The Torah portion of V’Zot HaBracha, read a few days ago on Simchat Torah, concluded the annual cycle of reading of the Torah. It records how Moses, in one of his final acts, blessed each of the Tribes of Israel. Two brothers, Issachar and Zebulon, were treated anomalously. This and other aspects of their blessings have sparked an entire body of literature seeking to understand the nature of the relationship between them.
The Torah reading[i] itself only alludes to the relationship between the two brothers. But, the classical Bible commentators portray it as a compelling example of common goals, shared efforts and love between two brothers. It is often referred to as the Issachar-Zebulon arrangement. An allusion to it is also found in Genesis[ii], where Jacob similarly blesses his sons, Issachar and Zebulon, the progenitors of the Tribes, which bear their names.
The basic starting point for many of the commentators is the question of why Zebulon was blessed before his older brother of Issachar. Typically, the older brother takes precedence. It is presumed that there is some special reason for departing from this traditional ranking of the brothers and their Tribes, by age.
There is one predominant answer, which is given by many sources to this question. The Tribe of Zebulon merited being blessed first, because they provided some sort of financial support to their brethren in the Tribe of Issachar. This enabled the members of the Tribe of Issachar better to devote themselves to Torah. But for this support, Issachar would not have been able to do so. The exact nature of the benefit provided differs in a number of the accounts.
The Sifre on the text in Deuteronomy[iii] describes how the Tribe of Zebulon would act as the agent or broker for their brothers in the Tribe of Issachar. Zebulon would sell the merchandise Issachar produced to the nations of the world. Similarly, Zebulon would acquire merchandise from around the world and deliver it to Issachar, who would sell it, locally. Thus, the Tribe of Issachar was enabled to remain at home farming and doing local business under this arrangement between the two Tribes.
Each Tribe made a tangible contribution to the relationship. Issachar was blessed with an allotment of fertile and marvelously productive farmland[iv] in the Land of Israel. They expertly cultivated it and delivered the wonderful crops it yielded to the ports, which were located in Zebulon’s allotment in the Land of Israel. From there, Zebulon transported the produce, in its fleet of ships, for sale in the world markets. Zebulon was the trader, who sold Issachar’s merchandise throughout the world. As a part of the trading mission, Zebulon also acquired products from around the world, which they provided to Issachar to sell locally. It was this combination by both of capital and work effort, in pursuit of common goals, that made the relationship so successful. The arrangement permitted each brother to play to his particular strength. Zebulon was the outside man, who distributed the merchandise Issachar, the inside man, produced on his farms. Since, the members of the Tribe of Issachar did not have to travel the world to sell their produce[v] and acquire merchandise to sell locally, they had more leisure time. They, therefore, were better able to devote themselves to studying Torah. Nevertheless, this did not mean that Zebulon did not also study Torah. They just couldn’t devote as much time to it. Under this arrangement, they both shared in the burdens and benefits of the business, as well as, the goal of perpetuating the Torah, in common.
The Midrash Tanchuma[vi] echoes the themes of the Sifre and notes how Zebulon was happy to travel to secure merchandise for the benefit of Issachar, who remained at home. If not for Zebulon, the tribe of Issachar would have been unable to devote themselves to studying Torah, intensively, so as to become experts in arcane and abstruse areas of the law[vii]. Instead, Issachar would also have been required to be fully engaged in trade.
The Tanchuma[viii] employs the term “omel”, meaning hard work (as opposed to ordinary work), in describing how Issachar avoided a substantial commitment of time and effort to the business of trade. This left more time for scholarly activity. It did not exclude work entirely. Zebulon provided Issachar with a convenient means by which they could support themselves, locally. Not having to spend the time and effort to travel and trade, worldwide, they had more free time, which they devoted to Torah study. The Tanchuma encapsulates the relationship between the Tribes by citing the verse in Proverbs[ix], which expresses how Torah is a tree of life to those who grab hold of it and its supporters are fortunate.
The Midrash Rabbah, in discussing Jacob’s blessings in Genesis[x], notes how Issachar would bring their produce to the ports of Zebulon, which would then be exported to the world markets by sea. It goes on to describe how the world would marvel at the extraordinary character of the produce. Zebulon would reply that if the buyers were amazed at the quality of the merchandize, then they would be even more astonished if they beheld the quality of his brethren, in the Tribe of Issachar, who produced the fruit.
Rashi provides an interesting insight into the character of Issachar[xi]. He remarks that Issachar was like a restless mule[xii], walking by day and night. When Issachar desired to relax, he would amble between the borders of the territories, at the edge of towns, transporting bundles of merchandise there. Rashi[xiii] also focuses on the phrase that Issachar saw rest was good. He interprets it to mean Issachar saw his portion of the land was blessed and good for growing fruits. As the Radak notes[xiv], it yielded a bounteous harvest, without a great deal of effort. This afforded Issachar a life of ease. Issachar was, therefore, able to shoulder the burden of the yoke of Torah, which required much effort and dedication. Rashi posits that Issachar found no rest, at home in the pursuit of Torah scholarship; hence, Rashi’s allusion to Issachar finding relaxation in delivering bundles of merchandise to Zebulon at night.
Rashi[xv] also focuses on the phrasing of the blessing that they would be sustained by the abundance of the sea. He explains that this refers both to Issachar and Zebulon. It is indicative of their being in business together. The wealth generated by this resource afforded both of them the freedom to devote themselves to Torah. Correspondingly, their material success is attributable, in no small measure, to their devotion to Torah.
The Sforno[xvi] provides a most intriguing insight into the character of Issachar. He is like a mule, which carried two saddlebags, one on each side. One represented the yoke of Torah and the other the yoke of earning a living and leadership. This is befitting a wise person, complete with good character traits and a sound mind. Carrying both these burdens is a balancing act. However, the complete person maintains this balance.
It is suggested that the various Bible commentators, noted above, share a common conceptual vision of the ideal person. The context of their discussions is about the nature of the balance between an individual’s pursuit of spiritual progress and the mundane requirements of physical existence. The Issachar model emphasizes the spiritual pursuit through Torah study. It does not, however, exclude the need to earn a living. Rather, it posits that applying extraordinary effort to the realm of work is not an ideal. Work is important; but studying Torah is more important. Hence, extraordinary efforts should be applied to the study of Torah and ordinary efforts should be applied towards earning a living.
This does not detract from the fact that manual labor[xvii] and doing business[xviii] are viewed most positively. Indeed, the Talmud[xix] is replete with discussions concerning the majesty and importance of work. It is a compliment to Torah scholarship, in the makeup of the complete individual.
The Rambam speaks[xx] of how a person should conduct himself in practice. He states that first he must establish himself with an occupation that yields him a livable income. Then he should buy a house to live in. After that he can get married and raise a family. He rails against those who presume to change this order in the way they conduct their lives, choosing, for example, to marry first and then first pursue a means of making a living. He is particularly disparaging of those, who through circumstances of their own making, are forced to resort to begging for charitable support.
Rabbeinu Yonah also echoes this point of view in his commentary on the verse in Ecclesiastes[xxi], which states that wisdom is good when it is coupled with an inheritance. He explains that this means all Torah that is not coupled with work ultimately is lost and causes sin. If a person does not earn his sustenance by the labor of his own hands, then his situation causes him to love gifts and, thereby put his life at risk[xxii]. Rabbeinu Yonah cautions that the person will rationalize fooling people in order to obtain money.
Rabbeinu Yonah expresses similar thoughts in his commentary on Avot[xxiii]. It states that it is good to combine Torah with a worldly occupation and all Torah, which is not integrated with work, will ultimately fail and lead to sin. He adds that someone who doesn’t work and just studies Torah will become a crook or gambler. He’ll be forced to bring stolen property into his house in order not to starve. When he is involved in these kinds of illicit activities his spirit is not quenched and he doesn’t have rest and quiet. He will also be mired in sin, because one sin causes another[xxiv].
On the other hand, combining Torah and work has the effect of removing the influence of the evil inclination. This is because, when a person labors in Torah and work, the evil inclination has no dominion over him. Doing both saps a person of the excess of energy and ardor that often lead to sin. The opportunity to sin is also limited because there is no time to waste.
The Talmud[xxv] teaches that the combination of Torah and a worldly occupation[xxvi] yields a person good in this world and it is well with him in the world to come. The Talmud[xxvii] also notes how good it is for a person to work and be financially self-sufficient. As Psalms[xxviii] expresses it, when you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you. Therefore, a sage needs to know a craft
Issachar and Zebulon were two brothers on a mission, together. As partners, they accomplished much in the realm of business and scholarship. The Talmud advises that combining Torah and a worldly activity is a sustainable model, which will yield success in both endeavors. However, pursuing one activity to the exclusion of the other is likely to result in success in neither. As Rabbeinu Yonah notes, the complete sage is at ease in both realms. It is a model, with a demonstrable track record of success, which we can all adopt.
[i] Deuteronomy 33:18-19.
[ii] Genesis, Chapter 49, verses 13-15.
[iii] Section 354, dealing with the text of Moses’ blessing of the tribe of Zebulon.
[iv] See Onkelos’ translation of Genesis 49:14-15. He interprets it to mean Issachar was rich in possessions and that his portion of the land was good and produced fruit.
[v] The Sifre also contains a parallel (if somewhat abridged) account to that of the Midrash Rabbah. It reports how people so marveled at the produce of Issachar, sold by Zebulon throughout the world, that they came to the land of Israel, to see its source. They then traveled to Jerusalem in an effort to understand what animated this wonderful nation of Israel and they were very impressed.
[vi] Genesis, Chapter 49, Verse 13 (Section 11 of the Tanchuma).
[vii] See Chronicles I, Chapter 12, Verse 33.
[viii] The Tanchuma makes similar comments on Jacob’s blessings in Genesis 49:13 (Section 11 of the Tanchuma).
[ix] Chapter 3, Verse 18.
[x] 49:14 (Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 98, Section 12).
[xi] Genesis 49:14.
[xii] The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson and a Tosafist, interprets the metaphor of Issachar being compared to a mule, differently. He explains that Issachar worked the land, plowing and seeding it.
[xiv] In his commentary on Genesis 49:13-14, based on the Midrash Rabbah.
[xvi] In his commentary on Genesis 49:14.
[xvii] See, for example, Psalm 128; Avot 2:2 and Avot 6:4.
[xviii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates: Pesachim 113a; Yevamot 63a; and Chulin 84a-b.
[xix] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate, Kesubot at page 59b, where Rabbi Eliezer says in the Mishna that can compel a wife to work, even if she comes to the marriage with 100 servants, because idleness leads to sin. Rabbi Gamliel says that if a husband vows that his wife is prohibited to work, then he must divorce her and pay her the monetary amount under her Ketubah. This is because idleness leads to insanity. See also Nedarim 49b and Bava Batra 110a. See further Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11:1, which, among other references to the majesty of work, notes that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar stated that Adam did not taste any food until he had done work. In support thereof, he cites Genesis 2:15 that G-d put Adam in the Garden of Eden to work and guard it and only thereafter, in verse 16, does the Bible state that Adam was permitted to eat from the fruit of the trees. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar also said the Shechinah did not rest on the Mishkan until the Children of Israel did the work to build it (citing Exodus 25:5). Also see Avot 2:2.
[xx] Hilchot Deot 5:11.
[xxi] Citing Ecclesiastes 7:11, as noted above.
[xxii] As Proverbs, 15:27 states, one who hates gifts shall live.
[xxiii] 2:2. See also Rav Ovadiah Bartenura on this Mishna, who makes similar comments. In essence, if a person holds down a full-time job and study Torah in the remaining time, then he is too busy (and exhausted) to think about sinning. As noted above, the Mishna (Kesubot 5:5) considers the matter of idle time and Rabbi Eliezer says it leads to licentiousness and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says it leads to madness.
[xxiv] See Avot, 4:2.
[xxv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 8a.
[xxvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 8a. It reports that Rabbi Chiya, the son of Ami, stated in the name of Ulla, that greater is the one who derives benefit (i.e.: of earning a livelihood) from the labor of his own hands than one who fears heaven and derives benefit (i.e.: his sustenance) from others. This teaching is derived from the Verse in Psalms (128:2) that if eat by the labor of your own hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you. The double phrasing of happy and good for you is interpreted to mean that you will be happy in this world and it will be good for you in the world to come.
[xxviii] Psalms, 128:2.