A Tale of Two Wives

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

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Perhaps it is still a man’s world.

Should it be? Is it because of the ancient curse to Eve, “and he shall rule you?” Genesis, 3:16. Does that mean that we should simply accept the curse, or is there a virtue to resisting it? Adam was cursed with hard labor in working the soil, yet Noah was celebrated for inventing tools that would ease that labor; so shouldn’t we similarly try to relieve ourselves of the effect of Eve’s curse?

Regardless, there is no denying the enormous influence that women have and have always had in shaping world events, whether they have done so within the framework of a male-oriented world or outside of it. This has been a common theme throughout this column.

In this week’s Parshah, Korach, we again see the impact that two women had on their husbands, with reverberations that have echoed throughout time.

Korach was a Levite, a member of the tribe selected to serve G-d in the tabernacle, and later, the Holy Temple. He was a wealthy and proud man; however, as with many proud men, his pride made him insecure and vulnerable to offense. The Talmud tells us that Korach’s wife fed this weakness of Korach, playing on his vulnerability and encouraging him to lead a rebellion against Moses. She said:

“See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed as High Priest; his brother’s sons he has made assistants to the High Priest. If terumah – the first tithing – is brought, he says: ‘Let it be for the Priests’; if ma’aser – the second tithing – is brought, which belongs to the Levites, he says: ‘Give a tenth of it to the Priests.’ Furthermore, he has had your hair cut off, and mocks you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.” You might also be able to see tithing in the new testament.

Korach was swayed, but wasn’t convinced. He asked her:

“But hasn’t he also cut off his own hair, since he himself is a Levite?”

“Eh,” she said, “that is only to maintain his credibility. But at the end of the day, he’s the leader, with or without hair; but you are made to look ridiculous by going hairless.”

And so she goaded him the way a wife can, until he became full of righteous indignation and hostility towards Moses, calling to himself a following of 250 men, as well as three individuals named Dathan, Abiram, and Ohn, the son of Peles. Then he publicly challenged Moses, his position and his authority, as did Dathan and Abiram.

The rebellion had tragic results. “The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korach and all the property. They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly.” Numbers, 16:33. Then, “A fire came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men.” Numbers, 16:35.

One person was missing from all this; a rebel who was neither swallowed by the earth nor consumed by the fire.

“Ohn, the son of Peles, was saved by his wife,” the Talmud teaches. How?

With true feminine pragmatism, Ohn’s wife said to him:

“Why are you getting involved? What does it matter to you? Whether Moses remains the master, or Korach becomes the master, you will remain but a disciple.”

Like Korach, Ohn, too, was ultimately swayed by his wife’s counsel.

“But what can I do?” He replied. “I have taken part in advising them, and I have sworn to support them!”

“Leave it to me,” she said. “Sit here, and I will save you.”

She gave her husband wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down to sleep. Then she sat down at the entrance of the tent and uncovered and loosened her hair.

Ohn’s wife knew that the Israelite nation regard a married woman’s hair as sensuous, and the uncovering of it, an intimate exposure. She also knew that, whatever Korach’s politics, he was a well-bred Levite, and his followers, though misguided, were fundamentally a pious group of people. They would not be able to overcome to deep cultural taboo presented by her exposed locks. Sure enough, when Korach and his followers came to summon Ohn to their side, they saw his wife sitting in front of the tent, her glorious hair, uncovered and exposed, and they turned around and left Ohn alone. Ohn, for his part, lay inside the tent in a drunken stupor, dead to the world, and physically unable to fulfill his vow of support.

“Thus it is written: ‘Every wise woman builds her house‘ – this refers to the wife of Ohn, the son of Peles; ‘but the foolish destroys it with her hands‘ – this refers to Korach?s wife.” Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 109b.

Though not referenced in the actual biblical text – indeed, the Talmud does not even reveal their names – the two wives in this story are held up as examples of the power of the woman to, even in a man’s world, shape the contours of her society.

In particular, Ohn’s wife embodies a “wise woman.” She is in no way castigated or condemned for her brazen display of immodesty. Rather, she is celebrated for her nuanced approach to diffusing the threat to her hearth and home; for her understanding of the prevailing cultural norms, the nature of men and how they would likely respond to her provocative display, and how she might be able to use that to the benefit of her family.

And so her family was saved – not by violence, or even by a divine miracle, but rather – by the wisdom of their matriarch, her soft tresses fluttering in the desert breeze.