The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Rav Binyamin Tabory
The story of Korach and his group is seen as the epitome of a machloket with improper motives. At the opposite extreme, the constant disagreements between the schools of Shammai and Hillel serve as the paragon examples of machloket waged for sublime purposes. The mishna states (Avot 5:17): "A machloket for the sake of heaven (such as exhibited by Hillel and Shammai) will endure; a machloket which is not for the sake of heaven (such as the story of Korach and his group) will not endure." Rabbeinu Yona (ad loc.) commented that the machloket between Shammai and Hillel will extend to many issues and they will constantly discuss these issues. They will also be granted a long and extended life. On the other hand, a machloket conducted for ulterior motives will not endure, since the disputants will perish, as we see in the story of Korach.
It has been pointed out that the mishna contrasted the machloket between Shammai and Hillel with the machloket of "Korach and his group." In the former case, the mishna mentioned the two adversaries, Shammai and Hillel. However, in the latter case, the opposing side (apparently Moshe) was not mentioned at all. It has been suggested that the mishna deliberately omitted the name of Moshe in order to avoid mentioning his name with regard to machloket. Others have suggested that Korach and his group actually represented two conflicting parties. When the machloket is for ulterior motives, each participant has his own specific agenda. Although Korach and his group joined forces to oppose Moshe, they themselves were at odds over their ultimate goals.
While this mishna undoubtedly disapproves of an improper machloket, it remains to be seen if the Torah forbids such a machloket and if such a prohibition would be codified as one of the 613 mitzvot.
The gemara says (Sanhedrin 110a) in the name of Rav that we should not allow any machloket to take root, and in fact anyone who does initiate machloket transgresses a prohibition, as it says (Bamidbar 17:5), "One should not be like Korach and his group." Rav Ashi added that anyone who transgresses this prohibition deserves to be afflicted with leprosy.
Many Rishonim (Semag 156-157; Semak 132 and others) seemingly take this gemara at face value and include machloket in their list of the 613 mitzvot.
The Rambam, however, interprets the Torah's intention quite differently. He explains this verse (in Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Principle 8) to mean that anyone who disputes the issue of kehuna (priesthood) as Korach did, will "not be like Korach" meaning, he will not be swallowed by the earth and burned. Instead, his punishment will be "as God spoke to Moshe." The actual words of the Torah are "as God spoke with the hand of Moshe." Therefore, the Rambam explained that the punishment for machloket surrounding the kehuna will henceforth be leprosy, just as Moshe's hand was afflicted when he made somewhat derogatory remarks about the Jewish people. The Rambam understood the gemara in Sanhedrin as but an "asmakhta" (a rabbinic law, whose proof-text is not meant literally). However, the Rambam himself added that the prohibition of machloket is included in another prohibition, which will be explained in its proper place. In the Frankel edition of Sefer Ha-mitzvot, we are referred to mitzvat lo-ta'aseh 45, the prohibition of "lo titgodedu" (Devarim 14:1). There the Rambam explains that the primary intention of this verse is the prohibition against gashing one's skin during mourning, as was the custom among the pagans. However, he adds, the Rabbis included in this a prohibition against breaking into conflicting sects, and the Rambam here also mentions the prohibition of machloket. However, he makes it clear that this was expounded upon ("derash") by our Rabbis, and is not the real meaning of this prohibition.
Rav Achai Gaon
(She'iltot, Parashat Korach 131) states categorically that the people of
We have thus encountered two different interpretations of the verse "He should (will) not be like Korach." The Semag et alia thought that this verse introduces a direct prohibition against participating in machloket, while the Rambam claimed that it is meant as a threat, warning of the punishment that will befall a person who disputes the kehuna. The Ramban (glosses to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Principle 8) suggests a third explanation. In his view, this is a specific prohibition forbidding anyone from disagreeing with the idea of Aharon's God-given right to the kehuna. The Yere'im also follows this opinion, but adds that this prohibition also includes questioning or protesting any God-given appointment or honor. Therefore, anyone who rebelled or questioned Moshe's authority has also violated this prohibition. In any event, it seems that both the Ramban and the Yere'im agree with the Rambam that this source does not involve the general issue of machloket.
Even those authorities who did not include machloket in the list of biblical mitzvot, certainly feel that it should be abhorred and avoided at all costs. A typical comment to this effect is found in the Meiri (Sanhedrin ad loc.): "Even though all machloket, in general, is despicable and repulsive, and it was mentioned parenthetically that it is considered a prohibition, nevertheless, one who disagrees with his Rav or anyone else to whom he should acquiesce, is even more despised."
Of course, a machloket with proper motivation is permitted and even commendable. It is only in regard to an improperly motivated machloket that Rav Yechezkel Landau (Responsa Noda Be-Yehuda Yoreh De'ah 1) commented: "There is nothing worse than machloket. In our generation it is not common to have a machloket with purely noble intentions."
Many times people heatedly dispute issues concerning religious custom, such as whether "Av Ha-Rachamim" should be recited on a given Shabbat. We must keep things in perspective and realize that machloket should be avoided at all costs and may even entail an actual biblical prohibition.
The Sifrei (Bamidbar, Naso 42), commenting on the blessing of peace with which birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) concludes, cites the remark of R. Elazar the son of R. Elazar Ha-kapar, that shalom is so great that it even protects idol worshipers, adding, "Peace is great, and machloket is despised."