Korach and the Liturgy

Connections to prayer within parashat Korach are an eclectic, and sometimes well-hidden, set — from redeeming the first-born to a Shabbat table song.

Redemption and Loss

Numbers/Bamidbar 18:16 is recited at pidyon ha-ben/ha-bat [redemption of the first born]. Here’s one egalitarian ceremony. And here are some additional prayers for loss of a pregnancy or of a child younger than 30 days, reflecting changes in the way pregnancy and early loss of an infant have been experienced by women and their families.


L’vnei Korach

Twelve (or 11 or 13) psalms are associated with the sons of Korach: Psalms 42-49, 84, 85, 87, 88. Psalm 43 does not say “l’vnei Korach” but is literarily joined to the preceding psalm; this explains why the number of psalms “lvnei Korach” is sometimes reported as 11 rather than 12. (I don’t know why it’s sometimes reported as 13.)

“All Korach’s people and all their possessions” are swallowed up by the earth in Numbers/Bamidbar 16:23-34, after which a fire consumes the 250 individuals who had offered incense as part of the rebellion. However, we read in Numbers/Bamidbar 26:11 that Korach’s sons “did not die.”

Baba Batra 74a and Sanhedrin 110a explain that the sons were swallowed up when the earth opened and remain in the underworld where they sing God’s praise. Another explanation is that the sons repented, were saved and lived to produce descendants who later sang these.

These psalms are sometimes attributed to the sons of Korach. Some scholars say the psalms were written for and/or sung by descendants of Korach.

Sentiments expressed in these psalms range from celebratory to severely distressed:

As we have heard, so we have seen
in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God,
God establishes it forever. Selah.
We think, O God, about Your lovingkindness in the midst of Your temple.
Like Your name, O God, so is Your praise to the ends of the earth
Your right hand is full of righteousness. — 48:9-11

You have put my close friends far away from me.
You have made me an abomination to them. I am imprisoned and I cannot come out.
My eye hurts by reason of affliction.
O Lord, I call upon You constantly. I stretch out my hands to You.
Do You perform wonders for the dead?
Do the shades arise and give thanks to You? Selah. — 88:9-11
translations: Amos Hakham, The Jerusalem Bible*

Liturgical Use

Psalm 48, singing the praises of Jerusalem as an eternal symbol of God’s reign, is the psalm for the second day of the week (Monday). Psalm 49, which stresses the fleeting nature of human life, is among those recited in a house of mourning during the shiva period.

Lines from psalms 42 an 84 are incorporated into Abraham Ibn Ezra’s piyut [liturgical poem], “Tzama nafshi [my soul thirsts],” sung on Friday nights.

“My soul thirsts for God, the living God
My heart and flesh will sing joyfully to the living God”

Much of psalm 88 focuses on near-death imagery: “in the deepest pit,” “near to the underworld,” “far from friends…imprisoned,” “Your terrors have cut me off.” This seems consistent with the stories about Korach’s sons eternally singing from Sheol. The Jerusalem commentary says, however:

In the Midrashim (and in Rashi) we find the interpretation that the worshipper in this psalm is the entire assembly of Israel, and the distress alluded to is the distress of servitdue and exile among the nations. Of course, one would tend to think that the psalm was originally recited in connection with the distress and illness of a single individual…the special characteristic of the psalms is that they are written in language that enables them to be prayers both for the individual and for teh community on many varied occasions. — p.312

A contemporary Christian musical group uses the name, “Sons of Korah,” explaining: “The Sons of Korah were therefore a living testimony to God’s grace. They certainly had much to sing about. We feel the same way.”

* See Source Materials for complete citation and more information.

For the convenience of subscribers:

A great source on Korach from Alicia Ostriker and some notes on salt.

Published by


Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

One thought on “Korach and the Liturgy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s