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The Evils of Controversy


What does the prohibition “Do not be like Korach and his assembly” include? Is it counted among the 613 commandments? Is the prohibition biblical or rabbinic? Why is the prohibition called “Continuing a Dispute” rather than “Creating a Dispute”? Why is the world always filled with wars, disputes, and struggles? Are we obligated to try to make peace even when the situation seems hopeless? Why does the wording of the prohibition use double comparison “Like Korach and like his assembly”? What should one do when he finds himself involved, unwillingly, in a dispute? Of this and more in the coming article.


This week’s parasha speaks about one of the most difficult, ongoing, and ageless problems in the world – strife, or in Hebrew: machlokes. Korach and his assembly approached Moshe Rabbenu to challenge his status as leader, and that of his brother Aharon as high priest. As a result, Korach, Dasan, Aviram and their families were miraculously swallowed in the earth, and their assembly of two hundred and fifty men was burned alive. Then, Hashem tells Moshe to make the two hundred and fifty ketores firepans into a plating for The Alter as a memorial and reminder for the entire nation. The recount ends with a warning: “So as not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke” (Bamidbar 17:5). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) reads a lesson from this pasuk: anyone who fuels the fires of strife and discord transgresses a negative commandment. This week’s article will focus on the prohibition of upholding a machlokes.

Since this topic is vast, and sadly – very  relevant, we will divide it into three installments: the general prohibition, which is the topic of this week’s article; the prohibition to question a rabbi’s rulings and other rabbinic leaders which appears both in this week’s parasha – Korach, and next week’s parasha – Chukas; and the third: what to do when our side is (obviously) right — how to act in a dispute which is, ostensibly, l’shem Shomyim (for G-d’s sake), and how to differentiate between real l’shem Shomyim and a farce.

The Prohibition — Sources

There are three sources forbidding strife and discord:

  • The above mentioned Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a).
  • The Gemara (Yevamos 13b) mentions another pasuk: “You are children of the Lord, your G-d. You shall neither cut yourselves (לא תתגודדו) nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead” (Devarim 14:1). The Gemara understands the word תתגודדו as meaning not to form separate groups (Heb. גדודים). This is inferred from the plural form in the word “yourselves” – had the Torah intended only to forbid cutting flesh in sign of mourning there would have been no reason for the plural form. Hence, the plural here teaches of the prohibition derived from a lexical similarity – תתגודדו in similar to the word אגודה in plural – גדודים. The Jewish nation is commanded to remain unified, and there is a negative commandment against breaking up into subgroups. This prohibition leads to many communal halachos – when a community is permitted to break away from the main community; when all of Am Yisroel is obligated to follow one rabbi and when every person is free to do as he sees fit or follow his forefather’s customs, etc. This is a wide topic which requires a separate series of articles.
  • The poskim note (She’iltot 131; Chaffetz Chaim Shmiras Halason 1: Sha’ar Hazchira 15; and others) that in addition to the original prohibition to cause discord, machlokes is forbidden because it results in many additional transgressions – hatred; lashon hara; taking revenge; bearing a grudge; withholding kindness; and more.

The Prohibition of Fueling a Fight

Reish Lakish (Sanhedrin 110a) construes from a pasuk in this week’s parasha: “Moshe arose and went to Dasan and Aviram, and the elders of Yisrael followed him” (Bamidbar 16:25) the prohibition to maintain a fight. Under this prohibition, Moshe Rabbenu humbled himself and went to try appeasing Dasan and Aviram. Had he not done so and simply let the discord fester, he would have transgressed this prohibition.

The Gemara adds that this coincides with the pasuk: “Not to be like Korach and his company” (Bamidbar 17:5) from which Rav learns of the prohibition to remain involved in a fight.

Rav Ashi learns from this pasuk the punishment for fueling a fight. The prohibition reads: “Not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moshe.” This wording differs from the regular attributive phrase used in the Torah. This, explains Rav Ashi, teaches us that the result of staying in a fight is tzora’as – similar to what happened to Moshe Rabbenu’s hand when he said: “Behold they will not believe me” (Shemos 4:1) – “His hand was leprous like snow” (Shemos 4:6).

Biblical or Rabbinic

Is the prohibition a biblical one, or is it rabbinic and the psukim are simply an asmachta (allusion)?

According to the Gemara it appears to be a full-fledged prohibition, one of the 613 mitzvos. However, there are several opinions to this. While some maintain it is one of the 613 mitzvos (Halachos Gedolos; Rif; Rabbenu Shlomo Iben Gvirol; Yereim; Rabbenu Yona; Smag: Smak; Rosh; Charedim; Mishna Brura), others disagree and do not count it as a negative mitzva (Rambam; Ramban; Chinuch; Meiri).

The Rambam in the Mishna Torah (Avoda Zara 12:14) rules that there is a prohibition to create strife among the Jewish People. This is learned from the pasuk: “You shall not תתגודדו” (Devarim 14:1) as explained above. The Kesef Mishna (ibid) and Pri Chadash (Mayan Chayim, ibid) understand that the Rambam sees a Torah prohibition in fomenting strife. However, in Sefer Hamitzvos, this prohibition is not listed among the negative commandments.

In Sefer Hamitzvos, the Rambam explains that the pasuk: “Not to be like Korach and his company” — not as the source for a negative commandment but to explain the reason for the altar’s new plating – to serve as a reminder for Korach’s punishment. Theirs was a singular occurrence, while the regular punishment for creating fights – tzora’as – is the usual result. This is also the understandings of Targum Yehonoson (Bamidbar 17:5) and Midrash Tanchuma (Tzav, 11).

The Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos 8) explains that the Torah means to convey here a prohibition to challenge the priestly status, while the prohibition of instigating or continuing strife is derived from other places. The Gemara’s inference that the prohibition is derived from here is only an asmachta, not a full drasha.

Another approach is that of the Ba’al Hashelitos (131) who maintains that the prohibition to maintain a fight exists in order to prevent transgression of the more severe prohibition of hating another Jew in our heart. Rabbi Yosef Engel (Gilyonei Hashas, Sanhedrin 110a) wonders if the Shelitos means that the prohibition is rabbinic and the pasuk is an asmachta, instituted as a  preventive measure so as not to transgress the severe prohibition of hating another Jew, or perhaps it is a full negative commandment included in the 613 mitzvos, instituted in order to prevent another transgression from occurring (similar to the fence Beni Yisroel were commanded to erect around Mount Sinai to prevent anyone from approaching the mountain during Matan Torah)?

Swearing to Join

The question if the transgression is biblical or rabbinic has halachic ramifications. When one promises to join one side in a fight or do something that could fuel discord, does he need to annul his vow, or not? The Chaffetz Chayim (Shmiras Halashon 1, Sha’ar Hazchira 15) maintains that a vow to join a fight requires no nullification because a vow to transgress one of the 613 mitzvos is invalid. However, in a footnote he adds that according to those Rishonim who classify the prohibition as rabbinic, this sort of vow must be annulled.

The Chaffetz Chaim illustrates this from the story of Onn Ben Pelet. Onn took a vow to join Korach and his assembly in their fight with Moshe Rabbenu. Onn’s wife succeeded in planting seeds of doubt in her husband’s mind regarding the truth of Korah’s claims. Therefore, he was unsure if he was obligated to uphold his vow (which is one of the 613 mitzvos), or perhaps acting upon it is would be a Torah prohibition and his vow is invalid. In addition, Onn was afraid Korach would kill him for failing to act upon his vow. Therefore, his wife had to resort to underhanded tactics to save her husband from Korach’s fate.

Bringing it Home

What does the prohibition require from us in the practical sense? The Shelitos (131) maintains it demands that we stay far away from any action that could cause hatred or contempt for other Jews. Moshe Rabbenu, fearing the dispute might leave him with a shred of hatred towards those who rebelled, tried to make peace with them.

According to the Yereim the prohibition bans any disagreement against any individual whose honor is Heavenly granted. According to this opinion, it is forbidden to challenge a rabbi or any other individual whom we are halachically obligated to honor.

The Smak maintains that while the main prohibition involves challenging the priestly status, all dissention is included.

The Mate Moshe (Amud HaTorah 1) writes that the demands we learn the horrible results of jealousy. Upon observing how damaging Korach’s jealousy was we must internalize the lesson: jealousy is a suicidal act.

Fighting an Impossible Battle

The Chaffetz Chaim (Shmiras Halashon part I, Sha’ar Hazechira chapter 17) points out that Moshe Rabbenu went to try and appease Dasan and Aviram. In merit of his deed he saved four righteous people – the three sons of Korach, and Onn ben Peles. While he did not succeed in influencing the main rebels, Korach’s three sons and Onn ended up changing their minds and were saved from their impending fate. They went on to become singers in the Mikdash, composing several prophetic songs, eternally inscribed in the Book of Tehilim. Onn’s wife, too, was then able to change her husband’s mind and save his life.

This, explains the Chaffetz Chaim, proves we must make every effort to stop a machlokes, even when it seems impossible. And furthermore – even if we were unsuccessful the first time, we must go on and try, again and again. Even if we appear to have been unsuccessful with those we attempted to appease, perhaps others will take the message to heart, just as it was with Moshe Rabbenu?

Creating Dispute or Maintaining Dispute

Ba’al Hasheiltot calls it “the prohibition to create a dispute”, but the Gemara calls it “the prohibition of sustaining strife.” Is creating it forbidden, or sustaining it?

Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (Moriah, 169-170, p. 63), in attempting to explain the concept, mentions a Midrash:

When Hashem consulted with the angels if He should create the world or not, the Angel of Peace sided against creating it, explaining that the whole creation is filled with conflict and discord, not peace.

This, explains Rabbi Goldberg, is the world’s nature and essence – it breeds conflict, struggles, and battles, both positive – against the evil, and negative – against the spiritual. Every second of our lives we construe opposing opinions and new machlokes. Our mission, though, is to quiet the natural raging macholkes against the spiritual. We must let that fire die down, which will ultimately be realized when Moshiach comes and the world lays down its’ arms.


The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Korach 751) writes that every person involved in a machlokes is dubbed ‘wicked’ as we find in this week’s parasha: “Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs” (Bamidbar 16:26). While before this they were considered righteous men: “chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute” (ibid 2), once they started a macholkes they were called wicked. The Chaffetz Chaim (Shmiras Halashon part 1, Sha’ar Hazechira 15) warns to do everything possible to stay away from strife. One who starts a dispute or adds fuel to it causes others to follow suit, and each and every follower becomes wicked. Thus, the responsibility for creating so many wicked people rests on the first one who instigated it.

Chazal also tell us (Shemos Raba 30:17) that nothing positive can come about from fights.

The Zohar (Bereshis 37) writes that the Angel of Death comes with machlokes, as the Midrash writes (Tanchuma, Korach 3): “See how terrible is fighting – even the descendants of those who helps in a machlokes are lost.” This explains why even the babies of the families were buried or burned. And Maseches Derech Eretz Zuta (chapter 9) writes that a house in which there is machlokes will be destroyed.

The Rambam, in his will to his only son, Avraham, writes: “Do not contaminate your souls with controversies which consume the body, the soul and property – what else is then left? I have seen the way white is turned black, the refined vulgarized, families torn asunder, rulers removed from their high positions, big cities destroyed, communities deserted, the pious perverted, the faithful spoiled, the honorable disparaged and despised – all because of controversy. The prophets prophesied against it; the wise men poured out their wisdom and the philosophers probed its rationale and underscored the evil of quarrelsomeness, but to no avail. Therefore, resolve in your heart to detest and run away from acrimony and disassociate yourselves from its companions, well-wishers and neighbors. Remain aloof and stay at a distance even from quarreling relatives lest you suffer from their aberrations.”

The poskim (Binyamin Ze’ev 287; Mishpetei Shmuel 119; Chasam Sofer, Sanhedrin 110a; Kav Hayashar 34) write that every person involved in macholkes deserves excommunication.

Two Different Prohibitions

Why does the Torah need the extra word in the pasuk: “Like Korach, and Like his assembly”? Weren’t Korach and his assembly doing the same thing?

The Achronim explain that no, each party involved in this controversy was motivated by something else.

According to the Maharsha (Bave Basra 73b) Korach challenged Moshe Rabbenu when he saw (prophetically) the spiritual greatness of his descendants: he saw Shmuel Hanavi who is equal to both Moshe and Aharon together. His assembly, though, followed him because of his wealth. They believed that one’s wealth is what makes greatness, not his Torah. That is why they honored Korach more than they honored Moshe. This, explains the Maharsha, is why the Torah had to issue two separate warnings – not to follow in Korach’s footsteps of seeking prominence, nor in those of his assembly who honored financial status over spiritual greatness.

The Netziv (Meshiv Davar, II, chapter 9) explains that while Korach, Dasan, and Aviram challenged Moshe Rabbenu’s title for their own egotistical reasons, his assembly did so for spiritual reasons. The leaders were therefore swallowed in the ground and completely lost, but his assembly who thought Korach was really the greatest man around, a worthy leader, and entertained hope of serving ketores, were burned. This is the reason for the double warning: not to be like Korach who was fighting for himself, and not to start a controversy for a spiritual goal, l’shem Shomyim.

The Divrei Malkiel (volume III, chapter 73) explains that the prohibition of not being like Korach refers to starting the fight, and the prohibition not to be like his assembly refers to supporting it. Therefore, he writes, when one begins acting like the rabbi without anyone’s permission is doing a forbidden “Korach act”. Supporting one who behaves this way is like joining Korach’s assembly because if not for such supporters, the dispute would die naturally. This is why Moshe Rabbenu attempted to make peace with the members of the assembly, not with Korach himself.


At the end of his Sefer Ahavas Chessed, the Chaffetz Chayim quotes one of the holy tzaddikim in his generation, Rabbi Yehonoson Wohaliner: “Be wary of machlokes and do not to be involved in it, chas veshalom, because it transgresses the prohibition… which the Smag counted among the 613 mitzvos… One should humble himself before those who contradict him, and beg them for peace, not hate them. (If he has foes) one should know it is a punishment from Hashem for his sins, and should examine his actions, because when he corrects his own actions, those who dispute him will let him go. One should be careful not ask Hashem to punish those who fight with him. And even if it causes him to lose Torah study or other mitzvos, he must stay far away from them, and not curse them… and even in his heart he should be careful not to hate them or speak evil of them or harm them in any way… On the contrary, one should only do good things for them as much as he can, and ask Hashem to help him. And Hashem will heed his prayers.”





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