Tomb of Maccabees?
Tomb of Maccabees? Skyview / IAA

Parashat Vayechi records, inter alia, the prophecies which Ya’akov Avinu (Jacob our Father) pronounced concerning his twelve sons, the founders of the twelve Tribes of Israel: “Ya’akov called to his sons, saying: Gather round, and I’ll tell you what will happen to you at the end of days” (Genesis 49:1).

Now there is disagreement among our commentators if these are prophecies of the times of the mashiach (the Messiah), or if they refer to other events.

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish), Ya’akov wanted to reveal the End of Days (meaning the times of mashiach) to his sons, but before he could do so, the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) departed from him (Pesachim 56a); this is also the interpretation of the Rabbis (Bereishit Rabbah 98:2).

According to Rabbi Simon, he wanted to show them the downfall of Gog (ibid.).

Rabbi Yehudah said he wanted to show them the building of the third and final Holy Temple (ibid.).

Rabbi Yehudah similarly cited Rabbi Elazar bar Avina as saying, “To two people the End [i.e. the final Redemption] was revealed, but it was then hidden from them: Ya’akov and Daniel” (ibid.).

Rashi says that “He wanted to reveal the End to them, but before he could do so the Shechinah departed from him, so he began speaking of other matters instead” (commentary to Genesis 49:1).

Hence the interpretation that Shimon’s and Levi’s “conspiracy” (v.6) refers to Zimri, of the Tribe of Shimon, who consorted with the Midianite princess and thereby brought disastrous plague upon the Children of Israel (Numbers 25:6-16), and their “congregation” (v.6) refers to Korach, of the Tribe of Levi, and his cohorts who mounted a rebellion against Moshe (Numbers 16:1-17:15).

Zevulun is destined to dwell by the sea-shore (Genesis 49:13), which indeed was his territory as allocated in the days of Joshua (Joshua 19:10-16); it is disputed if the sea-shore here refers to the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, or both.

As for Dan – “Dan will judge [or “avenge”] his nation, all the Tribes of Israel as one” (Genesis 49:16), which the Talmud (Sotah 10a) and various Midrashim (Bereishit Rabbah 98:11, Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5, Tanhuma Vayechi 12 et al.) interpret as applying to Shimshon (Samson), from the Tribe of Dan, who waged guerrilla warfare against the Philistines.

This is also the understanding of Rashi and the Ohr ha-Chayim (although the Rashbam rejects this out of hand).

And likewise Ya’akov’s prophecy for Gad: “Gad גָּד]] – a troop [גְּדוּד] will troop over him [יְגוּדֶנּוּ], but they will all return safely [יָגֻד]” (Genesis 49:19).

The consensus of the commentators is that this is a prophecy of how the Tribe of Gad whose territory was in trans-Jordan fought exceptionally tenaciously west of the River Jordan to liberate the Land for all Israel during the conquest under Joshua and for the subsequent few centuries.

The general trend emerges that Ya’akov’s prophecies here pertain not to the end of days in the sense of the times of mashiach, but rather to various events which happened at different times throughout Jewish history.

Of all these prophecies, the Masoret (the Tradition) gives special prominence to the one concerning Yehudah (Judah), his fourth son:

“Yehudah – it is you that your brothers will acknowledge. Your hand will be on your enemies’ neck, your father’s sons will bow to you. Yehudah is a lion-cub – from the prey, O my son, you have arisen. He crouches, lies down like a lion; and like a powerful lion, who will dare rouse him? The sceptre will not depart from Yehudah, nor Torah-scholars from among his descendants, until Shiloh shall come – and then the nations’ assemblage will be his” (Genesis 49:8-10).

The special prominence which the Masoret gives this blessing is expressed in at least two ways:

First, the Haftarah (1 Kings 2:1-12), which records the death of King David and the passing of the kingship to his son, Solomon, echoes or complements the theme of the parashah by continuing the subject of kingship in Israel – and specifically the kingship belonging to the Tribe of Yehudah.

Second is the location of Ya’akov’s blessing to Yehudah: in the hand-written Torah-scrolls, this blessing invariably begins a new column.

Almost every printed Chumash contains a Masoretic note attached to the word יְהוּדָה (Judah):

בראש עמוד בי"ה שמ"ו סימן

The words בְּרֹאשׁ עֲמוּד mean “at the top of the column”, indicating that the word יְהוּדָה (Judah) is the first word in the column.

Standard hand-written Torah-scrolls consist of 245 columns, almost all of which begin with the letter ו (vav). This is the way that the Masoret directs that Torah-scrolls be written. But six columns begin with specified letters:

The first column begins with the ב of בְּרֵאשִׁית (“in the beginning”);

The 59th column begins with the י of יְהוּדָה (“Yehudah – it is you that your brothers will acknowledge”);

The 78th column, containing the Song at the Red Sea, begins with the ה of הַבָּאִים (Pharaoh’s army “who were coming” – Exodus 14:28);

The 132nd column begins with the ש of שְׁנֵ (“both the he-goats” – Leviticus 16:8);

The 184th column begins with the מ of מַה טֹּבוּ (“How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov” in Balaam’s blessing – Numbers 24:5);

And the 242nd column, containing Moses’ song of Ha’azinu, begins with the ו of וְאָעִידָה (“and I will call as witnesses heaven and earth to testify” – Deuteronomy 31:28).

These six letters spell out the phrase בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ (“with YAH, His Name”), taken from the verse, “Sing to G-d, sing songs of praise to His Name, laud Him Who rides the heavens with YAH, His Name” (Psalms 68:5).

Indeed, all six of these columns in the Torah contain poetic testimony to G-d’s mastery over heaven and earth: Creation, Yehudah’s kingship, the Splitting of the Sea, Balaam’s submission to G-d’s will, heaven and earth’s testimony. And all Ya’akov’s prophecies to his twelve sons are prophecies of times yet to come, times in which G-d’s direct and personal intervention in human history for the sake of His nation Israel is manifest.

G-d’s intervention in human history, His guidance of events for the sake of Israel, is a constant of history from beginning to end. Whether the regional famine which brought Ya’akov and his sons down to Egypt in order to being the long-decreed exile, or the decades-long sequence of events which eventually led to the Assyrian conquest of Israel, or the 12-year sequence of events recorded in Megillat Esther, or the Maccabbees’ victory over the Seleucid Empire, or Israel’s impossible, miraculous victories over immeasurably vaster Arab armies in 1948, 1967, and 1973 – G-d’s control over history is one of the few constants of history.

And so it is eminently consistent that Ya’akov’s blessings to the Tribes can apply equally to events 250 years later or 3,600 years later.

Yehudah’s kingship began with King David, some six-and-a-half centuries after this blessing of Ya’akov’s. It was cut off with the Babylonian invasion of Yehudah some half a millennium later, and will be restored in the future time to come.

And now we come to two somewhat abstruse singularities in the final phrase of Ya’akov’s blessing to Yehudah:

לֹא יָסוּר שֵׁבֶט מִיהוּדָה וּמְחֹקֵק מִבֵּין רַגְלָיו עַד כִּי יָבֹא שִׁילֹה וְלוֹ יִקְּהַת עַמִּים

“The sceptre will not depart from Yehudah, nor Torah-scholars from among his descendants, until Shiloh shall come – and then the nations’ assemblage will be his”.

The first singularity is the word שִׁילֹה, “Shiloh”. It is written שִׁילֹה, with a ה, but read שִׁילֹו with a ו. Hence the ambiguity of this blessing.

“Until Shiloh come”, and “Shiloh” being an appellation for mashiach, follows Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, Rashi, and others; hence “The sceptre will never depart from Yehudah…until the days of mashiach”.

This of course suggests that the monarchies from other Tribes – the monarchies of Israel (the northern kingdom after the split) and of the Maccabbees (Kohanim, of the Tribe of Levi) were not ideal.

Others understand שִׁילֹה to be a poetic form of שָׁלוֹם, peace: hence “The sceptre will never depart from Yehudah…until peace comes”.

Others read שִׁילֹה as שִׁילֹו, following the קרי-form, meaning “his”, and understand it to mean “The sceptre will never depart from Yehudah…until everything that he is destined to have will have been fulfilled”.

I tentatively suggest an alternative rendering:

“The sceptre will not depart from Yehudah…until he comes to Shiloh – and then the nations’ assemblage will be his”.

Here I suggest a reference to the Maccabbean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, whose victory we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago on Hanukkah. The first battle which Yehudah the Maccabbee initiated against Seleucid forces was the battle fought in 167 B.C.E., in the area today called Wadi Haramiyeh, 30 km (19 miles) almost due north of Jerusalem (considerably longer by the road which winds its way through the Samarian mountains).

This battle, in which 600 Maccabbean soldiers defeated 2,000 Seleucid troops, was fought in the mountain-pass just a few dozen metres west of Shiloh, where the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) had stood for 369 years.

In historical terms, this was a pivotal event in the sequence which eventually led to the Maccabbean dynasty claiming the Israelite Crown (even though the first Maccabbean leader to use the title “King” was Aristobolus in 104 B.C.E.).

Hence “the sceptre will not depart from Yehudah…until he come to Shiloh” – it was near Shiloh that another dynasty from another Tribe took the sceptre, “and then the nations’ assemblage will be his” when the Maccabbean dynasty was internationally recognised as the legitimate rulers of Israel.

The other singularity in this blessing is in the word יִקְּהַת, “assemblage”:

וְלוֹ יִקְּהַת עַמִּים, “then the nations’ assemblage will be his”. The letter ק in the word יִקְּהַת has a dagesh (a dot in the middle), which has no grammatical reason to be there. What does this unwarranted dagesh signify?

This is the first of four places in the Torah where a ק has a dagesh for no grammatical reason.

The second is ten verses later, in Jacob’s prophecy to Dan: “Dan is a snake along the way, a viper along the path, which bites the heels of the horse so its rider falls backwards” (Genesis 49:16-17).

In this verse, there is a dagesh in the ק in the word עִקְּבֵי (“the heels of”).

The third is the ק in the word מִקְּדָשׁ (Sanctuary), in the Song at the Red Sea: “You will bring them and implant them on the Mountain of Your Inheritance, the foundation of Your dwelling-place that You have wrought, O Hashem – the Sanctuary, my Lord, that Your hands established” (Exodus 15:17).

And the fourth is the ק in the word קְּעָרֹתָיו (its dishes), in describing the accoutrements of the Tabernacle in the desert: “You will make its dishes and its spoons…” (Exodus 25:29).

On the word מִקְּדָשׁ in the Song at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:17), the Minchat Shai says simply: “The ק has a dagesh to glorify it”.

Extrapolating from the Minchat Shai’s comment, just as the dagesh in the ק in the word מִקְּדָשׁ glorifies it, so too does each unwarranted dagesh in each ק in the Torah.

In Genesis 49:10, the dagesh in the ק in the word יִקְּהַת (assemblage) glorifies Judah’s kingship: royalty in Israel glorifies Israel, and by extension glorifies the G-d of Israel. When the assemblage of nations recognises Yehudah’s sovereignty over Israel, G-d’s Name is sanctified.

Dan’s victory over Israel’s enemies, wrought by Shimshon, similarly glorified Israel. The מִקְּדָשׁ glorifies Israel. The accoutrements of the Tabernacle in the desert glorify the Tabernacle, and by extension glorify Israel.

When as with King David’s kingship, as with the Maccabbees’ victory over the mighty Seleucid Empire, as with Israel’s victories and successes in our own generations, Israel’s glory is G-d’s glory.

It is through His nation Israel that G-d is glorified in this world. It is by recognising Israel that entire world will ultimately “laud He Who rides the heavens with YAH, His Name”.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.

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