Home Comment Site Search
                          


The Blessing of Yehudah

The Blessing of Yehudah – The Difficulty

לא יסור שבט מיהודה ומחקק מבין רגליו עד כי יבא שילה ולו יקהת עמים.
(בראשית מט, י)

The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his feet, until Shilo come, and the obedience of peoples be his. (Koren Translation) (Bereshit 49: 10)


The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his feet, until Shilo come, and the obedience of peoples be his. (Koren Translation) (Bereshit 49: 10)

What was the intention of Ya’akov in his blessing of Yehudah. A common interpretation posits that “shevet” and “mechokek” refer to the kingship, and that “Shiloh” refers either to David or to the Mashiach, the descendant of David. Abarbanel raises the questions inherent in this interpretation:

[הפסוק הזה] מורה שתמיד יהיה בו המלכות, וכאשר יבוא שילה יוסר השבט ממנו! והנה אינו כן, כי הנה שאול שמלך ראשונה משבט בנימין היה לא מיהודה. וירבעם וכל שאר מלכי ישראל לא היו משבט יהודה. וגם בבית שני מלכו החשמונאים ובית הורדוס, ואחר כך נפסק המלכות בהחלט משבט יהודה ומשאר השבטים. ואיך נתקיימו אם כן דברי הזקן ונבואותיו :''לא יסור שבט מיהודה? גם אמרו "עד כי יבוא שילה" - עד ולא אחרי... בין שיאמר על דוד, בין שיאמר על מלך המשיח כפי דעת המפרשים, לא נתקיים, כי בבוא דוד נתחזק המלכות לשבט יהודה, ולא סר ממנו; וכן נאמין שכאשר יבוא משיח בן דוד, תתחזק המלכות בידו, לא שתוסר אז.

[This verse] teaches that the kingship will always be in the tribe of Yehudah, and that when Shilo comes, the scepter will depart from him! But this is not so: Saul, the first king, was from the tribe of Binyamin, and not Yehudah. Furthermore, Yerovam, and all of the other kings of Israel were not from the tribe of Yehudah. Also, in the time of the Second Temple, both the Hasmoneans and Herod’s dynasty ruled, and after that, the kingship ceased completely from the tribe of Yehudah and from all other tribes. Given these facts, how can the Ya’akov’s prophecy, “the scepter shall not depart from Yehudah,” be true? The verse also says, “until Shilo comes” - until, but not after. Whether it was stated with regard to David or to the Mashiach according to the commentators, it was not fulfilled, for from the time that David took the kingship for the tribe of Yehudah, it did not depart from it. And we believe that when Mashiach ben David comes, the kingship will be established in his hand, and that it will not depart.

Abarbanel points out two difficulties with the blessing as it is commonly interpreted. The blessing appears to imply that the kingship will remain in the tribe of Yehudah until David or the Mashiach will arise. This is not consistent with the historical reality in which Shaul from the tribe of Binyamin ruled prior to David, and the Hasmoneans from the tribe of Levi ruled during the second temple period. Furthermore, it is specifically at these two junctures, the assent of David and the Mashiach, that the kingship of the tribe of Yehudah was destined to be strengthened, not terminated.

Shilo as a Location

Rashbam attempts to solve these difficulties by providing an alternative explanation of the term “Shiloh”:

"לא יסור שבט מיהודה": המלכות הניתן לו להשתחוות לו כל אחיו לא תפסוק ממנו כל אותה הגדולה ולא מחוקק ושררה מזרעו עד כי יבוא יהודה שילה, כלומר: עד כי יבוא מלך יהודה, הוא רחבעם בן שלמה, שבא לחדש המלוכה בשילה, שזהו קרוב לשכם. אבל אז יסורו עשרת השבטים ממנו וימליכו את ירבעם ולא נשאר לרחבעם בן שלמה רק יהודה ובנימין.

“The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah”: The kingship which was given to him, that all the other tribes would bow to him, all of this greatness will not cease from him, nor rulership and power from his line until Yehudah comes to Shilo; that is to say, until the arrival of the king of Yehudah, who was Rechavam the son of Solomon, who came to renew the kingdom in Shilo, which is near Shechem. But at that point, the ten tribes will depart from him and crown Yerovam, leaving only Judah and Benjamin with Rechavam the son of Solomon.

According to Rashbam, Shiloh refers not to a personality, but to a location. Specifically, Shiloh, by its proximity to Shechem, refers to the place where Rechavam the son of Shlomo would come to assume the kingship. There the kingdom would be divided between the two tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin in the south, and the remaining ten tribes in the north. Thus, according to Rashbam, the blessing indicates that the kingship of the tribe of Yehudah would be secure from the time of David until Rechavam comes to Shiloh, that is during the reigns of David and Shlomo. Through this interpretation, Rashbam also dismisses the interpretation of the “heretics”[1], as the blessing has no messianic reference.

Ibn Ezra refutes Rashbam’s interpretation, because it turns Ya’akov’s words from a blessing into a negative statement. He also identifies Shiloh as a location, but not Shechem. Rather, it refers to the place in which the Mishkan was housed until it was moved to Yerushalayim. Ibn Ezra associates Shiloh with the rule of the family of Yosef, Shaul[2]. As such, the blessing indicates that the rule of the tribe of Yehudah would begin with the transfer of the ark of the covenant from Shiloh to Yerushalayim. Ibn Ezra claims that the term “ad” (עד) in this case does not come to indicate conclusion, but rather initiation:

כמו שאמר המשורר (תהלים עח:סז) "וימאס באהל יוסף" – זהו שילה… ואם אמרנו "עד כי יבוא שילה" כי אז תאבד הממשלה והמלכות תיפסק מזרעו, אם כן אין זה דרך המברך. ועוד כי לעולם לא יאמר "עד" בפסוק למעט כי אם להוסיף כדרך שאמר ליעקב אבינו (בראשית כ"ח:טו) "והנה אנכי עמך ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך … כי לא אעזבך עד אשר אם עשיתי את אשר דברתי לך." (פירוש הארוך)

As the Psalmist said (Psalms 78:67): “And He rejected the tabernacle of Yosef.” – this is Shilo…. And if we would say that “until Shilo comes” means that at that point he would lose the rule and the kingship would end for his descendants, this is not the nature of a blessing. Furthermore, the use of the word “ad” in a verse never comes to diminish, but to add, as our father Ya’akov said (Bereshit 28:15): “And behold I am with you, and will keep you in all places that you go…for I will not leave you until (עד) I have done all that I said to you.” (The Long Commentary)

R. Yosef Bechor Shor interprets the blessing in a similar fashion:

בא [יעקב] לפרש [ליהודה] מתי יבוא לו המלכות, ואמר לו: לא תעלה על לבך שתהיה בעניות עד שיבוא זמן מלכותך, כי לא יסור שבט וממשלה ממך, כי לעולם יחשבוך לגדול... ותהיה... מחוקק גזרות מצוות על אחרים, כלומר: עד כי יבוא שילה תהיה שוטר ומושל, אבל משבא שילה תהיה מלך, כי משבא יומו של שילה שנחרב, אז צמחה מלכות בית דוד, כדכתיב (תהל' ע"ח) "ויטש משכן שילה … וימאס באהל יוסף … ויבחר בדוד עבדו ובירושלים אשר רצה." אלמא דבביאת יומו של שילה תלוי מלכות בית דוד.

[Ya’akov] came to explain [to Yehudah] when the kingship would come to him, and said to him: “Do not think that you will be lowly until the time of your kingship arrives, for the scepter and kingship will not depart from you, for they will always consider you great… and you will be … the one who imposes commands and decrees on others.” That is to say, that until Shilo comes, you will be an officer and ruler, but when Shilo comes, you will be king – for on the day that Shilo is destroyed, the house of David will prosper, as it is written (Psalms 78:60,67): “And He forsook the tabernacle of Shilo … and He rejected the tabernacle of Yosef … but he chose the tribe of Yehudah and Mount Zion that He loved.” This proves that the kingship of the House of David is dependent on the coming of the day of Shilo.

There is a slight difference in emphasis between the interpretations of Bechor Shor and Ibn Ezra. According to Bechor Shor, the terms “shevet” and “mechokek” refer to the dominance of the tribe of Yehudah prior to their acquisition of the kingship. According to Ibn Ezra, they refer to the kingship itself.

The Staff of Rebuke

In contrast to Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Bechor Shor, Anshalmah Astruk solves the difficulty raised by Abarbanel by providing an alternative interpretation of the terms “shevet” and “mechokek”. According to Astruck, these terms represent sticks that would be used to chastise the kings from the tribe of Yehudah throughout their rule in order to keep them on the proper path. This metaphoric staff would ensure the ultimate arrival of Mashiach ben David, “Shiloh”.

ופרשתי … לא יסור שבט המכה והמחקק … לייסרו בעת יחטא, עד שיהיה שלם, לא יצטרך להוכיח – הוא בימות המשיח ואז ומשול בכל העמים.

I explained … The striking rod and staff will not depart...from punishing him when he sins, until he is perfect, when he will not need rebuke - this is in the Messianic Age, and then he will rule all people.

Astruk’s interpretation is consistent with the promise to David regarding the rule of his son Shlomo as expressed by the prophet Natan in Shmuel II 7: 13-16:

…וכננתי את כסא ממלכתו עד עולם. אני אהיה לו לאב והוא יהיה לי לבן אשר בהעותו והוכחתיו בשבט אנשים ובנגעי בני אדם. וחסדי לא יסור ממנו … ונאמן ביתך וממלכתך עד עולם …

And I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals; but I will never withdraw My favor from him...Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure…

Through this interpretation, Astruk creates a common thread of rebuke within the first four blessings given by Ya’akov to Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehudah.

The Blessing as a Commandment

Ramban maintains that in Ya’akov's blessing of Yehudah the terms “shevet” and “mechokek” refer to the kingship, and the term “Shilo” refers to “Mashiach”. He solves the questions raised by Abarbanel alternatively by suggesting that the blessing is actually not a prophecy regarding the future, but rather a commandment prohibiting members of the other tribes from assuming the kingship:

ולא ימשול אחד מאחיו עליו … כי הוא ימשול ויצווה בכל ישראל ולו חותם המלכות … ולפי דעתי היו המלכים המולכים על ישראל משאר השבטים עוברים על דעת אביהם ומעבירים נחלה…. וזה היה עונש החשמונאים שמלכו בבית שני. כי היו חסידי עליון ואלמלא הם נשתכחו תורה ומצוות מישראל, ואף על פי כן נענשו עונש גדול, כי ארבעת בני חשמונאי … נפלו ביד אויביהם בחרב.

And none of his brothers will rule over him... but he will rule and command all of Israel, and he will have the seal of royalty... In my opinion, the kings from other tribes, who ruled over Israel after David, went against the wish of their father Jacob by diverting the inheritance of Yehudah to another tribe…. This was also the reason for the punishment of the Hasmoneans, who reigned during the Second Temple. They were saints of the Most High, without whom the learning of Torah and the observance of commandments would have been forgotten in Israel, and despite this, they suffered such great punishment. The four sons of the Hasmonean …fell by the sword of their enemies…

Thus, the blessing constitutes an affirmation of the eternal right of the tribe of Yehudah to the kingship, and, as a result, the prohibition relating to the other tribes.

Continuous But Not Exclusive Kingship

The Ran refutes the assertion of the Ramban, claiming that the blessings of Ya’akov were not delivered as commandments, but as a preview of events that would unfold:

וזה הפסוק אינה מצווה ולא אזהרה לבאים אבל הקדמת הידיעה ממה שיקרה…. אבל על דעתי הפרשה הזאת רומזת לכל שבט ושבט מה שיקרנו … וכן ביהודה ידבר על דרך ההודעה וההבטחה, כלומר מה שיחטאו מלכיה עדיין לא יגיע ענשם שתסתלק ותסור מהם הממשלה לגמרי…. ואין ממלכי חשמונאי על זה קושיא כלל כי לא הבטיח שלא יתמנה אדם בשררה מן השררות אם אינו משבט יהודה. והמלכים אשר מלכו בבית שני לא היתה מצד עצמם כלל אבל הם כפקידים למלך פרס ורומי … מכל מקום אין כוונתו שלא תהיה מלוכה לאחד מאחיו אבל הבטיחו שלא תפסק משבטו לגמרי כל זמן שתהיה מלוכה לישראל. אבל בהיות ישראל בגלות אין מלך ואין שר לא הובטח שבט יהודה שתשאר לו ממשלה.

And this verse is not a commandment or a warning for future generations, but rather advanced knowledge of what will happen…. But in my opinion this section hints to each tribe what will occur…. So too, for Yehudah it provides information and assurance, that is to say that even though its kings will sin, their punishment will not reach the proportions of having the governance stripped from them entirely…. And the Hasmonean kings do not pose any difficulty, for he did not promise that none other than the tribe of Yehudah would be appointed to positions of power. And the kings who ruled During the time of the second Temple did not do so on the basis of their own qualities, but were agents of the kings of Persia and Rome…. In any case, his intention was not that there would not be any kingship for one of his brothers, but rather he promised him that the kingship would never completely terminate from his tribe as long as there would be a kingship in Israel. But the tribe of Yehudah was not promised to retain governance during the exile when there is no king or officer.

According to the Ran, Ya’akov’s blessing of Yehudah is an assurance that, although the kings of Yehudah would sin, the kingship would not be taken from them as long as the nation remained sovereign in its own land. After the destruction of the temple, he claims, the kingship did not have the same significance, as the Jewish leaders during the time of the second temple, including the Hasmonean kings, were actually puppets of the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires.

A Promise of Eternal Prominence

In answering his own question, Abarbanel also disregards the rule of the Hasmonean kings as a difficulty. He claims that the terms “shevet” and “mechokek” do not refer to kingship, but to a position of leadership and stature among the other tribes:

כי יעקב אבינו לא זכר מלכות בביאור אבל אמר שבט והוא כל מנוי ומעלה והנהגה ושררה וזאת היא אשר לא תסור מיהודה. וכבר מצאנוה בו לפני מלוך מלך בישראל הנה יהודה היה גדול באחיו גם בימי יוסף…גם למסע דגלים… תמיד השבט והשררה ביהודה והכבוד על שאר השבטים. וכאשר נתנה המלכות לדוד ולזרעו נתקיים יותר "לא תסור שבט מיהודה". גם אחרי שגלה יהודה מעל אדמתו לבבל נתקיים "לא תסור" – אלו הם ראשי גלויות שבבבל.

For our father Ya’akov did not mention the kingship explicitly, but used the term “shevet” to refer to any appointment or position of leadership and power. That is what would not depart from the tribe of Yehudah. And we already find before a king ruled in Israel that Yehudah was great among his brothers even during the time of Yosef…also during the travels according to standards…always the power and honor of the tribe of Yehudah was greater than that of the other tribes. And when the kingship was given to David and his descendants, the promise of “it shall not depart from the tribe of Yehudah” was more fully fulfilled. Also after the exile of Yehudah from his land to Babylonia, “it shall not depart” was fulfilled – they were the heads of the dispersed community (exilarchs) in Babylonia.

According to Abarbanel , even after the destruction of the first temple and the dissolution of the monarchy, the descendants of Yehudah occupied the significant leadership roles in the Jewish community as the heads of the Sanhedrin and as the exilarchs. Abarbanel sees the continued dominance of the tribe of Yehudah throughout the prolonged exile as a fulfillment of Ya’akov’s blessing of Yehudah, and an assurance of the ultimate advent of Mashiach ben David.


[1]Rashbam is referring here to the Christian messianic interpretation of the verse, which was the source of disputations during his time.

[2]Shaul was from the tribe of Binyamin, the full brother of Yosef (i.e. also the son of Rachel)'s brothers.

The above image originally appeared on the jacket of the Nehama Leibowitz printed series © WZO/JAFI and is reproduced here with permission from the online series © The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI.