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Parashat Korah

June 18, 2015

Jules Verne’s classic work of science fiction, Journey to the Center of the Earth, describes how Professor Otto Lidenbrock, along with his nephew and their guide, descend to the center of the Earth through a volcanic tube. While on their travels they experience many exciting adventures, encounter strange animals, and even met the descendants of Korah. Wait a second, did I just say that Professor Lidenbrock, Axel, and Hans met the descendants of Korah while they were journeying to the center of the Earth? 

Leaving aside the mingling of characters in the Bible and those from a Jules Verne novel, whatever did happen to Korah and his followers? Many people assume that they died on that hot desert day after the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them. Isn’t that what happened? Truth be told, it’s complicated.

This is how the Torah describes the fate of Korah.

As soon as he [Moses] finished speaking all these words, the ground under them was split apart. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households-everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. (Numbers 16:31-32)

It seems simple enough, but in the next verse (Numbers 16:33) things begin to get complicated:

So they with all that belonged to them went down alive (hayyim) into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished/vanished (va-yovdu) from the midst of the assembly. 

According to the beginning of this verse, they were still alive when they went down into Sheol. From the end of the verse it’s not entirely clear what happened to them, but I don’t think that it definitively states that Korah and his followers died. It was this ambiguity that led the midrash in Numbers Rabbah 18:19 to say that “There are those who say that they are alive and well until now.”

The fog around the fate of Korah and his followers is only amplified by Numbers 26:9-11:

The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah’s band when they agitated against the LORD. Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah – when that band died, when the fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men – and they became an example. The sons of Korah, however, did not die.

Dr. Tamar Kadari has shown how a number of midrashim expanded on this ambiguity even further. The first can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a-b.

“But the children of Korah did not die” (Num. 26:11): It was taught by a Tannaitic authority in the name of our Master:  “A place was set aside for them in Gehenna, and they sat there and recited a song [for God].” Said Rabbah bar bar Hana, “One time I was going along the way, and an [Arab] said to me, ‘Come, and I shall show you where the men of Korah were swallowed up.’ I went and saw two crevasses, from which smoke came forth. He took a piece of wool, wet it down, and set it on the tip of his spear and passed it over the spot, and it was singed. “I said to him, ‘Listen to what you are going to hear.’ “And I heard them saying, ‘Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.’ “He said to me, ‘Every thirty days Gehenna turns them over like meat in a pot, and they say this:  ‘Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.’” (Based upon Jacob Neusner’s translation.)

The second midrash is from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 10) and describes the adventures of Jonah. During his travels in the depths of the world, Jonah saw the Foundation Stone (Even ha-Shetiyah) that was part of the Holy Temple.

He saw there the sons of Korah standing and praying over it. They said to Jonah, “Behold you are standing beneath the Temple of God, pray and you will be answered…Jonah began to pray before the Holy One Blessed be He and he said, “Ruler of all the universe, you are called ‘the One who kills’ and ‘the One who gives life.’ Behold, my soul has reached unto death, now restore me to life.” (Based upon Friedlander’s translation.)

Both of these midrashim, each in their own way, create a counter-story. The lives of the followers and descendants of Korah did not end when they were swallowed by the Earth, rather, they continued to live on, attempting to make amends for what they did, never ceasing to call out to God from the depths of the Earth.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.