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Hanging by a Thread

Hanging by a Thread


Just over a year after leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah, the Jews witnessed the first rebellion in their ranks as an uprising of two hundred and fifty men and their leader, Korach, challenged the true authority of Moses.

In the Torah portion that bears his name, Korach, and which speaks of the revolt and its resolution, we learn of Korach’s bid for power, his plot to depose Moses’ brother Aaron from the high priesthood and to usurp this office for himself.

The Midrash,1 however, describes the initial confrontation between Moses and the rebels as centering on quite a different issue. Moses had just finished2 teaching the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes), as stated in the verse:3 “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments . . . and they shall place on the fringes of each corner a thread of blue.”4 Immediately, Korach ordered that two hundred and fifty cloaks be made entirely of blue, and that no fringes be placed on them. His supporters then dressed themselves in these odd garments and paraded before Moses. “You have taught us,” Korach said to Moses, “that G‑d told you, ‘They shall place upon the fringes of each corner a thread of blue.’ I ask you, what of a garment that is entirely blue? Does it, too, require fringes?” Moses answered in the affirmative, that the law remains the same, and such a garment would indeed be obligated to bear fringes. Korach and his men then laughed at Moses and mused, “A garment that is made entirely of blue does not fulfill the mitzvah—and four small strings do? These things you teach us, they were not commanded to you, but you make them up yourself!”

In the biblical account, the main thrust of Korach’s opposition was political—his claim for the high priesthood, as mentioned. Yet, as the Midrash makes clear, the rebellion itself was launched upon Korach’s stance regarding one peculiar case in the laws of fringes.

This seems odd, for Korach was present with all of the Jews at Sinai when the Torah was given to Moses, and saw for himself how Moses received the Torah from G‑d. Furthermore, Korach had studied this same Torah, and was a scholar in his own right, as evidenced by his ability to attract to his following two hundred and fifty supporters, all of whom were heads of rabbinical courts. And yet, despite all he had seen and studied, Korach came to denounce Moses and the Divinity of the commandments, all because of a seemingly academic question as to whether a garment entirely of blue wool is obligated to have fringes.

Making Sense of G‑d’s Commandments

Let us examine Korach’s precise argument as presented in the Midrash.

We do not find that Korach disputed the basic commandment of fringes. Nor did he reject the concept of a Divine code of law in general. To the contrary, as apparent from his very argument, he most certainly did believe that G‑d had ordained specific laws, including even the ritual of fringes in some form. Korach’s contention was only that Moses did not faithfully transmit the actual law, but that he instead invented his own rulings as he saw fit.

The invalidity of these teachings, Korach argued, could be observed by the failure of Moses’ rulings to conform to logic. The law, as presented by Moses, did not seem consistent. A regular garment with a single thread of blue on each corner fulfills a precept, while a garment made entirely of this same blue does not? This case, asserted Korach, was but a chief example of how Moses had distorted the entire Torah, extemporaneously or even calculatingly adding his own contrivances to all of the commandments until the body of his teachings became wholly inauthentic.

Of course, Korach’s argument was underlain by one major premise—that the commandments actually are based on logic. Moses, however, answered in truth, for the commandments do not adhere strictly to reason, but transcend intellect, as they are rooted in G‑d’s very will. Thus, it was Korach’s refusal to allow for the ultimate supra-rationality of the law that led him to vie with Moses and deny his teachings.

A Model for Faith

Elsewhere, the Midrash5 relates a discussion which took place between G‑d and Moses just prior to the issuing of the commandment of fringes. Moses asked G‑d, “What good is it that You have given the Jews so many commandments, when they are here in this physical and coarse world and are liable to forget the idea of Torah altogether?” G‑d answered, “I will give them the mitzvah of fringes, and they will remember all of the commandments, for the word tzitzit is numerically equivalent to six hundred,6 and with its five knots and eight strings, this is six hundred and thirteen.7 Thereby they will be reminded of all of the commandments, as it is written,8 ‘They will see [their fringes] and remember G‑d’s commandments.’”

Thus, according to the Midrash, the function of the fringes is specifically to represent the six hundred and thirteen commandments. This exegetical explanation, however, is seemingly difficult to reconcile with the actual ritual as set forth in the Torah.9 According to Torah law, we are commanded to make fringes expressly for the corners of our garments. The fringes alone—the strings by themselves—have no ritual function or value unless attached to a garment. Yet if, as the Midrash seems to say, the purpose of the fringes is merely to remind us of the commandments, then ostensibly we should be able to make just the fringes without the need for any garment. We could just hold or look at the fringes alone and be reminded of the commandments that way.

In truth, however, the Midrash and its allusions are exact. Precisely for the reason that tzitzit are meant to represent and remind us of all other commandments, they can serve this purpose only when attached to a garment. As we discussed regarding Korach, his failure was in recognizing that the root and source of the commandments exceeds the bounds of understanding. This principle itself is reflected in the mitzvah of tzitzit.

The function of a garment is to surround a person, remaining external to him. Unlike other necessities, like food and water, that offer sustenance only when taken inside of the person, a garment acts, in chassidic terminology, as a makkif—that which encompasses and is aloof. Thus, just as the fringes symbolize the commandments, the garment to which the fringes must be attached symbolizes the transcendent source of the commandments, the Divine will, which surpasses logic and cannot be intellectually internalized or grasped. Thus, while there is indeed an intellectual dimension to the commandments which can be appreciated through analysis and study, ultimately the commandments, inasmuch as they are a pure expression of Divine will, supersede all intellect—even G‑dly intellect, as it were.

Intellectual Agenda

This precisely was Korach’s undoing. His acceptance of the commandments was as a rational endeavor. Thus, as soon as Torah failed to conform to his understanding, he rejected its Divinity and seized the opportunity to advance his own corrupt agenda. Indeed, this push for self-advancement was but an expression of the more profound issue of Korach’s rationalist thinking.

Our sages have stated,10 “Which is a dispute that was waged for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that was not waged for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his followers.” Hillel and Shammai, though constantly at odds with one another in Torah law, were not bound to intellect alone. For this reason, we find cases where both Hillel and Shammai depart from their typical line of thinking and espouse views that are uncharacteristic of their standard rulings.11 Thus, their disputes, too, were free from intellectual bias and prejudice. Where they disagreed, it was strictly for altruistic motives, to arrive at the proper ruling rather than to further their own agenda.

Korach, however, who followed intellect alone, entered into debate with his own objectives in mind. Whether it is the biblical account of his attempted political coup, or the Midrashic telling of his apostasy over a peculiarity in the laws of fringes, it is but one Korach, the scholar, the thinker and leader desperately confined to calculations and a prisoner to his own point of view.12

Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3; Tanchuma, Korach 2. See also Rashi, Numbers 16:1.
Based on the order of the biblical verses, the Midrash expounds that Moses had just finished teaching the people the commandment of fringes when Korach began his revolt. The first verse of this Torah portion, “Korach . . . broke away,” directly follows the last verses of the previous Torah portion, which speak about fringes.
This “blue” (in biblical Hebrew, techeilet) is wool dyed with the blood of the chilazon fish, a rare marine creature whose identity and exact shade of blue has been widely disputed. See Talmud, Menachot 42b and 44a. At various times in history, including the present time, techeilet has been largely or completely unavailable. In such a case, the mitzvah of fringes must be fulfilled with the white threads only, for it is strictly prohibited to simulate techeilet with any other dye. According to the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, only in the coming messianic era will the chilazon once more be properly identified.
See Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah ch. 26, quoted in Ohr HaChaim, Bamidbar 15:37.
צ=90, י=10, צ=90, י=10, ת=400.
This is the total number of biblical commandments. See Talmud, Makkot 23b.
Numbers 15:39 and Rashi there.
Ibid. verse 38.
Pirkei Avot 5:17.
In most cases, the students of Hillel would rule leniently while the students of Shammai would take the stringent view. However, the Mishnah (Eduyot, chs. 4–5) lists a number of cases in which the opposite was true.
Adapted from Torat Menachem, vol. 9, pp. 11–13, and Likkutei Sichot, vol. 2, pp. 324–325.
Rabbi Shais Taub is a renowned speaker and noted scholar on Chassidic philosophy. He is the author of G-d of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction. He and his family make their home in Pittsburgh, PA.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Theodore Jessa Baltimore June 16, 2014

Fringes If someone wears their tzitzit on the outside of their garments, would such a person belong to an outer fringe group? Reply

Anonymous Tulsa, OK June 21, 2011

fringes Isn't it 5 knots and 8 stringes on the fringes vice 8 knots and 5 stringes? Reply

Moss Posner M.D. Fresno, CA June 30, 2006

Therein lies a tale This wonderful commentary I personally see as a pointed brief summary of the explanation and understanding of the Orthodox Way. Also, it speaks to the eternal tension between the notion of Principle and the Ideal, on confronting of the realities of life and the question of compromise. Reply

This is no fringe mitzvah! The tallit and tzitzit serves as constant reminders of our obligations to G-d and our fellows.
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