Rashi’s opening comment to Parashat Korach (Num. 16:1) refers the reader to Midrash Tanchuma, which characterizes Korach’s perfidious actions as both a pesha and a meridah. In this context, both words mean “rebellion.”
A third Hebrew word, mamre, also indicates rebellion: The Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) derives the rule that a mored b’malchut (“he who rebels against the kingship”) deserves death.
We will shed light on these ostensible synonyms by looking at their core roots to understand how they differ.
The word pesha most famously appears in Scripture in the sense of “rebelling” when the Moabite king Mesha, who had hitherto been a vassal to the King of Israel, rebelled (vayifsha) against Jewish hegemony and asserted his own independence (II Kgs. 3:4-5). Similarly, Midrash Tanchuma expounds on the verse “a brother rebelled (nifsha)…” (Prov. 18:19) as a reference to Korach who rebelled against his “brother” (i.e., cousin) Moses.
The Talmud (Yoma 36b) distinguishes between pesha, a “sin of rebellion,” and chet and avon, which refer to less overtly-rebellious sins.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) asserts that the primary meaning of pesha is not “rebellion” but rather negligence that comes about through laziness. The literal poshea is not one who tries to rebel or anger the one against whom he sins but is, rather, one whose indolence shows that he does not care about the result of his actions.
(Elsewhere, the term poshea refers to a watchman who did not live up to the vigilance expected of him (see Exodus 22:8 and Bava Kamma 21b, 29a). He simply did not care enough to prevent damage to his employer’s property. Concerning the honor of a king – and especially the King of Kings – a high degree of mindfulness is expected. Laziness and apathy are tantamount to rebellion; one slights the king’s honor by not living up to expectations.
In many cases, including the story of Mesha, Targum translates pasha as mored (see Targum to II Kgs. 8:22, Isa. 1:2, Jer. 33:8), which implies active defiance rather than just passive languor.
Ibn Janach and Radak trace the Hebrew word meridah to the triliteral root mem-reish-dalet, which they explain bears two different meanings: “rebellion” and “lowly/downtrodden.”
For example, when Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (II Chron. 36:13) and when the five kings rebelled against the four kings (Gen. 14:4), the Bible uses verb cognates of meridah to denote “rebellion.”
But in another meaning, the Bible also uses the phrase ani’im merudim (Isa. 58:7) to denote especially “downtrodden” paupers. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 14:4) finds a way to unite the disparate meanings of the root mem-reish-dalet, explaining that ani’im merudim are considered so unfortunate and lowly that there is no reprisal against those who abuse them: The victim is already marginalized and considered too unimportant for ill-treating him to elicit any response. Sadly enough, Zion was said to have reached such a sorry state of existence in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple (Lam. 1:7).
In his Machberet Menachem, Menachem Ibn Saruk looks at it differently. Like Ibn Janach and Radak, Menachem classifies cognates of meridah as derivatives of the triliteral root mem-reish-dalet. However, unlike them, he classifies cognates of merudim as derivatives of the biliteral root reish-dalet (“downward motion” / “descent”), in the sense that an especially oppressed and demoralized poor person has fallen so far down from the lofty place of a respected human being.
As is his way, Rabbi Pappenheim even traces the word meridah to the biliteral reish-dalet, noting that the mem is not essential to the root of the word. He explains that the verb rodeh (Gen. 1:28, Lev. 25:43) refers to “lording over others” – rulers keeping their subordinates/subjects “down” so they cannot assert their independence. (Rabbi Pappenheim explains that many three-letter roots that begin with the letter mem actually derive from two-letter roots, with the letter mem serving as a means of switching the meaning of the two-letter root to its exact opposite: In this case, the mem that comes before reish-dalet in meridah means not “lording over others” but “rebellion,” by which those others assert their control.)
Our third synonym for “rebellion” is mamre. Moses calls the Jews mamrim for their rebellious nature in refusing to heed G-d’s word (Deut. 9:7, 9:24, 31:27), and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:2) similarly refers to a renegade elder who refuses to heed the rulings of the Sanhedrin as a zaken mamre.
Similarly, the Talmudic term for an apostate who “rebels” against G-d is mumar (Shabbat 69a, 87a, Eruvin 69a-b, Yevamot 47b, and many more places). Finally, a rebellious child is called a ben sorer u’moreh (Deut. 21:18), wherein the word moreh is a cognate of the term mamre.
But this does not tell us the etymological basis for the term mamre. For that, we turn again to the early Hebrew lexicographers. Ibn Janach and Radak trace the various inflections of meri/mamre to the triliteral roots mem-reish-hey and mem-reish-reish, both of which can refer to “rebelling” or “changing” [from one what one was commanded to do].”
Menachem, as we might expect, links all of these words to the biliteral mem-reish.
Rabbi Pappenheim goes into more detail about the root mem-reish, defined as “changing,” “switching,” or “getting rid of one thing so that something else can take its place.” Examples include mohar (“bride price”), given in exchange for a woman’s maidenhood, and maher (“quickly”), constantly-changing movement.
Regarding meri/mamre, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that just as foodstuff described as mar can be said to be “revolting” to the palate, so do the words meri/mamre denote a reaction to something unpalatable. Repudiating something he finds disagreeable is an act of meri/mamre; he “rebels” against the thing he disagrees with. This concept can apply to political leadership as well – “rebelling” against the established rulers by replacing their word for someone else’s and deposing the leader in favor of a different one.
Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) blurs the distinction between meri/mamre and meridah/mored. He proposes that both of those expressions are rooted in the two-letter mem-reish, whose core meaning is reflected in the honorific mar (“mister”) — an expression of “dignity” and “sovereignty.” In this interpretation, when one “rebels” against authority, one is poised to assert one’s own self-possession and dignity, re-establishing oneself as an autonomous being. [Rabbi Pappenheim’s list of mem-reish derivatives cannot include meridah/mored because his classification system only recognizes monoliteral/biliteral roots with the additional third letter. In this case, the third letter would be dalet, a letter that does not fit Rabbi Pappenheim’s system.]
Pesha/poshea only means “rebelling” in a borrowed sense, while its core meaning refers to negligence and laziness.
Meridah/mored focuses on “rebelling” as a counter-response to a certain situation, especially as a means of rejecting the present rulership.
Meri/Mamre focuses on “rebelling” as an act of switching allegiances from one party to another.