By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
And Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehas ben Levi took, along with Dasan and Aviram b’nei Eliav and On ben Peles of the b’nei Reuven, and they stood before Moshe with men of Bnei Yisrael, 250 princes of the congregation, regularly called to the assembly, men of renown.
Rashi explains just who these 250 “men of renown” were, and how Korach succeeded in winning them over: “‘And Korach . . . took.’ What did he do? He arose and gathered 250 heads of Sanhedrins . . . And he dressed them in robes entirely of techeiles. Then they came and stood before Moshe and asked, “Is a robe entirely of techeiles obligated in tzitzis or exempt? “Obligated,” Moshe replied, whereupon they began to mock him, saying, “Is it possible that a robe of another material is exempted by a single string of techeiles, yet this one that is entirely of techeiles cannot exempt itself? ” (Rashi ad loc.)
Rashi’s goal in this comment is ostensibly to explain the connection between the beginning of this parashah and the end of Parashas Shelach, which leaves off with the mitzvah of tzitzis. From this smichus—association of pesukim—we learn that Korach’s strategy was to discredit Moshe in the eyes of the people by inciting them to ridicule his halachic ruling regarding a beged shekulo techeiles—a garment made entirely of techeiles. (Techeiles is wool dyed with a special blue dye specified by the Torah.)
Now, whoever has any appreciation for the stature of that generation, and especially their leaders, must ask himself, “How could those whom Chazal refer to as the dor de’ah—the ‘Generation of Knowledge’—have fallen for such a shallow ruse. On the surface it seems that Korach appealed to them on a purely emotional level. From a rational perspective his argument was utterly nonsensical. The halachah is clear that any four-cornered garment with the halachic status of a beged, which includes at the very least a garment woven from wool or linen, requires tzitzis. There is no reason to think that the color of the garment should be relevant. How, then, could 250 heads of Sanhedrins have thought otherwise?
The answer, I believe, is quite simple. Korach was not asking about just any beged shekulo techeiles, but about one such garment in particular—the me’il of the Kohein Gadol. The outer robe worn by the Kohein Gadol was indeed made entirely of techeiles (Sh’mos 28:31), was four cornered, and it did not have tzitzis! It was towards this garment that Korach’s mockery was directed. Korach said in effect, “You obligate everyone else in the mitzvah of tzitzis, but not your brother. You allow your brother, Aharon the Kohein Gadol, to wear a woolen garment that is kulo techeiles without tzitzis. For your own family you have a special set of rules!”
This was the gist of Korach’s argument. It was through the gratuitous claim that Moshe was showing favoritism towards his family that Korach was able to persuade so many people to join him.
Granted that Korach’s reasoning was invalid to begin with, because everything Moshe did was at Hashem’s command, how are we to understand the inconsistency in the halachah? Why, in fact, does the me’il not require tzitzis? Before we answer this question, let me add to it another. In Machat shel Yad Bereishis, Parashas Chayei Sarah, it is stated that the only people other than the Kohein Gadol who are exempt from tzitzis are women! What is the common denominator?
Chazal explain that the tzitzis are like the insignia worn by the servants of a king: “And [Chazal] explained further that [Hashem said], ‘At the time of the Exodus from Egypt you became My servants; therefore you must bear upon you tzitzis, which is the seal of servitude.’” (Malbim, Bamidbar 15:41).
This is comparable to the emblem emblazoned on the uniform worn by the king’s soldiers to remind the soldiers themselves of their allegiance to their sovereign and inform others of whom they represent. Such a sign is only necessary, however, for servants working outside the palace. For those inside the palace it would be disgraceful if they required such a reminder. After all, what more can a symbol add when the king himself is right there in front of you!
That is why the Kohein Gadol, nor any Kohein for that matter, does not require tzitzis, even on a four-cornered me’il, even though he does wear tefillin upon his head. Tefillin is a sign of the b’ris—the covenant—between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Klal Yisrael. The Gemara teaches that HaKadosh Baruch Hu also wears tefillin as a reminder of this covenant (Berachos 6a). By contrast, tzitzis is a sign of our allegiance to Him, which is unnecessary for the Kohein Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash, who is like a servant within the king’s palace.
Women have a similar status. As we pointed out in Parashas Chayei Sarah, the role of a woman in the Mishkan of the Jewish home is comparable to that of the Kohein Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash. The special closeness to kedushah they enjoy by virtue of that role obviates the necessity for any further reminder of their subservience to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Therefore they, too, are exempt from tzitzis. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now in print: Machat shel Yad Vayikra.