Between Shelach and Korach

Parashat Shelach ends with the commandment of tzitzit, and is followed immediately with the story of Korach. What is the connection between the two?

The most obvious connection is the idea that holiness applies to all. In the laws of tzitzit, the verse says that by wearing them, “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” (Bamidbar 15:40)

There is a strong echo of that message in Korach’s complaint to Moshe:

“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:3)

It is as if Korach heard the message in the previous chapter, that everyone is holy, and so chose it for his rallying cry, as Seforno points out in his commentary on 16:3).

But there is more to the connection than just the application of the word “holy” to all the people. The context of that verse is in the commandment to wear tzitzit. A cord of techelet (blue) was attached to the tzitzit, and dyed cords were traditionally made of wool. Since the garments worn (and the other fringes) would have been made of linen, that means that the mitzva of tzitzit included the mixture of wool and linen, which in general is forbidden under the prohibition of shaatnez (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Devarim 22:12, who explain the juxtaposition of the prohibition of the prohibition of shaatnez and the obligation of tzitzit there as an indication that the prohibition does not apply to tzitzit.)

Tzitzit is not the only case where shaatnez is not only permitted, but is used as part of a holy object. We find that the tapestries in the mishkan were made of wool and linen (Shemot 26:1) as well as the garments of the kohanim (Shemot 28:6, 36-39). As the mishna points out (Kilayim 9:1), the prohibition of shaatnez does not apply to the priests, who are obligated to wear wool and linen together.

So the wearer of tzitzit with techelet, a mixture of wool and linen, experiences a sense of the holiness previously associated exclusively with the kohanim. That is why the Torah says that by wearing tzitzit, “you will be holy.”

As we mentioned, Korach used this message in his campaign. Rashi, quoting a midrash, takes this one step further. He presents a dialogue between Korach’s assembly and Moshe:

“They then came and stood before Moses and said to him, ‘Is a garment that is entirely of techelet subject to the law of tzitzit or is it exempt”? He replied to them: ‘It is subject to that law’. Whereupon they began to jeer at him: ‘Is this possible? A robe of any different coloured material, one thread of techelet attached to it exempts it, and this that is entirely of techelet  should it not exempt itself from the law of tzitzit?’” (Rashi on Bamidbar 16:1)

The “garment entirely techelet” represents the people of Israel. If they are already holy, why should they need an extra thread (i.e. the kohanim) to add additional holiness?

What Korach failed to understand is that the holiness described here doesn’t mean “better.” It means dedicated, set aside. The kohanim were set aside to do certain tasks, and as such, they had additional responsibilities. They weren’t better than the rest of the people.

The same lesson should apply to the tzitzit, along with the rest of the commandments. They don’t either guarantee that those performing them are better than the rest of humanity or reflect any inherent superiority. It is a role that Israel has been assigned, as a “kingdom of priests”, and as such is a mission, not a trophy.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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