his position, is facing an uprising from the people.


1) In the last 2 parashot we have seen that matters in the community were not always harmonious.  Who/what is the target of the uprising this time (16:1-3)?  How is this different from their previous complaints (about food, about the land)?

2)  What test does Moshe propose (16:5-7)?  Do you think that this was Moshe’s idea or God’s instructions?  Why?

3)  Moshe tries to speak with Datan and Aviram, but they refuse to come, why (16:12-14)? Note the irony in their words; what is the land of milk and honey according to them?  Read what they say carefully; what do you think is motivating them?

4)  God is planning to punish all the people for the actions of Korah and his people (16:19-22), but Moshe and Aaron pray on their behalf.  Why might all the people deserve to be punished?  Why should they not be punished? (What actually happened? Read on to the end of the chapter.)

5)  After the people blame Moshe and Aaron for the deaths of the people, a plague breaks out. Aaron, the high priest, runs to save the people (17:6-15).  How does he stop the plague?  Why do you think that this tool was chosen to save the people? (What does this teach us?)