Korach: Grave Questions, Grave Implications ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Parshas קֹרַח

Grave Questions, Grave Implications

שׁוֹאֵל: borrow

שָׁאוּל: King Shaul

שְׁאֵלָה: question 

שְׁאוּל: grave

וַיֵּרְדוּ הֵם וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וַתְּכַס עֲלֵיהֶם הָאָרֶץ וַיֹּאבְדוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַקָּהָל
And they went down and all that was theirs, alive to the grave, and the earth covered them over and they were lost from among the congregation.

שׁוֹאֵל: Borrow

The whole of life is one long period of שְׁאֵילָה/borrowing. We have been given a פִּקָדוֹן/deposit to look after; are we going to return it intact? We are intrinsically a soul and we have been given a גוּף/body to look after — somewhat similar to looking after a pet — so are we going to return it in the pristine state we received it, pure as the day we were born?

According to this way of looking, we can understand the בְּרָכָה/blessing that says יְצִאָתְךָ/your going out should be like בִּיאָתְךָ/your coming in.”

Anytime we borrow something, there is always the question of whether we are going to be able to return it. Interestingly, the difference between a מַשְׁאִיל and a מַלְוֶה, both terms for lending, is that with a הַלְוָאָה/loan the original money is borrowed in order to spend, with only its value returned, whereas with a מַשְׁאִיל, the actual object is returned.

שָׁאוּל: King Shaul

וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתֶּם אֲשֶׁר שְׁאֶלְתֶּם
And now here is the king that you chose, which you asked for.

שָׁאוּל הַמֶלֶך was called so because the peopleשָׁאַל /asked Shmuel HaNavi to place upon them a king and be like all the other nations. There was also an incident in which King Shaul שָׁאַל/asked after the dead.

שְׁאֵלָה: Question 

A question can be a quest to find the truth and find the quintessential answer to the meaning of life. In Hebrew, the word for “answer” is תְּשׁוּבָה, which also means “return.” Once we find what we are looking for, we are able to return with the answer — חוֹזֵר בְּתְּשׁוּבָה.

Hashem has perfectly placed us in a state of question, with an innate quest to search for meaning in life. Deep down, we are seekers of truth — the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We are indeed living on borrowed time. Are we going to waste the precious commodity of time that Hashem has entrusted to us, or are we going to invest it wisely, seeking out the truth? After the battle with the angel of Eisav, a synonym for the yetzer hara, Yaakov asks for the angel’s name, to which the angel responds: לָמָה זֶה תִּשְׁאַל/why do you ask? This is hinting to us that one of the tactics that the yetzer hara employs is an attitude of “why bother asking” — just take life as it comes, don’t ask any questions.

How do we find the truth? Hashem left us a very big clue:מֹשֶה אֶמֶת וְתּוֹרֹתוֹ אֶמֶת /Moshe is true and his Torah is true. The Torah is the road map, the blueprint, the DNA of life, and within it lie all the answers to our quest for the truth of our existence. Without the Torah, we are like a fish out of water, we are truly lost.

שְׁאוּל: Grave

Another name for Gehinnom is אַבְדוּן, which means “lost.” By definition, something lost can never be returned.

We are lost to the שְׁאוּל/grave. If we go to the grave in a state of שְׁאֵלָה/question, then we are like a lost object. We have not successfully returned our borrowed object, we have not been successful in our quest, we have not returned with the answer. We are therefore lost, and we end up in the grave, lost forever. The Modern Hebrew expression for someone who is off the derech (who has lost his way) is חוֹזֵר בְּשְׁאֵלָה/returning to question, which kind of mimics the expression of someone who is חוֹזֵר בְּתְּשׁוּבָה. Yet more than being חוֹזֵר בְּשְׁאֵלָה, they are in essence returning to the שְׁאוּל/grave.

קֹרַח questioned the validity of the truth of Moshe and his Torah. He didn’t find the right answers and therefore went down to his שְׁאֵלָה/grave, lost forever in a permanent state of question — of living גֵּהִינֹּם/hell. In a way, גֵּהִינֹּם is a place where one lives in a state of being lost. Like a child who has lost his parent in a crowded shopping mall and screams out in despair, so too the real גֵּהִינֹּם is when we realize that we have wasted our lives and are now lost and cut off from our Tatty, אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָׁמַיִם/our Father in Heaven. Would we not cry out in despair? וַיְאַבְדוּ מִתּוֹך הַקְהַל/and they were lost from amid the congregation.

The Bottomless Pit

שְׁאוֹל (ואבדה) וַאֲבַדּוֹ לֹא תִשְׂבַּעְנָה וְעֵינֵי הָאָדָם לֹא תִשְׂבַּעְנָה
The pit and Gehinnom are never satisfied, and the eyes of man are never satisfied.

Rashi says on the above verse that the pit and Gehinnom are never satisfied from accepting the wicked inside, so too the eyes of the wicked man are never satisfied from trying to fulfill the desires of his yetzer hara. For this reason, the מַלְאַךְ הַמָוֶת/the Angel of Death appears מָלֵא עֵינַיִם/full of eyes to the wicked man at the time of his death. No wonder the fly, which is compared to the Satan and the Angel of Death, has been created with an abundance of eyes.

There is a condition called Prader-Willi Syndrome, in which a person eats without ever feeling satisfied, causing him to continually eat because he is always hungry. This exactly typifies the yetzer hara: the more one tries to satisfy one’s desires, the more one is left hungering for more. It is like a bottomless pit that can never be filled.

וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם
And the earth opened up its mouth and swallowed them.

The Torah’s description of Gehinnom having a mouth aptly describes this idea of never being satisfied. The mouth is always eating, receiving new food, yet always hungers for more. So too the mouth of Gehinnom receives new food in the way of the wicked, but never stops receiving more. The one who is unable to be satisfied is as if in a living hell. He is forever in a state of wanting, needing, chasing, and thirsting for more, and yet his desire is never quenched.

Praiseworthy is the man who uses his mouth primarily to praise Hashem, to sing to Hashem, and to be a יְהוּדִי/Yehudi, one who is מוֹדֶה עַל הָאֶמֶת/who recognizes his Creator and thanks Him for all the goodness that is bestowed upon him. Only one who is שָׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ/who is happy with his lot, who is satisfied with what Hashem has given him, is able to give freely without the feeling that he is being diminished through his giving. My father, עָלָיו הַשָׁלוֹם, would always give when people came knocking on the door asking for money. He would always acknowledge and be thankful to Hashem that he was in a position to give and be the one opening the door, rather than the one on the opposite side. 

The one who has the answer no longer needs to ask, for he is in a state of תְּשׁוּבָה/answer (lashon שֵׁב/sit), signifying that he has come to rest. He has יִשׁוּב הַדַעַת/literally, “his mind is at rest,” he is in a state of peace, a state of שַׁבָּת, where all one’s work is done, a time to rest, a time to want for nothing.

I once took part in an exercise where I was repeatedly asked the question “What do you want?” The point of the exercise was to get me to the point of wanting nothing. The exercise went something like this: 

“What do you want?” 

“I want to get married.” 

“That’s great, now what else do you want?” 

“I want to be happy.” 

“That’s great, now what else do you want?”

“I want to find peace of mind.”

“That’s great, now what else do you want?”

It continued like this until I got to a point where I said, “I want a hug.” 

Sure enough, the reply was, “That’s great, now what else do you want?”

And when I finally reached the point of having exhausted all the answers, there was nothing else to say but, “I want nothing,” to which the reply was, “You got it!” 

Suddenly, an overwhelming sense of satisfaction welled up in me, being in that moment of wanting for nothing. It reminded me of an old Yorkshire expression that my grandparents would say to describe how they felt after a sumptuous meal of wanting for nothing: “butcher’s dog!”

The grave is called שְׁאוֹל because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big שְׁאֵילָה/question mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed. We find this in the Gemara when Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai was close to death and his talmidim/students entered and saw him crying. They asked him, “Ner Yisrael, the right pillar, the mighty hammer, why are you crying?” He replied: “There are two paths in front of me, one going to Gan Eden and the other to Gehinnom, and I don’t know which way they will be leading me. Should I not cry?” Grave questions, grave implications!

On that day, when our bodies will be deposited in the grave, we will stand naked in front of Hashem. On that day we will be judged; our whole life will be screened in front of us. The big movie, our life movie, will all be uncovered and there will be nowhere to hide.

The grave is also שְׁאוֹל because when our bodies are deposited in the earth, the earth will so to speak borrow our bodies until the time that we will be fitting to receive them back. Some of us will have to go through the painful process of גֵּהִינֹּם to clean off the stains of our souls that need to be spiritually burnt off. Some of us will need to come back and complete another cycle of life known as גִלגוּל נְשָׁמָה/reincarnation. Whether it will be a life cycle or a wash cycle, hopefully in the end we will come out clean and be fitting once again to wear the garments of our soul, where our bodies will be returned to us from the שְׁאוֹל/grave, on that great day of תְּחִייַת הַמֵתִים/resurrection that Hashem has promised us.

The Gemara in Bava Basra says that seven went to the grave without the need for the worms to decay their bodies: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Miriam, and Binyamin. The Gemara is telling us that tzaddikim, who have embodied the truth, return their bodies in the pristine state they were given. This is one of the reasons why Yaakov requested not to be buried in Egypt, because if the Egyptians would have seen that his body did not decay, they would have made him into an avodah zarah/false worship. In fact, there have been many reports of holy people who were reinterred and whose bodies had not decayed.

הַשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
Return us Hashem to you and we will return, renew our days like before.

We are asking Hashem the מַשְׁאִיל/Lender to help us return and renew our days like before. In essence, we are asking Hashem to help us return what we borrowed in the same pristine condition as the day we were born — חַדֵשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

Korach: The Land Down Under ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Land Down Under

When relating the story of Korach and his household being miraculously swallowed into the ground, the Torah (Numbers 16:30–34) employs an interesting word-switch which we will closely examine. In response to Korach’s rebellion, Moshe warned that G-d will implement a supernatural phenomenon whereby the land (adamah) will open its mouth and swallow Korach’s household. As Moses finished uttering these words, the ground (adamah) that was under them split open, and the land (eretz) opened its mouth and swallowed them. Then, all the Jews who were present fled because they feared being swallowed by the land (eretz). In other places where the Torah recalls this episode, Korach and his household were said to have been swallowed by the eretz (Numbers 26:10 and Deuteronomy 11:6). Why does the Torah switch between two seemingly synonymous words for “land” and what is the difference between them?

The Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) explains that the word eretz (or aretz) connotes the national settlement of land and can be used in the construct form to denote the land of a specific nation. In this way, eretz can be aptly translated as “country”. In many instances, an unspecified eretz refers especially to the Land of Israel. The word adamah, on the other hand, specifically denotes uninhabited lands set aside for agrarian purposes.

Similarly, Malbim (1809–1879) explains that eretz includes the entire earth from the surface of the planet to its innermost core, while the word adamah generally refers to only the surface layer of the earth’s crust whose dirt I used for agriculture.

The difference between the words eretz and adamah is accentuated by their respective appearances in ritual blessings over food. Before eating bread, one blesses G-d as the One “who brings forth bread from the land (eretz)”, while the blessing recited over vegetables blesses G-d as He “who creates the fruit of the ground (adamah).” For some reason, bread is more associated with eretz and vegetables are more associated with adamah.

  1. Bachaya (1255–1340) and the Ritva (1250–1330) note that the blessing over bread should have used the more specific word adamah (which refers to a field), but instead uses the vague word eretz. They explain that this is because the Rabbis decided that the wording of the blessing should mirror the terminology of the Bible (Psalms 104:14), which explicitly says that G-d brings forth bread “from the eretz”.
  2. Yechiel Michel Moravsky (Moraftschik) of Lublin (d. 1593) writes that the word eretz is more encompassing than the word adamah because adamah is limited to the immediate top level of dirt, while eretz can mean even that which lies underground. As a result, because the grain needed for making bread develops roots which descend deep underground (see, for example, Yerushalmi Taanit 1:3 which asserts that the roots of wheat penetrate fifty handbreadths into the ground), bread is said to come from the eretz. Other vegetables, on the other hand, do not necessarily require such deep roots, so they are called fruits of the adamah. R. Yisrael Lipschitz (1782–1860) offers a similar explanation.

In light of this distinction between the words eretz and adamah, R. Yaakov Chaim Sofer (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kaf HaChaim in Jerusalem) explains the passages concerning the ground swallowing up Korach. He argues that the opening of the ground transpired in two stages: first the uppermost layer of the ground opened up and then the deeper layers of the ground opened up. These two stages are reflected in the word change found in the Bible, as first the Bible uses the word adamah to describe the surface-level opening of the ground and then uses the word eretz to record the opening of the subterranean depths.

Nonetheless, in contrast with the explanations above, R. Shlomo Luria (1510–1573) understands that eretz is limited to the surface of the earth, while the word adamah also includes the depths of the land. He explains that bread is said to come forth from the eretz because the word eretz is limited to the surface of the earth and up to three cubits of topsoil (see Rashi to Genesis 6:13). Therefore, when the grains used to make bread shoot forth from the land, they are said to be coming forth from the eretz. However, since vegetables receive their nourishment from the depths of the soil, they are said to be created from the more general word for land, adamah which includes the eretz and more. These assumptions about the meanings of eretz and adamah are also adopted by the illustrious Wurzberger Rav, R. Yitzchok Dov Bamberger (1807–1878).

R. Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727–1792), author of the Pri Megadim, writes that the word eretz refers to land in its supernal, unblemished state (it is therefore appropriately associated with the Holy Land which is viewed as the terrestrial epitome of good). In contrast, the word adamah focuses on the stained and imperfect land which G-d cursed in response to Adam’s sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3:17). The blessing for vegetables thus uses the word adamah because it recalls G-d’s benevolence in contemporary times whereby He forms vegetables which grow from the cursed land below. However, the blessing over bread conjures the period before Adam’s sin, when complete loaves of bread would rise from the ground, just as they will do in the Messianic Era (see Shabbat 30b). Accordingly, the blessing for bread uses the word eretz to describe the land from whence it comes—which will by then break free from its curse and return to its pure, unblemished state.get-into-this-1

Korach: Concomitant Connection and Chasm ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


Numbers 16:6-7 – Do this, Korah and company: Take for yourselves censers. Place fire into them and put incense (קטרת) upon them before the Lord tomorrow.



The root of the word  קטרת is קטר. This root usually is used in Scripture in reference to incense that is burned on a fire. However, in Aramaic, the word קטר  means tying a knot (e.g. Daniel 5:6, Ibn Ezra ad loc, Daniel 5:12, Riba”g entry קטר[1]). In fact, there are places where even in Hebrew the word קטר  denotes tying a knot (e.g. Ezekiel 46:22, Radak ad loc[2]). An additional usage of the word קטר (cited by Radak in Ezekiel 46:22) is found in the Mishna in Middot 2:5  in which it denotes a building that does not have a roof (more on this usage below).


The Zohar indicates that there is an intrinsic connection between the two fundamental meanings of the word קטר. The Zohar 3:37 states that “קטרת ties everything together as one, and therefore [the incense] is called ketoret. [3]” Based on this, we can understand the significance of the testing of Korach and his cohorts by means of the burning of ketoret. The essential transgression of Korach was his divisiveness, as indicated by Onkelus who renders “ויקח קרח” as “ואיתפליג קרח”, meaning that he and his comrades separated themselves from the rest of Klal Yisrael. Therefore, the Torah indicates that had he contemplated the purpose of the ketoret, which is to unite Klal Yisrael with one another as well as with Our Father in Heaven, Korach might have rectified his transgression.


Based on the above, we can also connect the final meaning of קטרת  as an “unroofed building.” An unroofed building enables the ketoret to rise in its natural course without any hindrance[4], thus strengthening our connection with Our Father in Heaven[5].


We will now examine the other words that share the lettersקט  to see if common themes exist.

We do find two other words in this grouping that are related to the idea of tying a knot: לקט  and נקט  bear the meanings: gathering, connecting, bundling and grasping. On the other hand, we also find many words in this grouping which seem to have the opposite meaning: cutting off and severing.


By analyzing each of the words in this grouping we will see that, in fact, there is paradoxically a close (inverse) connection between the concepts of tying a knot and severing.


The twelve words in this grouping are:

א. ‘קטר’ ב. ‘לקט’ ג. ‘נקט’/’קטט’[6] ד. ‘קוט’[7] ה.קטב’ ו. ‘קטף’ ז. ‘קטל’ ח. ‘קטם’ ט. ‘קטע’ י. ‘קטן’ יא. ‘קטטה’ יב. ‘שקט’.


  1. Katarקטר – This root means incense and tying a knot, as explained above.

If we contemplate the significance of tying a knot we can see that besides connecting the two ends of the string, by tying a knot we are also separating whatever is being tie from connecting to anything outside[8]. In this sense it is closely connected to the common theme of ‘severing’ (along these lines, see also Rashi on Daniel 5:12 where he interpretsקטר  as hiding something away).


  1. Lakatלקט – This root means gathering. Upon examination, however, this root always denotes gathering inanimate objects or produced already severed and reaped: rocks, manna, wheat (vis. Genesis 31:46 [rocks], Exodus 16:4 [manna], Leviticus 19:9 [harvested wheat] [9]) – i.e., objects cut off from life[10].


3.Nakat/Katat קטט/נקט – In Scripture, this root always means cutting off (Ezekiel 6:9, ibid. 20:43 + Metzudot Zion. Ibid. 36:31 + Radak). In Rabbinic usage the word נקט  means grasping (e.g. Brachot 12a[11]). The Aruch (entry נקט) explains[12] that נקט  is phonetically linked to לקט  with nun replacing the lamed (see also Rashi Bava Metzia 83b[13]).


  1. Kutקוט – This root too means cutting off. Radak cites the word in the following verses under this entry as meaning excision: Psalms 95:10, ibid. 119:158, Job 8:14, ibid. 10:1, Ez. 6:9, ibid. 16:47, ibid. 20:43.


  1. Katavקטב – This root means cutting off (see Deuteronomy 32:24, Rashi ad loc., Psalms 91:6, Metzudot Tzion ad loc.).


  1. Katafקטף – This root means severing, pulling off i.e. picking fruit (see Job 30:4, Metzudot Tzion ad loc.).


  1. Katalקטל – This root means killing, cutting off (see Ovadia 1:9, Metzudot David ad loc.).


  1. Katamקטם – This root is used in Rabbinic literature as meaning, cutting off branches[14] (e.g. Mishna Shvi’it 2:4, Rambam Commentary ad loc.).


  1. Kataקטע – This root is used in Rabbinic literature as meaning a lame person who’s leg was severed (vis. e.g. Shabbat 65b, Rashi ad loc.).


  1. Katanקטן – This root means small or a minor. Yeriot Shlomo explains that the word קטן is related to the word קט which means to minimize, indicating the a minor seems to be incompletely developed (see Yeriot Shlomo 3:12a).


  1. Ketataקטטה – Means a type of dispute in which each side tries to “cut down” his opponent’s standing (see Yeriot Shlomo 3:20a).


  1. Sheketשקט – Means peace and quiet. This indicates a cessation –a “cutting off” – of hostilities (see Psalms 76:9, Metzudot David ad loc., Joshua 11:23, Targum Yonatan ad loc., Isaiah 62:1, Rashi ad loc.).


May we be bound together with our Creator in an eternal bond. Through this connection, may we merit that our enemies will be felled and cut off, enabling us to live in peace and tranquility. May this time arrive speedily, Amen.










[1]  [וכן הוא תמיד בלשון חז”ל, כגון]: יבמסא. – קטיר קחזינא הכא; רשי – קטיר קחזינא הכא – קשר של רשעים אני רואה כאן; תמיד כט: – דלא קטיר ואזלי ומיקטר; רשי – דלא קטיר ואזלי ומיקטר – שאין בהן קשר.

[2] [וכן הביאו ריב”ג ורד”ק בשרשיהם (ערך ‘קטר’), וכן פירשו אברבנל ומכלל יופי כאן בספר יחזקאל, וכן דעת אהל מועד (ערך ‘קשר’)].

[3]  ועי’ גם זהר א:עז., א:רל., ב:ריט:, ג:יא., ג:קנא:, ז”ח שה”ש מאמר הקטרת, של”ה תענית [דרוש מטות מסעי (יח)].

[4] [כדוגמת]: רע”ב מדות ב:ה – קטורות… שאינן מקורות … כלמר מעלת עשן, לפי שאין להן תקרה.

[5] [רש”י פירש ‘קיטור’ בבראשית מלשון  תימור]: בר’ יט:כח – וְהִנֵּה עָלָה קִיטֹר הָאָרֶץ כְּקִיטֹר הַכִּבְשָׁן; רש”י – קיטור – תימור של עשן טורק”א בלע”ז. [נראה שדימיון זה של תימור זקוף משתלב עם תמונת החצר הבלתי מקורה, המאפשר עליית עמוד הקטורת בלי הפרעה].

[6] [שרשו של נָקְטָה נַפְשִׁי (איוב א:י) לפי ריב”ג ורד”ק הוא ‘קטט’, לפי מנחם – ‘קט’. אמנם שבצנו כאן את המלה ‘נקט’ לצורך ההשוואה מול ‘לקט’ (ראה את ההסבר ל’לקט’ להלן)].

[7] [השרש של אָקוּט בְּדוֹר (תה’ צה:י) לפי ריב”ג ורד”ק הוא ‘קוט’, לפי מנחם – ‘קט’. אגב כן, נציע קירבה בין ‘קט’    ל’גט’ (בחילוף אותיות גיכ”ק) בלשון חז”ל. בנוסף לגט אשה – “ספר כריתות” בלשון תורה, יש בכל חוזה

ענין של כריתת ברית והצבת גבולות – בירור עמדות שני צדדי ההסכם].

[8] [וכן שרש ‘אסף’ מורה גם על  קיבוץ פריטים וגם על  מוות (“ויאסף אל עמיו” [בר’ כה:ח]) – כי המוות איננה אלא אסיפת ולקיטת הנשמה והחזרתה “הביתה”, היינו  כריתה מהחיים. וראה להלן בהסבר לשרש ‘לקט’].

[9]  The term is also used regarding the “harvesting” of the Israelites (see Targum to Is. 27:12).

[10] [הכוה”ק מביא מקומות נוספים שלשונות  של לקיטה/איסוף מורות גם על  חיתוך]: הכתב והקבלה במדבר טו:לב – מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ (דב’ כט:י) מתורגם מלקט אעך, וכן בלשון משנה, הלקיטה היא הקציצה מן המחובר: המלקט עצים אם לתקן את האילן וכו’ (שבת קג. [רש”י – וקצצו מן המחובר]). [וכן פועל “מהלקטין” בתלמוד]: שבת קלג: – מהלקטין את המילה, ואם לא הילקט ענוש – כרת; ריבב”ן – מהלקטין. מגלין את העטרה, חותכין ציצין המעכבין.

[11]  [דוגמאות נוספות: שבת קכא:, סנהד’ צ:].

[12]  [הגמרא (ב”מ פג:) דנה בתנאי עבודה של פועלים שלא התנה עמם בעה”ב במפורש פרטים כגון שעות התחלת וסיום העבודה. שואלת הגמרא שיוקבעו התנאים על פי מנהג מקום מגורי הפועלים. עונה הגמרא שהם ‘נקוטאי’].

[13]  [מוסיף רש”י]: רש”י ב”מ פג:בנקוטאישנתלקטו במקומות הרבה, ויש מקום שמקדימין ויש מקום שמחשכין.

[14] [מעיר רשר”ה גם על קירבת ‘קטם’ ל’גדם’]: רשר”ה לשמ’ כב:כא (ת”ד): ‘קטם’, קציצת ראשי בדי עץ [קרוב ל:] ‘גדם’, קטוע יד בלשון חז”ל [תענית כא.].