5769 - #19


             At the conclusion of Parshat Shelach,1 the Jewish People are presented with the obligation to wear tzitzit: “that you do not follow your own heart and your own eyes.”2 It is a fitting enactment to ensue from the story of the spies, a story in which ten men (based on their perceptions of the land and its people) lead a nation astray and cause many to disregard God’s Words. But it would appear that this safeguard was insufficient: the very next parsha of Korach, Bamidbar c. 16-18, opens with a story that has many similarities to the story of the spies. In both cases, a group of distinguished men3 assembles for a blasphemous cause,4 resulting in punishment. What was lacking in the final edict of Parshat Shelach (namely, tzitzit) to allow this kind of sin to be repeated?

            Interestingly, although it is not nearly as famous a mnemonic entity, the incident of Korach and his men also concludes with its own tzitzit-like device: the fire-pans used by Korach’s men are beaten into plates and used as a covering for the mizbe’ach, “that they may be a sign for Bnei Yisrael.” 5,6 In this case, the ‘memory’ is not carried with the individual, as with tzitzit, but it is a social structure, shared among the people. This distinction is crucial. In both the story of the spies and the story of Korach, there is a recurring reference made to the eidah (to be translated, within this Insight – in a technical sense -- as congregation. This term is used at various points throughout the Torah to refer to the Jewish People or a faction of the Jewish People. It is not an inherently positive or negative term, but it does seem to define a certain type of group. It is this group—the eidah — that required tzitzit after the spies and the covering for the mizbe’ach after Korach. It is the quality of being part of a congregation that allowed otherwise honourable,7 upstanding individuals to sin so drastically.

            The mishnah on T.B. Megillah 23b lists a selection of mitzvoth that require a minyan, ten men. The gemara asks: how do we know that the minimum number of men required for a minyan is ten? A method is employed, involving the analysis and comparison of verses, whereby the question is answered. Two (of the three main) verses utilized to answer this query are, as they are presented in the gemara, “Separate yourselves from among the congregation,” (Bamidbar 16:21) and “How long will this evil congregation exist?,” (Bamidbar 14:27) verses from the stories of Korach and the spies.8 I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the two verses used in defining a minyan are from stories that provide disastrous examples of how dangerous it can be to form a congregation. Certainly, it would have little affected the strength of the proof if a verse that did not make specific reference to the ‘evil’ congregation was included instead of the one which did make such a reference. However, both these stories are referenced and both verses referenced are critical of the congregation.

            The message, on a simplistic level, is clear: when you congregate, be careful not to form congregations like the ones discussed. But it is essential to recognize that this gemara is not quoting these verses to teach us what to avoid — it is using the congregations of the spies and Korach’s men as examples, using these congregations to define the basic qualities of a congregation, showing us what to emulate.

            Groups can be formed in one of two ways: odd- or even-numbered. Groups of judges must always be odd-numbered9 so that a verdict can be obtained, if necessary, through a majority. A minyan, on the other hand, starts at ten — an even number.10 After reading about the story of the spies, it is compelling to wonder what might have occurred had there been only nine spies.11 In such a case, each spy would have to view himself as the potential tiebreaker. His role, his view of himself, would be different. In turn, the nature of the group would be different. When a person is a member of an odd-numbered group, he has responsibilities — he knows he cannot ‘follow his heart or his eyes’ without considering the greater good. He must consciously recognize that the needs of the individual come second to the needs of the group.

            But God still sees value in the even-numbered eidah, the minyan. In response to the sin of the spies, he adds tzitzit, the personal reminder.12 This, God figures, will solve the problem. As we know from Korach, it does not. (Continued in Part Two)

Chai Hecht e-mail


1 Bamidbar c. 13-15.

2 Bamidbar 15:39. Chinuch, Mitzvah 386, 387 actually counts two mitzvot within this context: a positive command to wear tzitzit (on four-cornered garments) and a negative command regarding the ‘straying after one’s heart and eyes.’

3 See Rashi, Bamidbar 13:3, d.h. Kulam Anashim. See, also, Bamidbar 16:2, where anashim is used to describe Korach’s men. While Rashi does not explicitly mention, regarding Korach’s men, his definition of anashim as an expression of distinction, he says, regarding the spies, that it is a universal definition found throughout the Torah.

4 See Rashi, Bamidbar 13:26, d.h. Va’yelchu.

5 While this memorial (as Rashi calls it) is closely connected, in the text, to the events that occurred and, thus, is given a specific purpose that refers directly to Korach, it can also be seen as a more generic sign, similar to tzitzit. Contrast Bamidbar 17:3 with 17:5 and see Rashi d.h. Ve’yiheyu.

6 There is actually a third ‘memorial’ in this sequence: Aaron’s staff. See Bamidbar 17:25 and Rashi, d.h. Le’Mishmeret. The nature of this third mnemonic is different from the other two and adds an intriguing dimension to the thesis of this Insight. It is recommended for further study.

7 Kesheirim — see Rashi, d.h. Kulam Anashim.

8 The two verses are out of order because this is the order in which they appear in Megillah. The gezeirah shavah in fact begins with a verse from Vayikrah 22:32, “And I will be sanctified among Bnei Yisrael.” ‘Betoch (among)’ is the first connection; ‘eidah’ is the second connection. The ten spies (Yehoshua and Calev are excluded) demonstrate that a congregation requires at least ten men.

9 Typically, in Halacha, judges combine in groups of 3, 23 or 71—see Mishna Sanhedrin, chapter 1.

10 Consider, also, that witnesses are formed in groups of two or more. While there is an idea that people should pray together—so a group of twenty is preferred to two groups of ten—it can’t be said that a minyan of twenty men is greater in its quality of being a minyan than a minyan of ten men. And it is a well-known rule in Jewish law that 100 witnesses testifying as one unit are in no way considered more reliable than a unit of two witnesses. The relationship between the word ed (witness) and eidah seems significant.

11 Eleven spies would also be odd but, technically, still a minyan and, therefore, in this context, still an eidah. Of course, judges combine in odd-numbered groups larger than ten—the number of people in the group is not all that matters here. But judges specifically form groups with an odd number of people. An eidah does not have this concern.

12 It should be noted that the third mitzvah in Parshat Shelach is the obligation to take challah, a portion of dough set aside for the kohen (Chinuch, Mitzvah 385). This, too, can be seen as targeting a specific weakness, in that it is a private mitzvah performed for a social need (to feed the kohanim).

(c) Nishma, 2009




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