Friday, June 15, 2007

Rebellion and Leprosy - The role of Moshe's hand.

In my last post, I thought I had an explanation for the punishment by fire from God that questioners of Moshe’s special status as a prophet suffered. However, the germinating idea has not materialized so I am left without really understanding it. Maybe another time.

There is however another interesting verse in the same story that caught my attention and a very interesting interpretation of that verse by Rambam (if I understand him correctly).

ד וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת, אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ, הַשְּׂרֻפִים; וַיְרַקְּעוּם, צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ.

4 And Elazar the priest took the brazen fire-pans, which they that were burnt had offered; and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,

ה זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא, לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה לוֹ. {פ}

5 to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korach, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses. {P}

(Bamidbar 17:4-5)

JPS translates כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה לו as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses. The problem is where did He speak to Moshe about this? Rashi suggests two possibilities, one of them a Midrash Tanhuma that Rashi reports as follows:

רש"י במדבר פרק יז פסוק ה

ומדרשו על קרח. ומהו ביד משה ולא כתב אל משה, רמז לחולקים על הכהונה שלוקין בצרעת, כמו שלקה משה בידו שנאמר (שמות ד, ו) ויוציאה והנה ידו מצורעת כשלג, ועל כן לקה עוזיה בצרעת:

The word “LO” refers to Korach.[Make this memorial so that there will no longer be rebels against the Priesthood because they will remember what God spoke to Moshe about Korach and his subsequent punishment - DG]. As to the words used in the verse "[spoke] by the hand of Moshe" instead of "[spoke] to Moshe" [El Moshe being the correct wording], it teaches us that someone who argues on the priesthood is punished with leprosy. It points to Moshe’s hand that became leprous, white as snow. [When Moshe was transmitting laws, the Torah says that they were given by the hand of Moshe. Here it is a little cumbersome. Rashi understands that the Midrash addresses this here separately- DG]

Rambam is sefer Hamitzvot addresses this twice, in Shoresh 8 below and in Lo Ta’asseh 45. In both places, he uses very similar language.

ספר המצוות לרמב"ם שורש ח

וכן אמרו (קרח יז) ולא יהיה כקרח וכעדתו הוא שלילה. ובארו החכמים שהוא שלילה ופירשו ענינו ואמרו שהוא יתעלה ספר לנו שכל מי שיחלוק על הכהונה ויעורר בה לא יחול בו מה שהגיע בקרח ובעדתו מן הבליעה והשריפה אבל אמנם יהיה ענשו כאשר דבר י"י ביד משה, ר"ל הצרעת והוא אמרו ית' אליו (שמות ד) הבא נא ידך בחיקך, והביאו ראיה במה שקרה בעוזיה מלך יהודה (דה"ב כו).

Rambam is discussing the issue of negative language which could be interpreted as negative commandments while in reality they are just statements of facts or predictions. Our verse is one of those (as correctly translated by JPS) “that he fare not as Korach”. “The Rabbis explained that it is negating, namely that God told us that those who argue against the priesthood will not be punished like Korach and his cohorts who were swallowed up and burned. Their punishment will be as God did to Moshe’s hand, namely made it leprous. As we find that God told him, please put your hand in your bosom (Shemot 4). They also bring proof from Uzyahu the king of Yehudah. (See story in Divrei Hayamim 26).

Rambam does not agree with Rashi’s interpretation of the Midrash. Unlike Rashi who translates ביד משה – by the hand of Moshe – that God spoke to Korach via Moshe - and the consequent difficulty, Rambam translates it as what God did to Moshe’s hand. ביד משה thus is understood literally as the object of the sentence. The word דבר is a metaphor for deed. (See MN 1:65)[1]. Rambam understands “LO” – to him – to refer to a future rebel. A future rebel will suffer leprosy just as God made Moshe’s hand leprous. That is what happened to Uzyahu. Rambam does not see it as Midrash but the literal translation of the verse!

Note: The version of the Tanhuma on the Bar Ilan CD (Warsaw) reads closer to Rashi. The Buber edition reads like Rambam.

מדרש תנחומא )ורשא( פרשת צו סימן יג

ולא יהיה כקרח וכעדתו שערער על הכהונה לא יהיה כקרח בבליעה וכעדתו בשרפה, אלא כאשר דבר ה' ביד משה לו ביד משה בסנה שנאמר )שמות ד( הבא נא ידך בחיקך ויוציאה והנה ידו מצרעת כשלג, כלומר שנצטרע המעורר

Buber’s edition reads:

כשם שעש'ת' ל'דך ... כך אנ' עושה לו

[1] The two terms, [amar and dibber] when applied to God, can only have one of the two last-mentioned significations, viz., he wills and he desires, or he thinks.


  1. Hello

    Could you edit the post I am having a very hard time reading it. e.g. "As to the words used in the verse [spoke] by the hand of Moshe instead of [spoke] to Moshe" I have read this a few times and I still do not get its meaning.

    Thank you.

    I love your blog!

  2. Thank you for your endorsement.

    I hope the little edit clarifies. One does not speak to a hand or through a hand. That deviant language triggered the Rabbis' comment.