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The Sons of Korach

Parsha Halacha - Parshat Korach

The Sons of Korach - From the Brink of the Abyss to the Temple Choir

Co-sponsored by Daniel and Jessica Courtney in the merit of a Refuah Shleima for Chana Leah Sarah bat Peshe Gittel. And by Shai in honor of his father, Yoseph Zmora

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen

Click here for a print version of this article 

The Torah portion of Korach tells the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and how Korach and his followers were either burned alive or swallowed up by the earth. The verse indicates that Korach’s entire family was swallowed up, as it says,[1] “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people, and all their possessions… and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”

In the Torah portion of Pinchas, however, after recounting how Datan and Aviram, Korach’s co-conspirators, were swallowed up by the earth, the Torah says,[2] “The sons of Korach, however, did not die.”

Rashi explains (based on the Talmud[3]) that the sons of Korach “were in the plot from the beginning, but at the time of the dispute they had thoughts of repentance in their hearts; therefore, a high spot was fortified for them in Gehinom and they stayed there.”


The names of Korach’s sons were Assir, Elkanah, and Aviassaf.[4] The Ba’al HaTurimpoints out that the only other time in Tanach where the word Assir is used is in a verse in Isaiah 42:7 where it says לְהוֹצִיא מִמַּסְגֵּר אַסִיר , which means, “Rescuing prisoners from confinement.” This alludes to the fact that Assir (and his brothers) would be rescued from their perilous spot above Gehinom.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson (father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe) points out[5] that the Gematriyah (numerical value) of their three names is the same as that of תורה/Torah. (תורה is 611. אסיר  is 271, אלקנה  is 186, and אביאסף is 154, which equal 611.) This indicates that they upheld the same Torah that their father had denied.[6]


We know that the sons of Korach were involved in the rebellion from the very beginning because their story is told in conjunction with the story of Datan and Aviram who were among Moshe’s main antagonists.[7]

Faces in the Sand

The Midrash recounts[8] that the sons of Korach were sitting with their father when Moshe was approaching. They said (to themselves), “If we stand to honor Moshe Rabeinu we will be disgracing our father and we have already been commanded to honor our parents. And if we don’t stand up, we will be transgressing the mitzvah to stand for a sage. It is better if we stand for Moshe Rabeinu even if this brings disgrace to our father.” (Their logic was, “If Moshe is wrong and the Torah is not true [Heaven forbid], then there is no basis for the mitzvah to honor one’s parents at all.”[9]) At that time, they had “teshuvah whispers” in their heart. King David said about them,[10]“My heart is astir with gracious words.”

Teshuvah Murmurings

Another Midrash says[11] that the sons of Korach did teshuvah as they were being swallowed up by the earth. Unable to express their teshuvah verbally (as is proper when doing teshuvah), they only thought it in their hearts. Despite this, G-d saw their good intentions and saved them from the abyss.

Inheritance Lost

The Seforno writes that the reason the property of Korach was swallowed up by the earth was to ensure so that he not merit to have tzadikim benefit from his work. The Midrash says[12] that if a coin falls from one’s hands and a poor person finds it and uses it, the one who lost it gets the merit of supporting the poor man. So too, if Korach’s property were to reach and benefit tzadikim, this would bring merit to Korach. (Supporting tzadikim is a mitzvah as is supporting the poor) Presumably, the Seforno is referring to the sons of Korach who were tzadikim (after doing teshuvah) and would have inherited their father’s estate if it were not swallowed up. 

Haman’s House to Mordechai

One can ask, based on the above Seforno, how was it that the house of Haman was given to Mordechai[13] if this would bring merit to Haman? 

It is possible to differentiate that, when a person dies, his estate no longer belongs to him so he receives no merit if it goes to the possession of a Tzadik.[14] Whereas if one is still alive and his property is transferred to a Tzadik (as in the example of the fallen coin), this brings him merit even if they are not aware of it, since the property belonged to them at that time.

As such, since Haman had been killed, having his house transferred to Mordechai didn’t bring him merit. The case of Korach was different however, because, even after he was swallowed up, he remained alive[15] and his property was still connected to him.[16]  

Teshuvah Helps

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains[17] that the reason the sons of Korach were able to do Teshuvah, despite their having sinned publicly, is that Korach and his group had the law of an Ir HaNidachat (a city that was persuaded to serve idols) and, according to the (unique) laws of Ir HaNidachat, one can do teshuvah and be saved from punishment.[18] (This also explains why the children were killed and why the possessions were swallowed up by the earth as these, too, are punishments that apply to Ir HaNidachat.[19])

Sang to G-d

According to the Talmud,[20] while suspended above Gehinom, the sons of Korach sang to G-d. The Zohar says[21] they sang Psalm 48 (which begins with the words, “A song, a psalm of the sons of Korach”). This psalm is recited as the Song of the Day on Mondays[22] as the fire of Gehinom (which they narrowly escaped) was created on Monday.[23]

The Maharsha says that they sang Psalm 88 in which they prayed to G-d for salvation[24] as well as psalm 49 which discusses how wealth can lead to one’s demise (as happened to their father).

Got Out after 40 Years

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains[25] that the reason the Torah speaks about the sons of Korach not dying in the Torah portion of Pinchas is to allude to the fact that they remained under the earth until then and that they only came out after the generation that had left Egypt had passed away. Since the sons of Korach publicly disgraced Moshe in front of that generation, their release could not be seen by those same people. 

Famous and Righteous Descendants 

Their descendants included Elkanah (father of the prophet Shmuel), the prophet Shmuel, and Heiman, who was the head of a group of Levites that sang in the Beit HaMikdash.[26]

May we merit to do teshuvah in a timely manner!

[1] Numbers 16:32-34

[2] Ibid, 26:11

[3] Sanhedrin 110a

[4] Exodus, 6:24

[5] Yalkut Levi Yitzchok al HaTorah, number 51

[6] See Bava Batra 74a

[7] Likutei Sichot vol. 33 page 174

[8] Yalkut Shimoni al haTorah, number 752

[9] Me’am Loez on Tehillim 42:1

[10] Tehillim 45:2. This is one of the psalms that was composed by the sons of Korach.

[11] Yalkut Shimoni on Tehillim 45:2, remez 749

[12] Sifra, quoted in Rashi on Leviticus 5:17

[13] See Esther 8:1

[14] See Ran D”H Im Met on Nedarim 42a that, when one passes away, the inheritance is given by G-d to the heirs and it is not considered that the heirs are benefitting from their predecessor.

[15] See Ohr HaChaim on Numbers 16:33Rashbam D.H. Shamit on Bava Batra 74a and HaYom Yom Sivan 26. The Rashash on Bava Batra wonders how they could remain alive under the earth with no air or food.

[16] See Tzidkat HaTzadik, ot 86, by Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin that all of a person’s possessions are connected to their soul. See also, ibid, ot 91160 and 197

[17] Meshech Chochma on Numbers 16:33 

[18] See Rambam, Laws of Avodat Kochaim, 4:6

[19] See Migdal Oz on ibid who says that the story of Korach may be a source for the law of Ir HaNidachat

[20] Sanhedrin, ibid.

[21] Parshat Acharie 56b

[22] Mishnah Tamid, 7:4

[23] Pesachim 54a

[24] Several verses in this psalm refer to their predicament, such as; “I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit” (verse 5), and “You have put me at the bottom of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths” (verse 7). In addition, the psalm begins with three expressions of song, שיר,מזמור and  למנצח, alluding to the three sons of Korach. The instrument on which this song was played was called מָחֲלַת which also means forgiveness, alluding to the fact that G-d forgave them (Maharsha). 

[25] Likutei Sichot ibid

[26] I Divrei HaYamim 6:12 and 18

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach! Copyright 2023 by Rabbi Aryeh Citron

Tue, May 21 2024 13 Iyyar 5784