Why Was Korach Swallowed Up?

U’fatzesah ha’adamah es pi’hah u’val’ah osam (Bamidbar 16:30)

In response to Korach’s challenge to his leadership, Moshe suggests that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they will offer to Hashem. Aharon will do so as well, and the person whom Hashem truly desires and selects to serve Him will survive, while all the others will perish. However, Moshe emphasizes that the veracity and legitimacy of his position would only be established if Hashem causes the ground to open its mouth and swallow them up and bury them alive. Why was it specifically necessary that Korach and his followers be buried alive, as opposed to any other form of sudden death, which would seemingly prove the point just as effectively?

The Panim Yafos explains based on the Gemara in Shabbos (105b), which teaches that somebody who fails to properly eulogize a Torah scholar deserves to be buried alive. What is the connection between these two seemingly disparate concepts?

The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) teaches that when the Jewish people were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Hashem lifted the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they won’t accept the Torah, “sham te’hei kevuraschem — there will be your burial place.” Tosafos questions why it was necessary to do so after the Jewish people had already enthusiastically declared that whatever Hashem has said, “Na’aseh v’nishma — we will do and we will listen.”

The Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) answers that although the Jewish people willingly accepted the Written Torah, they were hesitant to accept the Oral Torah, as they recognized that it requires substantial toil and effort to study it and understand it correctly. Therefore, Hashem lifted the mountain over their heads to coerce them to additionally accept the Oral Law, without which the Written Torah cannot be properly understood. Had the Jewish people refused to accept the Oral Torah, they would have been buried on the spot by the looming mountain. This is the same punishment — being buried alive — that the Gemara pronounces for somebody who is guilty of inadequately eulogizing a Torah scholar. What is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated sins?

The Written Torah is relatively easy and accessible for anybody to learn, but proficiency in that portion of the Torah is insufficient to render somebody a true Torah scholar. A talmid chacham must also be fluent in the Oral Law. If a Torah scholar passes away and people neglect to honor his Torah knowledge with an appropriate eulogy, it reveals that they do not have the proper esteem for his expertise in the Oral Torah, and because they lack the appropriate value and respect for the Oral Law, they deserve to be buried alive, just as the Jews at Mount Sinai were threatened if they refused to accept the Oral Torah.

With this introduction, the Panim Yafos explains that we can now understand why Moshe specifically required that Korach and his followers be killed by being buried alive. The Midrash teaches (Yalkut Shimoni 752) that the underlying challenge posed by Korach was a refusal to accept the validity of Moshe’s traditions that he heard directly from Hashem, namely that he should serve as the leader of the Jewish people, and Aharon should function as the Kohen Gadol. This represented the “Oral Law” of Moshe, and by disputing it, Korach and his followers deserved the same punishment given to others who reject the Oral Torah: They were buried alive.

For this reason, Moshe insisted that Korach and his assembly must be killed in this manner, as if they died from any other form of sudden death, extraordinary as it might have seemed, it would not have proven that Moshe was sent by Hashem and Korach was being punished for challenging his authority, as perhaps he was being punished for some other sin, such as fomenting discord. It is only because he met the fate with which Hashem threatened the Jewish people at Mount Sinai for refusing to accept the Oral Law that the legitimacy of Moshe’s teachings and traditions was clearly established.

Q: As it is forbidden to name a child after a wicked person (Yoma 38b), why did the righteous Yitzhar name his son Korach, which was the name of one of Esav’s sons (Bereishis 36:5)?

Q: The word in the Torah with the largest numerical value appears in Parashas Korach. Which word is it, and what is its significance?

A: The Chasam Sofer maintains that Yitzhar in fact erred in naming his son after the wicked Korach, and this contributed to his downfall. The Pardes Yosef answers that the prohibition against naming a child after a wicked person only applies after the giving of the Torah, but Korach was born in Egypt prior to the giving of the Torah. The M’rafsin Igri cites the Tosefos Yeshonim, who writes that this prohibition doesn’t apply to a name which is given to a baby by Hashem, and the Zohar Hakadosh teaches that Hashem gave Korach his name. Alternatively, he quotes the Pnei Yehoshua, who writes that the prohibition only applies to names in which the name itself inherently connotes the individual’s wickedness, which is not the case with the name Korach. Finally, he suggests that the prohibition only applies to the names of evil Jews, but not to names of wicked non-Jews such as Korach.

A: The word tistareir (16:13) is only five letters long but possesses a gematria of 1,500. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, the Paneiach Raza explains why this word specifically has such a large numerical value. After failing to sway Korach to withdraw from his rebellion, Moshe approached Dasan and Aviram in a final attempt to quell the revolt. They rebuffed his overtures and accused him of tistareir — seeking to make himself great and dominate the Jewish people. It is only fitting that the very word which connotes greatness and domination should be the word with the largest value in the entire Torah.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.