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Challenging Authority


How are we obligated to honor a Talmid Chacham, and what is the result of failing to do so? What is the punishment for shaming a Talmid Chacham? Can another rabbi be hired in a community that already has a rabbi? Can another tzedakah gabbai be hired where there already is one? The western mindset believes that nobody should be above criticism, but in Judaism there are clearly defined hierarchies. Who is beyond criticism? What does this include and mean? Of this and more in the coming article.


Last week’s article focused on the prohibition to fuel a fight. The source for the prohibition is the pasuk: “…You shall not be like Korach and his company” (Bamidbar 17:5). This week we will continue the topic, focusing on the prohibition to challenge rabbinic authorities, derived from the above prohibition.

In this week’s parasha we read: “These are the Waters of Dispute where the children of Yisrael contended with the Lord” (Bamidbar 20:13). Why is this fight called a fight with G-d if their antagonism was directed towards Moshe and Aharon? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a) learns from this pasuk that one who challenges his rebbe is considered to have challenged G-d Himself.

The same lesson appears later in the parasha. When the nation complained to Moshe they are described as: “The people spoke against G-d and against Moshe” (Bamidbar 21:5). Although their complaints were directed to Moshe, the Torah sees their criticism as directed to G-d, to teach that complaining about one’s rebbe or challenging his decisions is considered having criticized the holy Shechinah.

The Prohibition of Machlokes

In describing the grave prohibition of making a machlokes (see last week’s article for more on this topic) the Gemara adds: “One who rebels against a king of the Davidic dynasty is worthy of being bitten by a snake.” Dasan and Aviram, in challenging Moshe Rabbenu’s authority are considered as having challenged G-d Himself.

The Gemara continues by adding other details in the prohibition: criticizing one’s rebbe is forbidden just like criticizing Hashem is, and compared to it, as we read in Parashas Shlach: “Therefore, you and your entire company who are assembled are against the Lord” (Bamidbar 16:11). When they complained about Moshe Rabbenu they are considered as having complained about Hashem.

The Gemara binds all the prohibitions that sow discord among the Jewish people together – complaining about a rebbe, fueling controversy, and rebelling against a Jewish King. This week we will focus on one of the three – challenging a rabbinic authority.

The “Korach Prohibition”

In last week’s article we discussed the prohibition of following in the ways of Korach and his assembly. The Rishonim are disputed if the prohibition is one of the 613 mitzvos. While the Rambam does not list it among the biblical mitzvos, most others do count it among the negative commandments.

There is another dispute on this topic – what the prohibition includes. Is it a prohibition to continue a fight, to challenge the priestly status, or both? The Yereim (357) writes it is the prohibition to challenge any G-d-granted honor. The Meiri, despite seeing the prohibition as rabbinic, comes out very strongly against people who criticizes an authority which is beyond challenge.

Whether it is or is not counted among the 613 mitzvos, challenging a rabbinic authority is a grave sin which can be derived from various psukim and carries severe punishment.

Honorable Authority

The prohibition of challenging any authority who Hashem commanded us to honor falls under the prohibition of behaving like Korach and his assembly. Who is considered a Torah-mandated authority?

There are various individuals whom the Torah obligates us to honor. Below is a short outline of the halachos:

  • In the Ten Commandments we are told: “Honor your father and your mother” (Shemos 20:12). This mitzva includes honoring other distinguished family figures – parents-in-law, step-in laws, older brothers.
  • A Torah scholar, as learned from the pasuk: “You shall rise before a venerable person and you shall respect the elderly” (Vayikra 19:32). In the Gemara, Chazal explain that “the elderly” here refers to Torah scholars (although there is an additional obligation to honor any elderly person because of his accumulated life experience.)
  • A mitzva to honor a kohen, from the pasuk: “You shall sanctify him, for he offers up the food offering of your G-d; he shall be holy to you” (Vayikra 21:8).
  • A king’s authority is learned from the pasuk: “You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your G-d, chooses” (Devarim 17:15). This pasuk teaches us that we must be in awe and fear of a Jewish king. The halachos that pertain to a Jewish king are complex and require a separate discussion.
  • When he set up the judicial system, Moshe Rabbenu said: “So I took the heads of your tribes, men wise and well known, and I made them heads over you” (Devarim 1:15). The Midrash Tanchuma (Beha’aloscha 11) teaches this is the source for the obligation to show honor to every person who was granted an authoritative position.

The Punishment for Failing to Honor a Talmid Chacham

Midrash Tanchuma (Beha’aloscha 11) details the obligation to honor a Torah scholar: one must not stand in his place; contradict his words; questions must be asked respectfully. Before answering, one must choose his words carefully and obviously not interrupt him.

Failing to honor one’s rabbi results with: 1) Being called a rasha (wicked person); 2) forgetting the Torah he learned; 3) dying young; 4) becoming poor. The pasuk describes it as: “But it will not be well with the wicked, and he will not prolong [his] days, like a shadow, because he does not fear G-d” (Koheles 8:13).

The Chaffetz Chaim points out (Shmiras Halashon 1:16) that if these are the punishments for simply disrespecting a Talmid Chacham, all the more harsh is the punishment for arousing disputes with them.

Disrespect for a Talmid Chacham

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 243:6-7) rules that disrespecting a Talmid Chacham in any way or hating him is a grave sin. One who disparages a Talmid Chacham loses his portion to the World to Come and is referred to in the pasuk: “For he has scorned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment; that soul shall be utterly cut off” (Bamidbar 15:31). One who disparages a Talmid Chacham can be excommuned by Beis Din.

Although today, some rabbis do not meet the criteria for a halachic Talmid Chacham, the Chaffetz Chaim writes (Shmiras Halashon, ibid) that for this prohibition, the classification as a Talmid Chacham includes anyone known today as such, provided that he is capable of making correct halachic decisions and studies Torah.

The Gemara (Shabbos 119b) writes that there is no cure for denigrating a Talmid Chacham, and this sin was the reason Jerusalem was destroyed. Additionally, the Gemara (Brachos 19a) writes that one who criticizes a Talmid Chacham falls into Gehenom after death.

Hiring a New Rabbi

The Maharam Schick (OC 313) was asked about hiring a new rabbi for a community some of whose members wanted him, but the local rabbi opposed. He answers that any rabbi who accepts the position transgresses the prohibition of being like Korach and his assembly, because it undermines the first rabbi.

Similarly, the Netziv (Meshiv Davar II, chapter 8) writes that any rabbi or shochet who bribes community leaders to grant him a position in place of the one who is currently on the job transgresses the prohibition of being like Korach and his assembly, and since he is doing so for the money, he has the halachic definition of a ‘wicked thief’ whose testimony is invalid.

Other Communal Positions

Rabbi Eliyahu ben Chaim (Mayim Amukim II, chapter 59) discusses a case where a person tried to be hired for a communal position such as tzedakah distributer without the community leaders’ permission. In his answer he requires community leaders to institute a rule forbidding it, even if it might result in less tzedakah being distributed since the friction it would cause is a transgression of the sin of being like Korach and his assembly (in addition to other problems).

Fighting to Death

The Chida was presented a question: The cemetery in the city of Izmir was divided to sections according to the deceased’s social status. There was a section for communal leaders, rabbonim, wealthy individuals, and then a section for regular folks. To earn a burial plot in the wealthy section one had to have given tzedakah to aniyei Eretz Yisroel (the poor people of Israel) and pay a considerable sum to the communal coffers.

At one point in history these rules caused a public outcry against, what was perceived as, unfair practices. The leader of those who complained established his own independent Chevra Kadisha and began burying people wherever they saw fit. Within a month the ring leader passed away, and his sons buried him in the wealthy section near an honorable talmid chacham without consulting with the local Chevra Kadisha, and without paying a penny.

The descendants of the talmid chacham raised an uproar and demanded the new neighbor be exhumed from his stolen plot. “We didn’t pay all that money for our father to be buried near a simple person!” they claimed. What was there to do?

The Chida divided his answer to two: 1) The children’s claims 2) The Chevra Kaddisha’s practices.

  • As for the children’s claims, the Chida rules they hold no water: when they bought the plot no conditions were set on who would be their father’s neighbor, and therefore, his children have no right to determine who will be buried near their father. Furthermore, they cannot demand to get their money back.
  • As for the manner of burial – since the person was buried by aggressively taking a plot without the Chevra Kadisha’s permission, leaving him in the spot would cause additional aggressive burials and more disputes. The prohibition of: “do not be like Korach and his assembly” overrides the prohibition of nivul hameis (mutilating a dead body) and they should exhume the body and rebury him in his rightful place.

Adding to that that the man died within a month from breaking the local rule about establishing independent communal institutions, the Chida saw his death as a punishment for his actions. Despite death being an atonement for his deed, he should not be buried near a righteous person. The Chida ruled the man should be transferred to another plot chosen by the local Chevra Kadisha.


The Chaffetz Chaim (Shmiras Halashon, ibid) writes about the prohibition of criticizing a rabbinic leader, especially one’s own rabbi:

  • Disparaging a rabbi is a terrible sin, as described above.
  • Fighting with, criticizing, or challenging one’s own rabbi is compared to fighting with the Shechina itself. The Gemara lists several levels of this prohibition, the least of which is thinking critically of a rabbi.
  • Every Talmid Chacham must be honored and respected, and failing to do so is very dangerous, as detailed above. Disparaging him, is obviously even worse.
  • A person who harms or hurts young children is considered cruel. How can one be involved in a dispute if it causes his own young children to die prematurely?
  • After instigating a fight, leaving it is nearly impossible, as the Midrash writes (Yalkut Shimoni 752): Dasan and Aviram said “we will not go up” (Bamidbar 16:12), meaning: we will fight this fight forever, even if we are proved wrong. Once involved in a fight, the Gehenom itself won’t discourage people from continuing it.

But even once a dispute began, as long as there is life, there still is hope. Onn ben Peles’s wife succeeded in saving her husband, and Korach’s sons got out in the last minute. They serve as a reminder that although very difficult, with determination, one can get out and save himself.


Join the Conversation


  1. How does someone do Teshuva for thinking critically about a Talmid Chacham? Does that warrant asking Mechila?

    1. As long as you didn’t say it to anyone else, or act disrespectfully to the talmid chacham, you do not have to ask him mechila.

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