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From Parsha to Halakha Vayechi Yissachar – Zevulun Arrangements

Tevet 5784 | December 2023

The Tribe of Levi’s designation

Yaakov’s blessings to his sons at the end of Bereishit, as well as Moshe’s blessings to the tribes at the end of Devarim, illustrate the concept that different people and different tribes have different roles to play. Alongside the blessings, Yaakov scatters the descendants of Levi and Shimon among the other tribes of Israel.[1] At that time the nature of this dispersion was unclear – would it minimize or enhance their influence?

Over the generations the Tribe of Levi distinguished themselves through their dedication to serving God. As a result they were chosen to serve in the Temple and “teach Your statutes to Yaakov and Your Torah to Israel,” as they’re blessed by Moshe. The tribe’s dispersal among the other tribes of Israel turned out to be a blessing that serves its mission and enhances its influence.[2] Since the tribe performs a necessary spiritual role for the community, the members are supported by the other tribes “in exchange for their service.”[3]  On the other hand, the position and privilege come at a price – the Tribe of Levi is not given a standard portion of the Land of Israel.[4]

The Torah creates a partnership between Israel and the Levites – Israel provides for the material welfare of the Levites and the Levites provide for Israel’s spiritual welfare. The pursuit of Torah is a national interest. Since it’s not possible for everyone to dedicate their lives to Torah study, some are chosen to study, and then, as part of their collective responsibility, they pass on their expertise to others.

One who makes Torah his occupation

Chazal also discussed the value of individual Torah study. Every individual (male, women are excluded) is obligated to study Torah, “you shall study them,” and then “you shall teach them.”[5] As Torah study is considered a spiritually valuable pursuit, there is a mitzvah to set aside time  (kove’a itim) for daily Torah learning.

Beyond the individual mitzvah of Torah study, Chazal also emphasized the importance of individuals within the Jewish community who dedicated themselves to Torah study. Like all important matters in life, there need to be experts in Torah: “If a man plows when it’s time to plow, sows when it’s time to sow, reaps when it’s time to reap, winnows when it’s time to winnow, and threshes when there is wind – what will be with the Torah?”[6]

Since it’s impractical for everyone to make Torah study their primary occupation, Chazal taught that there’s a value in supporting Torah scholars.[7] Even when someone is personally unable to pursue this essential  mitzvah, they can become a partner through their financial assistance.

Yissachar – Zevulun arrangements

Consequently, the sages believed that individuals could also make such arrangements. The midrash teaches that the Tribe of Zevulun supported the Tribe of Yissachar financially so that they could benefit from the latter’s Torah: “Both Yissachar and Zevulun shared the Torah reward together and shared livelihood together.”[8]

According to Rashi, both Yaakov’s and Moshe’s blessings hint at this arrangement. In Yaakov’s blessing Zevulun dwells on the shore while Yissachar carries the yoke of Torah as a “strong beast of burden (lit. ass), crouching among the sheepfolds.”[9] Moshe’s blessing – “Zevulun rejoice in your journeys, and Yissachar in your tents” – refers to the arrangement between Zevulun who would go out to work and Yissachar who stayed in the tent of Torah to study.[10]

Chazal understood that different people have different physical, mental, and psychological aptitudes; so there’s a time and place for partnerships between people who gravitate towards business or development and those who sit and study. The value of Torah study does not begin and end with the individual student, the teachings radiate outward, the influence difficult to measure. These concepts are at the basis of the Divinely mandated arrangement between Levi and the other tribes, as well as the human initiated arrangement with Yissachar: “The Children of Yissachar knew how to interpret the times, to know what Israel should do.”[11] Torah can only thrive if there are people who are able to devote their time to its study; supporting these studies is a blessing that increases Torah knowledge and influence for everyone.

How does the arrangement work?

Zevulun works and makes money, and that money is also used to support Yissachar while he learns Torah. What does Zevulun get out of this?

The Rishonim and Acharonim discuss this, and ask if such relationships should be encouraged. The gemara teaches that the arrangement between Hillel and Shevna is preferable to the arrangements of Shimon and Azarya, his brother, and Rabbi Yochanan and Beit HaNassi (the House of the Prince).[12] Rashi explains that Hillel didn’t really benefit from his brother Shevna’s property, he continued to learn in poverty, whereas Shimon Achi Azayra (a tanna mentioned in Zevachim) was sponsored by his brother Azarya, and Rabbi Yochanan was sponsored by Beit HaNassi.[13] This makes it seem undesirable to give up the merit of Torah study for material profit.

Shulchan Arukh writes that, in general, if one is unable to learn he should support others who study Torah.[14] Previously, in Bedek HaBayit he brought Rabbeinu Yerucham’s opinion that agreements to split the profits between learners and earners should be made ahead of time; a Torah scholar can’t accept material reward in exchange for spiritual merit they already have.[15] Consequently, Rema brings a concrete suggestion to make an advance agreement to split material profits in this world and the spiritual merit of Torah study in the next world.

Such reward-sharing is not unique to this arrangement. Women are exempt from the obligation to study Torah, and until recently opportunities for women to learn were non-existent. Nevertheless, or perhaps correspondingly, the sages taught that when married women shoulder household responsibilities they are essentially supporting their husband’s Torah study and therefore both share in the reward.[16]

How can spiritual reward be divided?

Many Torah scholars seem uncomfortable with the idea of sharing spiritual reward. Some were bothered by the cold calculation that if a man’s wife gets half his reward and the benefactor the other half, nothing will be left for the individual scholar.[17] Others note that the Torah study itself has a unique effect on the person who is studying and their spiritual reality, and that this intangible is not the type of reward that can be split several ways. Consequently, some explain that the merit may be shared without diminishing from the principal (like a candle that can share its flame without diminishing its light), while others differentiate between merit from fulfilling the mitzvah, which can be shared, and the unique intangible effects Torah has on an individual and their surroundings, which cannot.[18]

While Chazal encouraged supporting Torah scholars, ensured that those who do so will be rewarded, and stressed the value of the benefactors, they maintain a clear distinction between these supporters and those who actually study.[19] Nevertheless, “if there is no flour, there is no Torah”.  Chazal understood that it’s impossible to produce Torah scholars who can traverse the breadth and depth of the Torah without significant support – from the community in general and dedicated individuals in particular. Therefore, in addition to the spiritual value, such material support is necessary for the practical enterprise of Torah study.

It’s important to note that such agreements can only be entered into voluntarily. Chazal admired people who choose to support Torah study, like Theodosius of Rome (Todos Ish Romi) who would “put merchandise in the pockets” of Torah scholars – meaning he would create merchandise and trade it on their behalf, using the profits to support their Torah study.[20] They also criticized Shmuel’s sons who would “take merchandise” from the community, meaning they forced such arrangements on those around them, compelling them to subsidize their Torah study.[21] Chazal clearly distinguished between voluntary and forced partnerships; when initiated by the business owners such arrangements are appropriate and praiseworthy, when those who study take such “perks” for themselves it’s akin to bribery.

Torah study is a tremendous value, all Jews should take part in the endeavor. Not everyone has the time or ability to dedicate to in-depth study, but financial contributions should be made willingly. Even with the initial legislated, mandatory arrangement between the Tribe of Levi and the other tribes, individuals chose the Levites who would receive their tithes.

Let’s conclude with Theodisius of Rome. Chazal described him as a “great man” because he supported Torah scholars. They quote a derasha of his in the gemara. The Netziv of Volozhin understood this as proof of the concept that the Torah finds a way to enrich the donors who provide the support vital for the Torah to grow and thrive.[22]

[1] Bereishit 49:7.

[2] Devarim 33:10.

[3] Bamidbar 18:21.

[4] ibid 23-34.

[5] TB Kiddushin 29b, based on Devarim 5:1, 11:19.

[6] TB Brachot 35b.

[7] TB Pesachim 53b; Berachot 34a; Shulchan Arukh YD 246.

[8] Bamidbar Rabba (Vilna) 13:17.

[9] Bereishit 49:13-14.

[10] Devarim 33:18. The plain meaning of the text is that they are shepherds – Yaakov and Yissachar dwell in tents. Yissachar is also described as dwelling between the “mishpatayim,” which is also used to describe Reuven in Devorah’s song (Shoftim 5:16). The meaning is debated, some explain it as sheepfolds.

Chazal explain that those who dwell in tents are Torah students. It’s possible to reconcile the two descriptions – shepherds are less connected to the land, and while they wander with their flocks they have time to ponder. From a practical standpoint, when the land was divided each tribe received a portion that was meant for agricultural development. Levi, who was meant to teach Torah to Israel, only received cities and the fields around them to pasture their flocks. Essentially, they remained shepherds who were disconnected from working the fields, and they are tasked with studying and teaching Torah.

[11] Divrei HaYamim I 12:33.

[12] TB Sota 21a.

[13] Mishna Zevakhim 1:1; TB Zevakhim 2a, Rashi “Shimon Achi Azaria” compared to Rashi Sota 21a. For dissenting opinions see Responsa Maharam Alshakar 101, who brings Rav Hai Gaon. Peleh Yoetz 124, “Chizuk b’yad lomdei haTorah.”

[14] Shulchan Arukh and Rema YD 246:1.

[15] ibid Beit Yosef and Darkei Moshe, in the name of Rabbeinu Yerucham V 23:1.

[16] TB Sota 21a.

[17] Such as Chida, Rosh David, Parshat Kedoshim and Maaracha 40.

[18] See Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 15:35; Ohr HaChaim Shemot 30:13; Responsa Meishiv Davar 14; the discussion in Igrot Moshe YD IV 37.

[19] The midrash (note 5) notes that Zevulun is mentioned first in the blessings, but Yissachar is first when the tribal leaders bring their offerings to the Mishkan. See also Bereishit Rabba 99:9 and Be’er Moshe, V’zot HaBracha.

[20] TB Pesachim 53b.

[21] Tosefta Sota 14:5; TB Shabbat 56a on the verse from Shmuel I 8:3.

[22] Responsa Meishiv Davar 14. See also Rav Asher Weiss who suggests that Zevulun’s reward is similar to that of someone who teaches Torah, because they allow Yissachar to learn Torah.

יששכר וזבולון

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.