In the Torah portion of Vayechi
, Yaakov blesses his sons (Gen. 49 1 – 47
). The first six children that he blessed (or rebuked) were the sons of Leah: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Zevulun, and Yissachar.
This article will focus on the blessing to Yissachar especially as it relates to his tribe’s renown for excelling in Torah study.
The text of the blessing reads (ibid 49:15 – 16
) “יִשָּׂשכָר חֲמֹר גָּרֶם רֹבֵץ בֵּין הַֽמִּשְׁפְּתָיִם. וַיַּרְא מְנֻחָה כִּי טוֹב וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ כִּי נָעֵמָה וַיֵּט שִׁכְמוֹ לִסְבֹּל וַיְהִי לְמַס עֹבֵד׃ – Yissachar is a bony donkey, lying between the boundaries. He saw a resting place that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear burdens, and he became an indentured laborer.”
According to our sages (Nedarim 20b
and in many other sources) the tribe of Yissachar included many great Torah scholars. This is based on the verse in Divrei HaYamim I (12:33
) where, in describing how the members of various tribes came to support King David, it says “וּמִבְּנֵי יִשָּׂשכָר יוֹדְעֵי בִינָה לַעִתִּים לָדַעַת מַה יַּעֲשֶׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל רָאשֵׁיהֶם מָאתַיִם וְכׇל אֲחֵיהֶם עַל פִּיהֶם – And of the sons of Yissachar, those who had an understanding of the times, to know what Israel should do; their chiefs were two hundred, and all their brethren obeyed their word.”
The reference to “understanding the times” is understood (see Radak
on the verse based on various sources) to mean that these men were members of the Sanhedrin who would calculate the Jewish calendar which, in turn, was the basis of the Jewish people’s celebration of the holidays throughout the year. This is the meaning of “to know what Israel should do.”
Halachic Rulings with Gentleness
The Talmud says (Yoma 26a
) that all Torah scholars that render halachic rulings are either from the tribe of Levi or Yissachar. The commentaries explain that this means that all those who render halachic rulings should follow the examples set by these two tribes.
Both of them would render their halachic rulings in a manner that could be understood and accepted by those who sought those rulings. Regarding the tribe of Levi, it says (Deut. 33:10
), יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַֽעֲקֹב וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל – “They shall teach Your ordinances to Yaakov, and Your Torah to Yisra’el…”
This can be understood that they would teach the simple Jews (Yaakov) in one manner and the more sophisticated ones (Yisra’el) in another manner. Similarly, the tribe of Yissachar is described (see above) as having בִינָה לַעִתִּים – “wisdom for the times.” This can mean that they understood how to give over wisdom in a manner that was appropriate for that time (Zikaron BeSefer by Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Singer, on Yoma ibid).
The Meaning of the Blessing
In light of this, the blessing of Yaakov is interpreted by many of the commentaries to be referring to Yissachar’s diligence in Torah study. (There are other interpretations of these blessings, but we will focus on the ones relating to Yissachar’s Torah study.)
“Yissachar is a Bony Donkey”
- Yissachar bears the yoke of Torah like a strong donkey that bears its load (Rashi).
- No Warfare
The tribe of Yissachar did not go out to war (like a donkey which is not used in battles in contrast to a horse) since they were involved in Torah study. This is in accordance with the Talmudic saying (Avodah Zarah 17b
), “If one is a scholar, he cannot be a swordsman (Seforno
The key to success in Torah study is spurning physical pleasures, as our sages said (Tana Devei Eliyahu 26
), “Instead of praying that the words of Torah enter your mouth, pray that delicacies not enter your stomach” (i.e., this will assist you in your Torah study). As such, Yissachar’s blessing is that he should break his physical pleasures. This is alluded to in the words, יִשָּׂשכָר חֲמֹר גָּרֶם. The word גָּרֶם can mean to break (see Numbers 24:8 where עַצְמֹתֵיהֶם יְגָרֵם means “He will crush their bones”) while the word חֲמוֹר can refer to hedonism (seeYechezkel 23:20
) [HaKetav Vehakaballah
(using the im hakolel
method) of the word חֲמוֹר is 255 which is the number of the 248 positive mitzvot of the Torah plus the 7 Rabbinic mitzvot. The word גָּרֶם is the same letters as גְמַר which means to complete. This refers to the fact that a Torah scholar should learn about all the mitzvot, and it will be considered as if he kept them completely (Chidah in Penei David,ot 13).
The Midrash says (Bereisht Rabbah 99:10
) that חֲמֹר גָּרֶם means that he was caused by a donkey. This alludes to the fact that, on the night Yissachar was conceived, his mother Leah became aware of his father’s returning to the camp by the braying of his donkey. This enabled her to inform Yaakov that it was “her night” as she had paid for it with her son’s flowers (see Gen. 30:14 – 18).
Yaakov was therefore alluding to Yissachar when he said the above blessing. He meant, Since you were born by Divine intervention [by G-d Who caused the donkey to bray], you owe your life to G-d and should therefore devote it to Him by studying extra Torah (Etz Yosef
“Between the Borders”
A Torah scholar must find the right balance between the physical and spiritual. He cannot completely reject the needs of his physical body as his body is the home for his soul and enables him to serve G-d. This is why Hillel would say when he would tend to his bodily needs “I am going to do a favor to my host (Vayikrah Rabbah 34:3
).” Along the same lines, the Talmud says (Ta’anit 11b
) that a Torah scholar who fasts (an extra, voluntary fast) it is as if a dog ate his meal (i.e., he has not accomplished anything) since the fasting decreases his ability to focus on his studies. This is the meaning that Yissachar would “crouch between the borders,” that a Torah scholar must be careful to balance his devotion to Torah with caring for his (and his family’s) physical needs (Chatam Sofer
“Between the borders” refers to the fact that a Torah scholar will have material success as well as spiritual success, as the verse (Mishlei 3:16
) says, “He has long days on the right side with wealth and honor on the left side (Kli Yakar
“And the Land was Pleasant”
Yissachar’s intense toil in Torah was a pleasure for him as the verse says, “He saw that rest was good and that the land was pleasant (Radak
“And He Bent his Shoulder to Serve”
This refers to the fact that a Torah scholar should serve the community not only by teaching them Torah and by providing Halachic rulings for them but also by overseeing the physical affairs of the community (to make sure that these are done in a Torah manner), as it says in the Talmud (Moe’d Kattan 6a
), “When there is a Torah scholar in the city, all affairs of the city are thrust upon him (Seforno
“And He was a Indentured Laborer”
- Supplier of Halachic Rulings
Yissachar was like a laborer for the Jewish people as his tribe would answer their halachic inquiries and establish their calendar system (Rabbeinu Bachaye
This verse can be interpreted to mean that the Jewish people will be laborers for the Torah scholar (so that he has the necessary time to study and teach Torah), as the Talmud says (Shabbat 114a
), “The members of a city should do the work for the Torah scholar (Seforno
- Would Take Care of Guest Students
Many Torah students would travel to the territory of Yissachar to study Torah under the great scholars of that tribe. Othermembers of the tribe would host these guests and take care of their needs. This is the meaning of “And he was like a toiling laborer,” i.e., to attend to those guests (Tur Ha’aruch
“I Am Giving you Slavery!”
This calls to mind the incident in the Talmud (Horayot 10a
and b) when Rabban Gamliel tried to appoint two Torah scholars (Rabbi Eliezer Chisma and Rabbi Yochanan ben HaGudgoda) to leadership positions in the community. He was doing this because he had found out that they were destitute and he wanted them to have paid positions as heads of the Yeshivah. When they did not accept the positions (presumably out of humility), he said to them, “Do you think I am giving you positions of high stature? I am giving you positions of servitude!” We see the same with the (wise) advisors of Rechavam who told him (Kings I 12:7
), “If you will be a servant to this nation…”
The Heart of the Community
The Maharal (In Chidushei Aggadot) explains that the position of a king (or any communal leader) is to serve his flock. In this sense he is like a heart compared to all the limbs of the body. The heart provides the nutrition for all of the limbs and, as such, is their servant even though they all depend on it.
The reason that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan refused (at first) to accept the positions offered to them despite their poverty is because they felt that having positions of authority would diminish their subservience to G-d Almighty. Rabban Gamliel explained to them that a true leader remains humble and sees himself as an servant to his community. As such, accepting these positions would not diminish their subservience to G-d (Ohr Yechezkel quoted in Kaftor VaFerach of the Metivta Shas on Horayot ibid). On the contrary, until now they only had to be careful that their private actions were in accordance with G-d’s will. Whereas from now on they must ensure that all of the community’s actions are done in accordance with G-d’s will (Tiferet Shlomo on Parshat Korach cited in ibid).
Conceived on Shavuot
HaKadosh explains that Yissachar’s special connection to Torah began with his conception as he was conceived on the night of Shavuot (the day that the Torah would later be given). This is derived from the verse (Gen. 30: 14)
describing the event leading to his conception, where it says that “Reuven went in the time of the wheat harvest.”
This is referring to Shavuot which is celebrated at the time of the first harvest of the wheat. As the Midrash says (Rut Rabbah 4:2)
that whenever the verse refers to an unspecified wheat harvest it refers ro the first wheat harvest which was sacrificed as the Sh’tei HaLechem (first wheat loaves brought on Shavuot).
May we merit to bear the yoke of Torah with great pleasure!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!