Halakha and Aggada

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Halakha and Aggada

Summarized by Dr. Benjamin Ellis


And they were assembled against Moshe and Aharon, and said to them... Why do you lift yourselves above the assembly of God? (Bemidbar 16:3)

In this verse we encounter a problem: How could Bnei Yisrael accept such an accusation? Moshe, we are told, is the most humble man ever to have lived, and of Aharon it is written that he loved peace and pursued peace. Moshe and Aharon do not appear to be the type of leaders who "lift themselves above the assembly of God!"

Rashi (16:1) explains the accusation by quoting the Tanchuma's description of Korach's and his followers' actions:

They then came and stood before Moshe [wearing garments colored entirely with tekhelet, a blue dye needed on only one string in each corner of a four-cornered garment,] and said to him, "Does a garment that is made entirely of tekhelet require tzitzit or is it exempt?"

He replied to them, "It requires tzitzit."

They began to laugh at him: "If a normal garment is exempted by one thread of tekhelet, can a garment made purely of tekhelet not exempt itself?"

Korach and his followers thought that since all of Bnei Yisrael were holy, all having been at Mount Sinai and having heard God speak directly, there was no need for the special spiritual leadership of Moshe, Aharon, the kohanim, and so on.

This misunderstanding of the nature of leadership can be traced back to an earlier event. Rashi (Bemidbar 7:3) explains why the nesi'im (princes of the tribes) were the last to donate to the Mishkan:

The princes said, "Let the community in general contribute all they wish to give, and what will then be lacking, we shall supply."

Korach and his followers mistakenly believed that the role of leadership was merely functional. If the masses are holy enough, there is no need for a special leadership, just like a garment made entirely of tekhelet (in their eyes) requires no tzitzit. They considered the role of a leader to be merely one of completing that which the masses cannot, of compensating for that which the wider community is lacking. However, leadership is something far more intrinsically important than that. Leaders have to direct the people, inspire them, carry the people along.

Korach and his followers believed they understood the basis for leadership (and, in the midrash, the reason for tzitzit) and on that basis they wanted to determine Halakha.

In discussing the giving of reasons for mitzvot, Rambam states that although the general principle of a mitzva can be given a reason, the finer halakhic details cannot. Of tzitzit, for example, it can be said that since clothes are a purely human creation, they require a reminder of God. Attaching a thread of tekhelet (which is blue) reminds us of the sea, which causes us to contemplate the heavens, and in turn to reflect on God's Throne of Glory. This is fine for a devar Torah at seuda shelishit, but ultimately it is aggada, and we do not determine halakha on that basis. An all-tekhelet garment requires tzitzit nevertheless.

Nowadays, there are streams within Judaism who are repeating the error of Korach and his followers. They believe that they know the reasons for mitzvot, and, on that basis, rule halakha. However, although there is nothing inherently wrong in deducing general reasons for mitzvot, halakha is halakha, aggada is aggada, and the former is not to be based on the latter.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Korach 5755 [1995].)


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