Rabbi Bernard Fox



“Zevulun will settle by the seashores and he shall be at the ships’ harbor.  His border shall extend to Sidon.  Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey.  He rests between the burdens.” (Beresheit 49:13-14)

Yaakov addresses his sons before his death.  He rebukes or blesses his various children.  As is evident from the above pesukim, his message is not always easily understood.  Yaakov’s comments to Zevulun indicate that Zevulun’s descendants will settle by the seashore of the land of Israel and will engage in maritime trade.  However, the meaning of his comments to Yissachar is more difficult to unravel.

The translation above is derived from the comments of Sforno.  Sforno understand the passage as describing the future duties and responsibilities of Yissachar’s descendants.  His descendants will be spiritual and communal leaders within the nation.  They will devote themselves to the study of Torah and to providing Torah leadership to Bnai Yisrael.   Yaakov tells Yissachar that although these are both heavy burdens – challenging responsibilities, he is confident that Yissachar and his descendants will have the strength to carry this burden.

Our Sages comment that there was a close relationship between these two Shevatim – tribes.  Shevet Zevulun engaged in trade and generated considerable wealth.  With this wealth, Shevet Zevulun helped support the scholars and Torah leaders of Shevet Yissachar.  Because Shevet Zevulun made possible the endeavors and efforts of Shevet Yissachar, its members received reward for the efforts they made possible.

Sforno points that the Torah does not legislate the relationship between Yissachar and Zevulun.  They developed this relationship through mutual agreement.  However, the relationship is not novel or unique.  In fact, the Torah does legislate a similar relationship.

Hashem did not provide Shevet Leyve with a conventional portion of the land of Israel.  Instead, Shevet Leyve was provided with cities distributed throughout the land.  This portion was not designed to be sufficient to support the Shevet.  Instead, the Shevet was supported through the tithes that were given to the Leviyim.  The Kohanim – who are a family within Shevet Leyve – received tithes and a portion of the sacrifices offered in the Bait HaMikdash.  Why did Hashem not provide Shevet Leyve with an equal inheritance in the land of Israel?  This is because Shevet Leyve was to be dedicated to and assigned the task of serving in the Bait HaMikdash. Its members were also to be completely devoted to the study of Torah.  The tithes and support that they would receive from the rest of the nation would enable Shevet Leyve to fulfill its responsibilities.

In short, Sforno explains that in such a relationship the reward earned for the study of Torah and providing Torah leadership is shared both by the scholar and his supporter.  But Sforno offers a fascinating proof and explanation for this thesis.  Before we can consider this proof some background is required.

The Mishne in Tractate Sanhedrin explains that all members of Bnai Yisrael have a place in Olam HaBah – the world to come.  Maimonides uses this Mishne as a starting point for his discussion of the thirteen fundamental principle of the Torah – the Ikkarim.  But before outlining his principles, Maimonides explains the meaning of the term Olam HaBah.  He explains that Olam HaBah is a term used by the Mishne to refer to the afterlife.  A person who lives the proper life is assured that his soul will survive his material demise.  When he passes from this live, his soul will live on in eternity. 

Based on this interpretation of Olam HaBah, Maimonides deals with the obvious question on the Mishne.  According to Maimonides, Olam HaBah is the greatest possible and ultimate reward.  It is reasonable to assume that this reward is reserved for those who have achieved some level of righteousness.  Yet, the Mishne seems to indicate that a person gains access to Olam HaBah simply by accident of birth.  If one is Jewish, he is admitted into eternity.  Certainly, Olam HaBah must be somewhat more exclusive!

Maimonides resolves this issue by defining another term in the Mishne.  The Mishne asserts that any Yisrael has a place in Olam HaBah.  What is the meaning of Yisrael in this context?  Maimonides explains that the Mishne does not mean that any person who is born into the Jewish nation or converts to Judaism is admitted to Olam HaBah.  Instead, the Mishne means that a person who adopts and is committed to the fundamental convictions of a Yisrael is admitted to Olam HaBah.  Maimonides explains that this specifically does not mean that the person must be perfect in his observance.  On the contrary, even a person who is somewhat flawed in his observance can gain entry.  But the person must be complete and uncompromised in his convictions.  He must accept and fully embrace the fundamental tenets of the Torah.  This conclusion leads Maimonides into his discussion of the tenets.  In this discussion he outlines his thirteen Ikkarim.[1]

Sforno – in considering this Mishne – was bothered by the same issue as Maimonides.  How does the accident of birth earn a person a place in Olam HaBah?  However, he comes to a very different conclusion.

According to Sforno, Bnai Yisrael is charged with a sacred mission.  This mission is the study of Torah and the service of Hashem.  However, this is a national mission.  We do not fulfill this mission merely by our own individual efforts.  The mission is national.  Therefore, we fulfill our individual responsibility through our participation in and support of the national mission.

In an integrated community effort there is a distribution of roles and responsibilities.  For example, we are all citizens of the United States.  In order for the United States to thrive, we cannot all be President.  We cannot all be medical doctors or lawyers.  Who would the lawyers sue?  In a thriving community we must all contribute in unique and different ways.

The same analysis applies to Bnai Yisrael.  In order for our national mission to be achieved, we must all contribute. But we do not contribute in the same manner.  If we each make our appropriate contribution, then the mission can be achieved.  If we abandon our individual responsibilities and refuse or decline the privilege to participation in the efforts of Jewish community, then the mission cannot be achieved.

Based on this insight, Sforno provides an alternative explanation of the Mishne.  We achieve Olam HaBah through assuming our responsibilities as members of the Jewish community.  The term Yisrael in the Mishne does not refer to a person who is born Jewish.  It refers to a person who accepts the responsibility of being an effective member of the Jewish community and contributes to the nation mission.  If we are part of the nation – by sharing in the mission, then we are assured a place in Olam HaBah.  If we decline the privilege of involvement in this mission, then we forfeit our place in Olam HaBah.

Sforno notes that this interpretation of the Mishne supports and explains the assertion that Zevulun shared in the reward earned by Yissachar’s efforts.  Together they created a community. The two partners in this community had different but complimentary roles.  By contributing to the efforts of the community that they created, they achieved much more than they could have achieved individually.  They both shared in the rewards earned by this community for its integrated, mutual effort.[2]

It should be noted that although Sforno disagrees with Maimonides’ interpretation of the Mishne, this does not mean that he objects to Maimonides’ conclusions.  Maimonides contends that Olam HaBah is a reference to the afterlife and he analyzes the Mishne from this perspective.  However, it is unlikely that Sforno understood the term Olam HaBah in this manner.  In his commentary on the Torah, Sforno refers to Olam HaBah in numerous places and it seems from these references that he does not agree that Olam HaBah is a term for the afterlife.  Instead, he seems to understand the term as a reference to the Messianic era.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that he maintain that the Mishne is discussing the Messianic era and not the afterlife. 

Sforno’s interpretation of the Mishne is consistent with this assumption.  Sforno understands the Messianic era as a period in which the ideal Torah community will be established. According to his interpretation of the Mishne, it is telling us that those who wish to participate in this ideal community must earn this privilege through their participation in the community during their own time and era.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 49:13-14.