Parshat Korach: The halakhot of disputes
“Anyone who perpetuates a dispute (makhzik ba’makhloket) violates a prohibition, as it says, ‘There shall not be like Korach and his assembly.’”
In this Talmudic statement Rav teaches that there’s a prohibition against perpetuating makhloket. Given the prevalence of makhloket – both in our mundane lives and in our Jewish tradition – such a prohibition, especially a biblical one, seems difficult to imagine. So how can we understand this statement?
Few if any rabbinic authorities accept Rav’s statement as a blanket Torah prohibition against dispute. Some explain that the verse is not a source for a biblical prohibition, but an asmakhta, a textual allusion to a rabbinic mitzvah or teaching. Others limit the prohibition to specific behaviors based on Rav’s language of “perpetuating a dispute” or the context of the verse.
In context the words do not sound like a command. After fulfilling God’s command to fashion a cover for the altar from the copper pans used by the men who challenged the priesthood to offer incense the Torah explains that this cover serves, “As a reminder for the Children of Israel so that no foreign person who is not a descendant of Aharon should not approach to offer incense before the Lord, and there shall not be like Korach and his assembly, as the Lord spoke through the hand of Moshe to him.”
Rashi brings the plain reading of the text – the cover is “so that there shall not be like Korach,” this phrase is the reason for the reminder. Yet this plain reading seems repetitive, a reminder that a foreigner may not offer incense isn’t that different from a reminder that people should not act like Korach.
Rashi also brings a midrash. The first part of the verse explains the reason for the reminder, the second warns of the consequences of such a challenge – in the future someone who challenges the priesthood will not be punished like Korach and his assembly, instead he’ll be afflicted with tzara’at (a spiritual skin disease), like “the hand of Moshe” at the burning bush after he questioned whether Israel would believe he was sent by God. Challenging a role designated by God is a form of haughtiness – and someone who holds themselves above others in this way is afflicted with tzara’at, a spiritual disease that isolates them from God and people.
Is there a mitzvah not to perpetuate dispute?
This midrash is also the basis of Rambam’s understanding of the verse which he uses as an example of a passive statement that something “shall not happen,” which should not be counted as a Torah mitzvah. A prohibition issues a command to refrain from certain behavior and is counted as a “negative” mitzvah. There is no imperative in a statement such as “there shall not be like Korach,” it’s generally an aspect of another mitzvah, in this case the prohibition that anyone who is not a priest may not serve in the Temple. Therefore, Rav’s drasha is an asmakhta.
Yet others teach that there is an express prohibition not to perpetuate makhloket and not to be like Korach and his assembly. Sefer Mitzvot Katan counts “there shall not be like Korach…” as its own mitzvah not to challenge the priesthood; this mitzvah both carries the punishment of tzara’at and includes the prohibition not to perpetuate makhloket. Rabbeinu Yona also states that there is a mitzvah not to perpetuate makhloket, yet he follows it with a warning that one who does not perpetuate makhloket with people who are on a bad path is punished for their crimes – seemingly because the mitzvah to rebuke our fellow warns that refraining from doing so will “bear a sin because of him.”
Rav Yehudah Shaviv questions this paradox – the Torah does not command us to violate a prohibition to avoid violating another prohibition. He explains that the prohibition against perpetuating a dispute is not an independent prohibition, but rather a safeguard – an action that is prohibited so that we do not violate a Torah prohibition. He brings the opinion of Rav Achai Gaon who states that “making” makhloket is prohibited because it will lead to a violation of “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Since the mitzvah of rebuke is a positive Torah mitzvah that is also meant to prevent such hatred, it takes precedence over the negative mitzvah against perpetuating dispute.
Perpetuating a dispute
Rabbeinu Yona’s statements indicate that there are different types of makhloket – some forbidden, others necessary. Later rabbinic authorities relate a similar idea by pointing out the difference between having a makhloket – dispute – and makhzik ba’makhloket – perpetuating dispute.
Chafetz Chaim lists the many prohibitions that are often violated when someone speaks lashon hara (evil speech such as gossip or speaking poorly about another…). He teaches that someone who spreads the story of how another wronged them perpetuates the dispute and violates the prohibition “not [to] be like Korach and his assembly.” In this context the issue is not the dispute itself but maintaining and spreading the dispute that’s the problem. Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that someone who listens to the badmouthing may also violate this prohibition, as their reaction adds fuel to the fire, but if they refuse to listen to the tale the dispute may die down.
Several contemporary Torah scholars have offered their own understanding of what it means to “perpetuate a dispute” and why such behavior is forbidden. Rav Yehudah Amital notes an often-overlooked detail of Korach’s conduct. Rashi asks a simple question on this parsha, “Korach was intelligent, what did he see in this nonsense?” Rav Amital points out that the commentaries often ignore one vital aspect of the story, that Moshe clearly states that only one person will survive the incense test. A rational person should realize the odds are not in their favor and abandon this folly, but, as Rav Amital explains, Korach and his assembly had ceased to act rationally.
“When a person sticks to their stance during a dispute they may get to the point that they are so certain they are right that no reason or threat will move them from their position. Paradoxically, as a dispute heats up, a person becomes more convinced they are correct and those who disagree with them are mistaken.”
The verse in Mishlei compares starting a quarrel to making a crack in a water pipe – it may seem manageable at first but both quickly surge out of control, and therefore, “abandon the quarrel before it breaks out.” The gemara in Sanhedrin uses this verse to teach, “before the quarrel breaks out you can abandon it, once it breaks out you can’t abandon it.” Who among us does not regret something we said or did in a heated quarrel, wishing we had walked away before we were carried away by the rushing words and flood of emotions? In such cases it may be best to agree to disagree.
The good fight
Nevertheless, we’ve noted that Jewish tradition is replete with disputes. Indeed, the mishna in Avot teaches:
“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure, and one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The disputes of Hillel and Shammai. And what is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Korach and his whole assembly.”
Rav Amital explains that a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven can lead to such enmity that the disputing parties may not even remember what they first fought about – which is why it will not endure. On the other hand, in a dispute for the sake of Heaven, such as those of Hillel and Shammai, each side listens to the other and maintains their rationality because they are not trying to prove themselves right, they are trying to find what is right. The argument does not revolve around them or what they believe, it revolves around the sake of Heaven.
We only have a handful of recorded disputes between Hillel and Shammai; it is their students who maintain scores of disputes. Even so the gemara relates that a voice from the heavens (Bat Kol) declared that “These and these are words of the Living God, and the law is according to Beit Hillel.” The gemara asks why the law follows Beit Hillel if both are the words of the Living God, and answers that it’s because “They are pleasant and humble, and they teach their words and the words of Beit Shammai, moreover they put Beit Shammai’s words before their own.”
In addition to the respectful conduct of Beit Hillel, it’s important to note that according to our tradition these disputes “endured” in the Beit Midrash but they were not “perpetuated” outside of it. Instead of retreating to an echo chamber where each side would no longer be faced with divergent opinions they continued to sit together in the Beit Midrash, “enduring.” Furthermore, these disputes did not spill over from the theoretical Beit Midrash into their social lives. The tosefta relates that even though they disputed several key laws concerning marriage and divorce, scholars from Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai would marry each other’s daughters and they had truth and peace between them.
According to Rav Yehudah Shaviv the sages cautioned us against creating environments that foster makhloket when they interpreted the prohibition of “lo titgodidu” (which literally means “do not cut yourself” meaning physical self-harm) as a prohibition against cutting the community by separating into sects. It seems that centuries prior to social media our sages warned us of the dangers of retreating into “echo chambers,” advising us that retreating from challenges to our opinions will only lead to more separation.
Let’s agree to disagree
One of the most fascinating aspects of Korach’s dispute is that many traditional explanations completely contradict the text. Korach’s complaint is simple: “You have too much, for the entire assembly, everyone, is sanctified and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” Or HaChaim explains that Korach questioned why a sanctified nation would need a priest to mediate between them and God. This itself is a valid question.
Korach’s assembly challenged Aharon’s priesthood, Datan and Aviram challenged Moshe’s leadership. “Isn’t it enough that you brought is up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, will you also appoint yourself, rule over us?!” Who needs a leader to wander around in circles in the desert? The nihilism of Datan and Aviram is understandable given their fate.
Yet many commentaries seem to overlook their words and explain that Korach, Datan, and Aviram were not anarchists who rejected the idea of leadership or socialists rejecting hierarchy, but rather were looking for an excuse to seize power. Their words may have contained elements of truth, but their goals were selfish. Why do these commentaries look beyond their words to their motives?
It seems this prevalent explanation is based on a fallacy in their claims. Korach claims that the entire nation is sanctified so the priests should not be raised above them. Moshe counters using language that rejects the concept of a hierarchy in favor of “separation” or difference. Moshe points out that Korach is already part of a “separate” cast, the Levites, and if he’s questioning “privilege” he should check his own.
Moshe’s words and behavior throughout demonstrate that he is acting as a servant of God, “for the sake of Heaven” and not his own sake. Differences do not mean “higher” or “lower” when we are all subservient to God. We are meant to serve our Creator, and God assigned us roles accordingly – all are necessary, all have privilege and responsibility – some are inherited and some are earned. Challenging roles designated by God is a challenge against God. “So you and your entire assembly who are gathering against God, who is Aharon that you complain against him?”
Similarly, Datan and Aviram are also focused on their own fulfillment. They blame Moshe for taking them out of Egypt and not finishing the job, ignoring the role their generation plays in the larger story of the People of Israel. They too ignore what they were given and focus on what they do not have, instead of seeing themselves as part of a greater group that has it all.
The wrong way to conduct makhloket
The parsha begins by relating “Korach son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi took, and Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet – sons of Reuven. And they rose before Moshe…“ With no direct object in the sentence the commentaries question what Korach “took” and the multitude of answers reflect the many ways to look at the seeds of dispute. Korach took himself and separated from the assembly. Korach’s heart carried him away. Korach took words to entice others to join his side. Korach took people. Korach took various grievances and combined them. Korach took the opportunity provided by the decree that their generation would perish in the wilderness. Korach took his firstborn status to claim the honor he believed was due to him.
Korach is described as taking. Moshe listens to his complaints and addresses them, both in theory and in practice. He also gives them a day to cool off. Korach does not answer. He is not interested in discussion. Neither are Datan and Aviram. Moshe sends for them but they refuse to budge. So Moshe goes to them, to warn those around them to separate and to settle the dispute. Reish Lakish points out that Moshe is willing to humble himself so as not to perpetuate makhloket.
Moshe is willing to discuss, but they are not. Moshe is concerned with God’s interests and those of the entire community; Korach is concerned with his own interests. It’s evident in the way he conducts his dispute. If we were to make a list of the proposed “halakhot of dispute” it would be something like this:
- Do not make it personal: An altruistic dispute, one that is for the sake of Heaven, does not focus on people but on the truth. There’s no room for personal attacks.
- Do not make yourself or your opinion the subject: The aim should not be your personal interests or proving yourself right, it should be finding what is right.
- Listen and respond. It’s not about racking up points, it’s about a meeting of the minds.
- Remain humble. Even if you know you’re right the other side probably has some truth to it. Be open to new facts and ideas. No one person has a monopoly on the truth. That itself is irrational (since no two people agree on every single thing, if I am right all the time then I am the only person in the world who is).
- Walk away before it gets heated. You can agree to disagree – have makhloket without perpetuating makhloket.
- Do not perpetuate it.
- Disputes should be limited to constructive discussions of the topic, they should be abandoned if both sides are not listening and responding, if you’re talking in circles, or if nothing constructive can come of continued discussion.
- Disputes should not affect other interactions between the parties.
- Disputes should not be discussed with uninvolved parties.
- Disputes should not create sects – do not allow disputes about issues or actions to become disputes with people. (Lo titgodidu)
One final note. Rav Yehudah Amital offers an interesting midrash on the statement “a dispute for the sake of Heaven will endure.” He explains that when we believe we represent the sake of Heaven we will perpetuate the dispute and it will live on forever. If we admit that we have a personal stake in the outcome we may be willing to compromise, but when we claim there is no self-interest involved and our cause is holy we will not budge. Rebbe Yonatan Eybeschutz suggested a simple way to discern prohibited and permitted disputes. Korach and his assembly could not stand to speak to Moshe, but in disputes like those of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel the parties maintain a loving relationship.
Ultimately, it seems that dispute is permitted. Challenges can help us find the truth. God made us all different and wants different things from all of us. Obviously we don’t all share one point of view. But we must remember that our point of view is one of many, others may see things we don’t see. We must stand up against things that are clearly wrong, but we must also admit if there’s some validity no matter how much we disagree with the larger claim. And no matter what, we should never allow limited differences to separate the community or close ourselves off from the assembly – a group with the shared goal of serving our Creator and each other, each in our own way. Only then will the truth in Korach’s words be fulfilled: “the entire assembly is sanctified and God is in their midst.”
“There are some who mistakenly think that world peace can only be built when everyone shares the same beliefs and characteristics… but true peace is only possible in this world when the value of making peace is perpetuated. Perpetuating peace means seeing all the sides and all the approaches, until it is clear how they all have a place… value…”
 TB Sanhedrin 110a, quoting Bamidbar 17:5
 Some limit the Torah prohibition to disputing the priesthood, disputing leaders chosen by God, and/or disputing Torah authorities, particularly one’s own teacher. The latter still allows for disputes if the student is relying on another teacher’s statements, but not when they have no authority to support their dispute.
 Bamidbar 17:5
 Tanhuma Tzav 11:1. This midrash addresses the repetition in the verse and also explains the strange wording at the end of the verse, “as the Lord spoke through the hand of Moshe to him” as an allusion to Shemot Chapter 4, and fits with the other biblical account of a foreigner who offered incense – King Uziah as related in Divrei HaYamim 26:19.
 For more see https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-vayikra/parashat-tazria/tazria-metzora-plague-tzaraat and https://www.etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-vayikra/parashat-tazria/tazria-affliction-tzaraat.
 Introduction to Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 8
 Sefer HaMitzvot Lav 74
 In his hasagot Ramban disagrees with Rambam’s use of midrash to interpret the verse but ultimately agrees there is no unique mitzvah “not to be like Korach.” Nevertheless, he teaches that the beginning of the verse is a separate prohibition, and in addition to the prohibition against non-priests serving in the Temple there’s a prohibition not to challenge the priesthood.
 Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Lavin 157 – he counts it as part of the prohibition against challenging the priesthood. Rabbeinu Yonah Ma’amar 58
 Sefer Mitzvot Katan 132
 Sha’arei Teshuva 3:58-59, Vayikra 19:17
 She’ilta 131, Parshat Korach
 Chafetz Chaim, Petikha l’hilkhot lashon hara v’rekhilut, lavin 12
 Sicha for Parshat Korach 5756 (1996) https://www.etzion.org.il/he/tanakh/torah/sefer-bamidbar/parashat-korach/korach-he-shall-not-be-korach-and-his-congregation
 It’s possible that this question is not overlooked, but rather is not a question – if one understands Korach’s argument to be that everyone is allowed to serve God in the Temple and offer incense – “the entire assembly is sanctified” – then they may believe that no one would die.
 Mishlei 17:14
 TB Sanhedrin 6b. The gemara uses this to explain that a judge should encourage mediation and compromise before hearing the case, but may not do so afterward. Rav Amital explains the statement is also true out of context – it’s much easier to walk away before the argument gets heated.
 Mishna Avot 5:17
 TB Eiruvin 13b
 Tosefta Yevamot Chapter 1
 Devarim 14:1; TB Yevamot 13b – 14a. It does not seem to be a coincidence that this discussion begins when Reish Lakish challenges Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion concerning a makhloket between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Reish Lakish is also quoted before Rav’s statement in Sanhedrin; he learns that one may not perpetuate dispute from Moshe, who swallowed his pride and went to confront Datan and Aviram on their own turf when they refused to come to him. Sanhedrin 110a.
Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan were known for their contentious relationship, although Rabbi Yochanan married his sister off to Reish Lakish and the two were lifetime chevrutot (study partners). The gemara tells us that one heated dispute turned personal, Rabbi Yochanan brought up Reish Lakish’s past as a violent bandit, Reish Lakish retorted that the new life he lived due to Rabbi Yochanan’s influence wasn’t any better than his old one – in both he was known as “Master,” and Rabbi Yochanan countered that Reish Lakish was closer to God because of him. Rabbi Yochanan grew so upset that Reish Lakish got sick and died. Rabbi Yochanan spent the rest of his life mourning the loss of his sparring partner. (TB Bava Metzia 84a)
 Bamidbar 16:3
 Bamidbar 16:13
 “He has brought you and all your brothers, the sons of Levi along with you, closer, and you also seek priesthood?” Bamidbar 16:10
 Yerayim 357
 Bamidbar 16:11
 Midrash Tanchuma Korach 2, Onkelos, Rashi, Ramban on Bamidbar 16:1
 Ramban ibid
 Seforno ibid
 Abarbanel counts 3 different complaints:
- That he was not made High Priest, as the firstborn son in a line of firstborns descended from Levi.
- The Tribe of Reuven were not given any of the rights of the firstborn.
- The special status of the firstborn male of each family, originally charged with serving God in the Temple. was transferred to the Levites.
 Shadal ibid
 Malbim ibid
 TB Sanhedrin 110a. TB Berakhot 10a relates a stalemate between King Chizkiyahu and the Prophet Yishayahu, as each thought the other should come to them.
 Ye’arot Dvash 2:1
 Siddur Olat Re’iya, on “Talmidei chachamim (students of sages) perpetuate peace in the world…” Berakhot 64a