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The Blessing of Yissachar

יששכר חמר גרם רבץ בין המשפטים. וירא מנוחה כי טוב ואת הארץ כי נעמה, ויט שכמה לסבל ויהי למס עובד. (בראשית מט:יד-טו)

Yissachar is a strong donkey couching down between the sheepfolds. And he saw that rest was good, and that the land was pleasant; and he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant to tribute. (Bereshit 49: 14-15)


The Biblical text is filled with allusions to animals. In the blessings of Ya’akov, we find five references to animals: the lion, the donkey, the snake, the gazelle, and the wolf. While in most cases the metaphoric allusion of each animal is clear, in the case of the donkey this is not so. It is not apparent in what way Yissachar is compared to a donkey. The donkey can be viewed as a diligent work animal, or as a lazy animal that always requires prodding. To which donkey is Yissachar similar?

Just as the metaphoric donkey could allude to contradictory qualities, so too, the blessing of Yissachar itself reflects a tension between the apparently contradictory characteristics of “rest” (מנוחה) and “labor” (עבודה). To which does Yissachar truly aspire? The tension between these two characteristics in the blessing of Yissachar finds expression in the commentaries.

Yissachar, the Diligent Worker

R. Yosef Albo claims that these contradictory aspirations are actually necessary complements of each other:

מדרך ההפכים להימצא האחד בסוד חברו…. לא תבוא השמחה כי אם לאחר העיצבון … וכן מנוחה לא תבוא כי אם אחר היגיעה…. וזה שאמר ביששכר… לפי שהיה יששכר כוסף המנוחה והתענוג וראה כי הארץ טובה להתענג בה נטה שכמו לסבול … היה יגע תמיד כדי שישתכר ויהיה לו ממון שיוכל לנוח אחר כך; וכדי שיוכל להתענג גם כן לקח ארצות לעבודה והיה נותן מהם מס וזהו "ויהי למס עובד".

It is the nature of opposites that one is found as a secret ingredient of its partner…. Joy only comes after sadness … and so too rest only comes after labor.… And this is what was stated with regard to Yissachar: … becauseYissachar longed for rest and pleasure, and saw that the land was good for enjoyment, “he bowed his shoulder to bear” - …he labored constantly in order to earn a living and have money so he could rest after that; and in order that he could have pleasure, he also took land to work and payed tribute, and this is the meaning of “and became a servant to tribute”.

There exists in Albo’s interpretation a certain irony, implying that Yissachar’s desire for “menuchah” (rest) requires him to engage in difficult labor. According to Albo, Yissachar is driven by a materialism that is reflected in the similarity between the Hebrew words for donkey (“chamor”) and for materialistic (“chomrani”).

Yissachar, the Lazy Worker

The commentary Rechasim Lebika portrays Yissachar in a more negative light than does Albo:

יששכר חמור גרם: בעל עצמות דל ובשר רזה המצונן הרבה משאר חמורים, שכולם מצוננים, ודל הבשר ביותר – כן יששכר מצונן עצל, רובץ תמיד בין מקום שפיתת קדרות להתחמם, אוהב המנוחה כעצל ממאן לצאת למלחמה, ובוחר להיות למס עובד.

Yissachar is a bony donkey: with sickly bones and thin meat who is always colder than the other donkeys, who are all cold, and much skinnier – so Yissachar was cold and lazy, couching between the pots on the fire in order to warm himself, loving rest as a lazy person as opposed to one who goes out to war, and choosing to be a servant of tribute.

This interpretation portrays Yissachar as one who works to the minimum and evades military service, probably preferring to do neither. Apparently, Rechasim Lebika based his interpretation on the following Talmudic statement: “A donkey is cold even in Tammuz” ("חמרא אפילו בתקופת תמוז קרירא ליה"). The extremely cold nature of Yissachar is caused, according to Rechasim Lebika, by his skinniness and by his lack of activity.

As the previous commentaries demonstrate, Ya’akov’s blessing of Yissachar can be construed as a rebuke rather than as a blessing. When looking at the structure of Ya’akov’s blessings, however, we find that the blessings that involve rebuke (Reuven, Shimon, and Levi) provide an explanation for the reprimand. In the case of Yissachar, no such explanation is given. This might support those commentators who view the blessing of Yissachar as a positive declaration rather than as a rebuke.

Yissachar’s Role in the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael

Rashbam, as Albo, views the donkey metaphor as a reference to diligence. He, however, does not view the work component of the blessing as a necessary means toward the ultimate goal of “menuchah”, but rather as a value unto itself:

יששכר חמור גרם - לא כזבולון שהולך עם עוברי ימים לסחורה, אלא עובד אדמתו יהיה כחמור בעל אברים חזק בין המשפתים, תחומי העיר לחרוש ולעבוד את האדמה כדכתיב (ישעיהו לב:כ): "אשריכם זורעי על כל מים משלחי רגל השור והחמור".

וירא - יששכר מנוחת האדמה כי טוב יותר מלצאת למרחקים, ואת הארץ כי נעמה ומצלחת כדכתיב (דברים יב:ט): "אל המנוחה ואל הנחלה". ויט שכמו לסבול ויהי למס עובד לתת למלכים עישור תבואותיו….זה עיקר הפשט ובשורת עושר היא לשבט יששכר.

Yissachar is a strong donkey: Not like Zevulun who travels the sea as a merchant, he works his land like a donkey with strong limbs between the sheepfolds, the areas of the city for plowing and working the land, as it says (Yeshayahu 32:20): “Blessed are you who sow beside all waters,that let the feet of the ox and the donkey range freely.”

And he saw: Yissachar (saw) that resting on the land was better than going out to far off places, and that the land was pleasant and successful , as it is written (Devarim 12:9): “to the rest and the inheritance”. And he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant to tribute, to give tithes of his produce to the kings…. This is the essential simple meaning, and it is a tiding of wealth for the tribe of Yissachar.

Rashbam portrays working the land as an inherent component of “menuchah”, in contrast to the itinerant life of the merchant embodied in Zevulun. In his interpretation, the concept of “menuchah” relates not to physical rest from labor, but to the settlement of the land of Israel (ישוב הארץ) as reflected in the verse in Devarim.

All three of the previous commentaries relate to the donkey in the blessing of Yissachar as a reference to qualities that are actually exhibited by donkeys. Midrash Rabbah, on the other hand, views the donkey in more of a figurative sense, as a topographical description of the land that Yissachar will settle:

יששכר חמור גרם מדבר בארצו – מה חמור זה נמוך מכאן ונמוך מכאן וגבוה באמצע כך בקעה מכאן ובקעה מכאן והר באמצע: בקעת אכסלו ובקעת יזרעאל….

ויט שכמו לסבול – עולה של ארץ ישראל.

Yissachar is a strong donkey speaks about his land – just as a donkey is short on this side and short on that side with a high place in the middle, so too (his land) will have a valley on this side and a valley on this side and a mountain in the middle – the valley of Aksulo and the valley of Yizrael ….

And he bowed his shoulder to bear – the yoke of the land of Israel.

According to the midrash, the inheritance of Yissachar will encompass valleys and hills. The midrash bases its interpretation on the description of division of the land in Yehoshua 19:18. This midrash supports the opinion of the Rashbam by claiming that Ya’akov is informing the tribe of Yissachar that their destiny is to contribute to the settlement of the land of Israel through their agricultural pursuits. In this sense, they will “bear the yoke of Eretz Yisrael”.

Yissachar, the Warrior

Targum Onkelos views the contribution of the tribe of Yissachar to the settlement of Israel in the conquest itself. Unlike Rechasim Lebika who portrays Yissachar as one who evades military service, the Targum views him as a warrior:

יששכר עתיד בנכסין …וחזא חולקא ארי טב ויט ארעא ארי מעבדא פירין ויכביש עממיא וישיצי ית דיריהון ודיאשתארון בהון יהון ליה פלחין ומסקי מסין.

Yissachar is wealthy in property …And he saw that his portion was good and that the land produced fruits, and he conquered the borders of the peoples and expelled their inhabitants. And those who remained were servants to him to pay him tribute.

The interpretation of Onkelos differs from that of the Rashbam with regard to the phrase “and became a servant to tribute” (ויהי למס עובד). The Rashbam views the reference to tribute in the blessing as an indication that Yissachar will pay tax to the kings of Israel, while according to Onkelos , it indicates that the indigenous population will pay tax to Yissachar after the conquest. The Rashbam relates the blessing to the period of the kingship, while Onkelos relates it to the period of the judges. The interpretation of Onkelos implies that the conquest will not be complete – that some of the Canaanites will remain in the land under the sovereignty of Yissachar. This issue is debated in the continuation of the previously cited midrash:

ויהי למס עובד - ר' אליעזר אומר כל השבטים הניחו יתרות ושבטו של יששכר לא הניחו יתירות. ר' שמואל בר נחמן אומר אף שבטו של יששכר הניח יתרות אלא שהיו בעלי מסים.

And became a servant to tribute - R. Eliezer said: All of the tribes left remainders (Canaanites that were not driven out)[1], but the tribe of Yissachar did not leave remainders. R. Shmuel bar Nachman said: Even the tribe of Yissachar left remainders, but they payed tribute.

Both R. Eliezer and R. Shmuel bar Nachman agree with Onkelos that the tribe of Yissachar exceeded the other tribes in the success of the conquest of its inheritance in Eretz Yisrael. R. Eliezer’s opinion that the tribe of Yissachar completely expelled the remaining Canaanites from its land, however, disagrees with the latter part of the interpretation of Onkelos . R. Shmuel bar Nachman agrees with Onkelos on this point, claiming that only the tribe of Yissachar collected tribute from the Canaanite population that remained in Israel after the conquest.

Yissachar, the Servant of God

We opened our analysis of the blessing of Yissachar with R. Yosef Albo who saw Yissachar as the diligent worker of the land (“oved ha’adamah”). Albo claims that the blessing portrays Yissachar, as well, as a servant of G-d (“oved Hashem”):

ורבותינו אמרו ברבה דרבה: "וירא מנוחה כי טוב" – אין מנוחה אלא העולם הבא.

Our Rabbis said in Rabbah D’Rabbah: “And he saw that rest was good” – rest only refers to the world to come.

In a similar fashion, Rashi portrays Yissachar as a Torah scholar who will provide instruction for the other tribes:

יששכר חמר גרם - …סובל עול תורה כחמור חזק שמטעינין אותו משא כבד… ויט שכמו לסבל - עול תורה.

ויהי לכל אחיו ישראל למס עובד - לפסוק להם הוראות של תורה.

Yissachar is a strong donkey -… Bearing the yoke of Torah as a strong donkey who us loaded with heavy packages… And he bowed his shoulder to bear - The yoke of Torah.

And he was for all of his brothers, Israel, a servant to tribute - deciding Torah instruction for them.

Conclusion

The overwhelming majority of the commentators view the blessing of Yissachar as the harbinger of a great future. Whether as a diligent worker of the land, a warrior, or a servant of God, Yissachar was destined to stand out as a paradigm of strength among the tribes of Israel.


[1] R. Eliezer’s position is based on the fact that the list of tribes that did not succeed in driving out all of the Cannanites at the end of chapter 1 of Shoftim does not mention Yissachar.

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.