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Loose Strands (Pekudei)

1. Today we’re going to try to uncover the underlying connections between a whole host of passages, strewn across the Torah, which seem, at first glance, entirely unrelated to each other. Most of these passages are familiar to us; in fact, we recite some of them on a daily basis. But our wide-ranging theory actually begins in one of this week’s two parshahs, with an unlikely starting point: the head plate worn by the Kohen Gadol. In Hebrew, this head plate is called a “tzitz (Hebrew: ציץ). Many of us don’t know much about this head plate. However, the tzitz does bear striking similarities to a ritual garment which is far more well-known: the tzitzis (ציצית), i.e., the tassels worn at the edges of a four cornered garment. To that end: Both the tzitz and the tzitzis bear blue-ish threads, which are referred to by the Torah as “pesil techeles” (Exod. 39:31; Num. 15:38). Both must be placed before one’s eyes: the tzitz is placed “on the forehead” (Exod. 28:38–reference is from parshas Tetzaveh, where the tzitz is originally introduced), while, of the tzitzis, the Torah states, “and you shall see them” (Num. 15:39). Both serve to protect against sin (Exod. 28:38; Num. 15:39). And, both remind those who wear them that they are “holy to God:” “and you shall engrave upon it: ‘Holy to the Lord’” (Exod. 28:36); “and you shall see them… and you shall be holy to your God” (Num. 15:39-40).

2. It seems, then, that the tzitzis are meant to replicate the tzitz: the Kohen Gadol wears the tzitz to indicate his holiness; the members of his nation wear the tzitzis to indicate theirs. Indeed, the Zohar, in his kabbalistic commentary at the end of parshas Shelach, makes this connection explicitly. In fact, he suggests that the word “tzitzis” is simply the feminine form of the word “tzitz!” For more, see Zohar, Shelach 174b.

3. This insight radically shapes the way we read one of the Torah’s most famous stories: the story of Korach’s rebellion, told in sefer Bamidbar. Immediately after the Torah introduces the mitzvah of tzitzis, Korach rebels against his cousin Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (=High Priest). Korach’s claim is: “The entire congregation is holy – so why do you elevate yourself above the community of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3). If our observation about the tzitzis is correct, then this complaint could not be better timed. Until now, Aharon’s tzitz reminded the nation of of his uniquely holy status. But now that everyone has been invited to wear tzitzis themselves–now that they too don clothes which announce “and you shall be holy to your God”–Korach feels justified in challenging Aaron’s priestly authority. In fact, others have made this connection before us, including Rabbi Yaakov Medan.

Image result for ‫טלית‬‎4. With this in mind, we better understand a famous medrash concerning Korach. According to the medrash, Korach launched his attack on Aharon’s authority by mocking the idea that a garment made entirely of techeles-wool would nevertheless require four techeles strings in order to meet the religious requirement of tzitzis. Where did Korach come up with the idea that a garment might be made entirely of techeles? Well, the Torah does speak of such a garment: shortly before it tells us of the tzitz which Aharon wore, it tells us that the me’il (robe) which he wore was made entirely of techeles. So the garment mentioned by Korach wasn’t a figment of his imagination; it was actually one of the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol. And why would Korach have been thinking about the priestly garments? Well, his doing so makes perfect sense, in the context of what we’ve been saying: if indeed the tzitzis are just a “folk version” of the tzitz–and if it was indeed the similarities between these two which provided the fuel for Korach’s rebellion–then we understand well why Korach would launch his attack against Aharon by arguing that the wardrobe of the Kohen Gadol is incompatible with the mitzvah of tzitzis!

5. Our interpretation also offers much insight into the otherwise enigmatic climax of Korach’s rebellion. Following Korach’s death, Hashem demonstrates that Aharon alone has been elected to serve as Kohen Gadol by bidding the tribal leaders to bring wooden staffs to the ohel mo’ed (“tent of meeting”), and asking Aharon to do the same. The next morning, the staffs the tribal leaders remain unchanged, whereas Aharon’s has a bud/blossom which Torah describes as… a “tzitz!(Num. 17:23). The symbolism is hard to miss. Surely what Hashem intends to communicate through this curious miracle is that it is Aharon alone who holds the right to wear the tzitz (indeed, Chizkuni states as much explicitly in his commentary on that passage). And, if what we are claiming is correct, then this message could not be more apt. Korach rebelled against Aharon because, armed with the mitzvah of tzitzis, Korach now considered himself to stand on equal footing as the one chosen to wear the tzitz. Hashem rebuts that claim by providing Korach’s survivors with a visual sign that, tzitzis notwithstanding, it is Aharon alone who can bear the tzitz.

6Let’s take the next step. The Torah tells us that the tzitz was placed on Aharon’s “forehead.” Specifically, Chazal tell us, it was placed above his hairline. Why there? Well, one meaning of the word tzitzis is, in fact, “lock of hair;” thus, Yechezkel HaNavi, much later in Tanach, recounts how Hashem pulled him by “tzitzis roshi,” “a lock of my hair,” to transport him to the site of the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim (Ezek. 8:3; indeed, several of the classical mefarshim cite this passuk in attempting to explain the meaning of the word “tzitz”). So it seems that there’s a fundamental relationship between the “tzitz” and the “hair.”

7. And this relationship–between the tzitz and the hair– is especially interesting to consider given that the man who rebelled against the wearing of the tzitz was named none other than “Korach:” literally, “the bald one.” That cannot be a coincidence! In fact, it seems to fit perfectly with our conclusion (reached in a series of articles earlier last year–“Out of This World” and “The Hair Affair”) that it is specifically through the imagery of hair that Korach (“the bald one”) seeks to undermine the Torah’s two paragons of spirituality: the kohanim (who are specifically bidden, at one point, to cut their hair); and the nezirim (who may never cut their hair). Hair, we noted at that time, is a symbol of death; it is comprised entirely of dead cells. Korach, the bald one, is always cutting his hair; he engages excessively with his hair, because he represents the spiritual service of death. By contrast, the kohen and the nazir (who are connected to each other in many ways besides for through their hair, by the way), place limits upon their engagement with their hair, because they represent a form of spiritual service which is life affirming rather than life denying. [There is much more to say on the relationship between the nazir, the kohen, and Korach, but this summary will suffice for our purposes; if you are interested, please see the articles from last year for more on this topic].

8. Given that the kohen and the nazir are connected specifically through the imagery of hair, it should not surprise us to find the Torah referring to the tzitz, in our Parshah, as a nezer (i.e. “crown”–the same root as the word nazir–Exod. 39:30). This association fits beautifully into the dynamic we’ve been tracing: kohen and nazir, on the one side, versus Korach, on the other. It also underscores the theory that the tzitz is to be somehow associated with the hair, specifically, and that the imagery of hair is somehow essential to the role of the kohen.

Image result for ‫תפילין‬‎9. There’s yet another, fascinating connection to be made here. We’ve mentioned that the tzitz was worn above the hairline. But do you know what else is worn above the hairline? The tefillin (see Zevachim 19a-b). And why are the tefillin worn above the hairline? Well, Chazal tell us (Menachos 37b), we know that tefillin go above the hairline because the Torah refers to the site of tefillin using the same phrase (בין עיניכם) as the site of “death gashes.” See, in ancient times, it was common for people to honor the dead by gashing themselves above their hairline; the Torah, for its part, explicitly forbids this practice. And do you know what these “death gashes” are actually called, in the Torah’s terminology? קרחה״”-Korchah (Deut. 14:1). Yes, that’s correct–it’s the same root as Korach! And it makes for quite a picture: Korach is the “bald one;” the one, that is, who rips out his hair in an act of death worship. Against him stands the kohen: the one who must place above his hairline the crown of the tzitz in order to serve the God of life.

10. And under the kohen stand all those who wear the tefillin: ritual objects which promote the sanctity of life, and which render impossible participation in the cult of death. Indeed, halachah actually insists that one not wear tefillin when one is in mourning. This makes sense, given all we’ve been saying: tefillin, as a symbol of life, are fundamentally incompatible with death. And, of course, the same is true for the “twin mitzvah” of tefillin–namely, the tzitzis. Just like the tefillin, the tzitzis, as we have seen, is something of a “mini-tzitz;” both ritual garments parallel, in a sense, the crown worn above the hairline of the Kohen Gadol. Thus, it should not surprise us that halachah forbids us from wearing out our tzitzis in a cemetery. Nor should it surprise us that we cut the tzitzis off the tallis which we wrap around a corpse. Tzitzis, like tefillin, celebrate life; they are fundamentally incompatible with death.

11. One final strand to tie together here. Earlier last year–in an analysis separate from anything connected to Korach, kohanim, nezirim, etc.–we showed how the language the Torah uses to describe tzitzis, the context in which the Torah chooses to discuss tzitzis, and the manner in which we perform the actual mitzvah of tzitzis, all suggest that the aim of this mitzvah is to encourage reproductive propriety. (We won’t summarize those observations now, but interested readers can read more here). Well, now: if that’s true, and if it’s also true (as we’ve been arguing in this piece) that the tzitzis is meant to serve as a sort of mini-tzitz, then we would expect to find the theme of reproductive propriety associated with the tzitz as well. Do we? In fact–we do. For the same passage of the Torah which begins with the command to wear the tzitz culminates with the command that the kohanim wear special “pants” to “cover their nakedness” while serving in the sanctuary (note: the passages are delineated by the letter “samech” in the masoretic notation, and are set off with indents in any sefer Torah you will consult). The term for “covering” used in the context of Aharon’s pants (כ.ס.ה) is the same term used with reference to the tzitzis garment in sefer Devarim which we looked at last year. And it is the same fundamental idea which underlies both commands: namely, the imperative of reproductive propriety.

12. Putting it all together, then, we find that the tzitzis–like the tzitz, which they replicate–are all about affirming life. And they do this in two ways. On the one hand, they discourage practices which affirm death–most concretely, the tearing of one’s hear or gashing of one’s hairline (=the credo of Korach) in honor of the dead. On the other hand, they encourage reproductive propriety, to ensure that life is preserved and perpetuated in a way that is optimally sanctified and sustainable.

13. And now, perhaps, we can come full circle on the imagery of the tzitz. For, as we saw in that passage about Aharon’s staffs, tzitz, fundamentally, means “blossom,” or “bud.” The tzitz, in other words, is the paradigmatic symbol of life. And whereas some of the life force which God plants within us is inevitably channelled towards death (represented, biologically, through the dead cells which make up our hair), the Torah challenges us to resist placing death at the top of our spiritual consciousness: to resist worshipping the tzitzis which grow from our hairlines, and to fashion a different set of tzitzis, modelled upon the the tzitz, which we must place at the forefront of our minds instead. For the Torah calls upon us to search for Hashem not in the there-and-then, but in the here-and-now; to find Him not by escaping human life, but my embracing it, and elevating it. In this way alone can we aspire to the ideal etched on the kohen’s forehead, and mandated of us all–to be “holy to the Lord.”


  1. Fantastic piece, Alex! Bringing it all together with the ציץ on the staff is just amazing and the larger theory is very compelling.

    One note is that I think you may be underplaying the extent to which this is an internal Levite battle, and the how that might dovetail with your theme about life vs. death. Moshe’s response to Korach’s cross-tribe populist coalition, whose banner is “רב לכם” (Moshe & Aharon have arrogated too much status to themselves), is to separate Korach and the Levites from the others, challenging them with “רב לכם בני לוי” — the first of three times he refers to the “sons of Levi”– in his initial address to them. It is also Moshe who suggests that Korach & other Levites are challenging Aharon for the priesthood, and they never deny it. It isinteresting in this regard that the test of the staffs involves 12 staffs for each tribe, with Aharon representing Levi. The implication is that it is simultaneously a test of Levi’s leadership over the tribes and of Aharon’s leadership of the tribe of Levi. And then of course the parsha closes with the institution of the tithe for the Levites and then their tithe to Aharon, which seems to reaffirm Aharon’s leadership over the tribe. (It then transitions to the role of the kohen in administering the red heifer rites, which of course is about purification after proximity to death)

    Part of what might be going on is that Korach is essentially a demagogue who is fomenting a faux populist rebellion (much like the many ones today) and a key part of his strategy is to cloak his intra-elite campaign with (manufactured) grievances among the people, arguing that the complaints are one when really they are not (cf., R. Menachem Leibtag’s analysis: http://tanach.org/bamidbar/korach.txt).

    But what then what is Korach’s beef with Aharon? Is it simply that he doesn’t see why Aharon gets to be the high priest the rest of Levi have to be below him?

    One possibility is hinted at with the term “בני לוי,” “sons of Levi.” It’s interesting to consider the first time we’ve seen this expression: twice in the aftermath of the Sin of Golden Calf (Ex 32:26-29) when Moshe called out “Whoever is for G-d, come to me.” These “בני לוי” did not hesitate to go back and forth through the camp and kill their “brother,” “neighbor,” and “near one” to a total of 3,000 men. This zealousness in G-d’s behalf would seemingly contrast with Aharon’s behavior, which had been to mollify the crowd that wanted to worship a golden calf in place of Moshe. And it seems that the Levites were invested in their special role at that moment (“מלאו ידיכם היום”), as a reward for their zealousness. But what did Aharon ever due to deserve his and his sons’ investiture in the priesthood (which they later botched!)? Indeed, one could argue that the priesthood was the last thing that Aharon deserved given his culpability in the sin of the golden calf! Consider in particular the very last verse before Moshe calls for those who are zealous on G-d’s behalf: Given this, it would have been reasonable for the sons of Levi to be bewildered as to why Aharon was awarded a higher status than they were, and tempted to claim that nepotism was responsible.

    (One could also argue that their case against Moshe and Aharon was exacerbated by what had recently happened with the sin of the scouts. If anyone would have a reason to complain against the predicament they were in by the time of Korach’s rebellion it was the Levites. After all, none of their leaders had gone to Canaan to scout, and now they were all going to miss out on entering the Land because of the other tribes? If Moshe and Aharon really had the interests of the Sons of Levi at heart, they might have argued for an exception for Levi.)

    (And one could also argue that the prior story to the sin of the scouts– the episode of Miriam’s “leprosy,” which derived from sibling rivalry among the first family of Levi/Israel– was the original trigger for rumblings among the Levite leadership. Note also the death theme there…).

    So if the Sons of Levi were wondering why they got a lower reward for zealousness than Aharon received for apparent betrayal, this is actually a really good question. and if this is indeed the question, one would think that the answer (or at least, *an* answer; I think there are actually 2) would be embedded in the story of Korach and how it relates to the story of the sin of the golden calf. And I think there is something there, one that relates to your theme Alex.

    In particular, I think it is very interesting to contrast the story of Aharon preventing spread of the plague in Num 17:11-15 with the story of the Sons of Levi killing 3,000 of their brothers in Ex 32:26-29. When other than in these two stories do we have someone on a mission to run through the camp and decide who will live and who will die? And note that each of these episodes is preceded by: (a) G-d telling Moshe [and Aharon] that he should stand back and he will utterly destroy כלה the people (Ex 31:10; 16:21; and (b) the smelting of something together to make something that was originally unintended (Ex 32:24-25; Num 17:1-5). Note also that both episodes involve some kind of G-d-inflicted plague, but whereas in Ki Tissah, the Sons of Levi’s killing spree is a *prelude* to the plague (Ex 32:35); in Korach, Aharon’s “life-saving spree” is responsible for *stopping* the plague.

    Perhaps this provides the Sons of Levi with their answer. In particular, as Hillel famously said (Avot 1:12), Aharon is known for loving and “chasing” after peace. Presumably, this refers to both of these episodes (it could also refer to Aharon’s ‘active’ silence in the face of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths; or perhaps it’s that he deferred to his younger brother’s leadership in remarkable contrast to how Yaakov’s sons responded to Yosef). In both cases, Aharon did what he could to save the peace and save lives. He was wrong in the first case, but it seems that we want the high priest to err on the side of keeping peace and saving lives than קנאות, which can cost lives. Perhaps the Torah is even hinting that the Sons of Levi might have questioned Moshe’s orders before acting upon them so zealously. Whatever they did, they apparently didn’t do anything that helped prevent a plague whereas Aharon did. And then the story of Korach ends with the people expressing their existential angst about the nonstop dying (17:27-28), apparently due to the presence of the tabernacle (and the pure divine justice it represents) in their midst. Fittingly, Aharon and the priests are then positioned as guardians of life for *the Levites* and the people generally. They play the role of buffer here, just as Aharon tried to do back with the golden calf. So this channels his instinct in a positive way.

    (All of this obviously relates to the enigmatic ‘covenant of peace’ that Pinchas receives after his act of zealousness; perhaps the key there is that like Aharon but unlike the Sons of Levi, Phineas was successful in finding a way to stop the plague in a case where G-d was apparently prepared to ‘utterly destroy’ [כלה]; Num 25:10. He also stepped up when no one else would. And he killed only two people unlike the three thousand killed by the Sons of Levi. [hmm… and maybe the spear links up with the smelting theme?)

    Thanks again for the fantastic post, Alex.

    • Alex says:

      Shavua tov, Ezra! Thank you so much for these tremendous insights! A few remarks by way of response:
      -Your suggestion that Korach’s rebellion might have its roots in ma’aseh ha’egel is fantastic!! If nothing’s been written like this yet, I’d highly encourage you to do so. The connections are extremely compelling; your observation about Aharon’s role at the egel is especially powerful. Hard to imagine that an attack against his authority wouldn’t have the piece as part of its subtext, somewhere…
      -I also appreciate greatly the way that this connection introduces the issue of “zealousness” into the mix. We’ve discussed in the comments section before the notion that the tribe of Levi function as the Torah’s “avengers” – from Levi in the city of Shechem, to Moshe with the Egyptian, to the Egel, to Pinchas, they’re constantly found taking the lives of others extrajudicially. (And it’s for that reason, probably, that they’re the ones appointed to minister over the ir miklat – more on that in a short piece scheduled for Massei). And, on your reading, it comes out that the conflict between Korach and Aharon is, to some extent, centered on this issue precisely: that is, to what degree must we act zealously for our religious convictions? Something along those lines…
      -And if that’s the case, then the life vs. death motif takes on new meaning. This isn’t merely a conflict about whether our religious practice ought to be directed a transcending this world, or whether it ought to be about embracing it (though that in itself is, to be sure, a profound conflict). It’s also, more concretely, a conflict about how life-accommodating Torah practice should be. Are we primarily a people of וחי בהם, or do we place axiological primacy upon מות יומת? How responsive is Torah to the demands and contingencies, the failings and weaknesses, of “regular life?” Makes for a fascinating and very relevant reading of the Korach rebellion – and of all the other episodes and institutions which we’ve now associated with it.
      That’s all of now, “al regel achas.” Thanks again for your wonderful insights, Ezra! Shavua tov!

  2. I’m glad my reaction hit home, Alex. I guess I haven’t seen anything rooting the Korach rebellion with the Golden Calf either; but if it’s a chiddush, you definitely deserve credit for pushing me there.

    Re writing it up, I actually have a lot of notes supporting a theory about why Aharon was given the kehuna, though it actually points to a different idea than what is suggested here, and in some sense is the opposite (the kehuna as a punishment for his role in sin of the golden calf rather than a reward) But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Torah often (always?) has multiple, seemingly contradictory reasons for the same thing, and that these reasons are actually complementary when we ponder them deeply. Anyway, iyh, I’ll find the time to write a piece on this sometime soon.

    BTW, it occurs to me that another element in all this is that the great zealots who are ready to kill on G-d’s behalf are actually cast in a role where they cannot serve as soldiers!

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