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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

לע”נ אמי מורתי מרים בת יצחק ורבקה ז”ל למילוי שנה לפטירתה – ט’ בטבת תנצב”ה

Dear Haverim,

The following is a new essay which will be included in the revised and greatly expanded edition of Between the Lines of the Bible, volume 1, which Urim Press and OU Press will be publishing towards the end of the summer. Enjoy!



The five verses which comprise Jacob’s deathbed “blessing” of Judah (Gen. 49:8-12), have long been the focus of many a scholarly study; both the intimations of royalty alluded to in the middle verse as well as the geographic and agricultural markers seemingly identified in the final verse have been discussed, analyzed, utilized and exegetically (as well as homiletically) interpreted by both classical as well as modern scholars.

I’d like to focus our attention on the curious mention of Shiloh (written with ending vav) in the middle verse. I will present a brief survey of the scholarship until this point and then suggest an alternative understanding of the mention of Shiloh here – a suggestion that will be premised on several larger points about the history (and ur-history) of the Israelites as well as an observation about the socio-political makeup of the people during the key periods which impact on this blessing – Jacobite settlement, enslavement-Exodus and conquest-settlement of the Land.


A Survey of the Scholarship

The mention of Shiloh is, broadly speaking, interpreted in two ways; the first, adopted by a few of the classical commentators, is as the name of the town in the territory of Ephraim that would later house the Tabernacle (Joshua 18:1, 1 Samuel 1-4, Jeremiah 7:12). The second is, briefly put – not that town; i.e. a range of interpretations that read שילה as something besides a toponym.

We will briefly survey the range of approaches that read Shiloh as something besides the toponym. Every one of these interpretations is anchored in Midrashic literature – citations follow the synopsis of each commentator below.

The Rabbis (BT Sanhedrin 98b) suggest that Shiloh may be a name – but a proper name, that borne by the Messiah.

Saadiah Gaon (882-942, Baghdad) suggests that Shiloh is a poetic form of shelo – i.e. “that which is his”, alluding to monarchic rule. (Gen. R. 98:8, 99:8). (LXX seems to have the same read). Onkelos seems to combine the suggestion from Sanhedrin with this, interpreting it as “until Messiah will come, to whom the monarchy belongs”.

R. Solomon b. Isaac (“Rashi” – 1040-1105, France), after citing that interpretation, quotes the Midrash, supporting its contention from Psalm 76:12, that Shiloh is a compound of shai lo – gifts will be brought to him (gifts here understood as tribute). (Pesikta Zutra Gen. 49)

R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain) proposes four different interpretations – underscoring the challenge of interpreting this verse. He first quotes the שלו (“that which is his”) take – already mentioned by Saadiah and Rashi; he then suggests two variations on the word both meaning “child” or “offspring” (shiliah or shalil) and, for his final take, he cites those who interpret it about the city of Shiloh. We will return to this interpretation. (Peskita Zutra ibid)

Other commentators, including R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, R. David Kimhi (“Radak”) and Gersonides, either adopt one of these approaches or read שילה as the place-name – with surprisingly creative and varied twists – as outlined below.

R. Obadiah Seforno (1470-1550, Italy) does add a new etymological wrinkle – he proposes that Shiloh is a compound of two words – shalu (as in “bottom”) and shalom – that the Judean descendant will have endless (bottomless) peace in his day. This is, as far as I can tell, unattested in any earlier work and is apparently Seforno’s innovation.


Ad ki yavo Shiloh- “until he comes to Shiloh”

Although nowhere in Rabbinic literature is the verse explicitly interpreted as referring to a particular place – the town of Shiloh – an interpretive tradition exists which supports this read.

It is no surprise that the first commentator to suggest that שילה refers to the town is ibn Ezra (although he indicates that “some interpret it as”, he doesn’t tell us who these commentators are); he then assumes that it means “until Shiloh is destroyed” – כי יבא being read as בא השמש (the setting of the sun) i.e. that Judah’s time will not come until Shiloh’s time is over – he supports this from the verses at the end of the historiosophic psalm 78. The difficulty with this explanation is that the promise of Judean rule is given as lasting until Shiloh (in this case, until its destruction) and not commencing at that point. In other words, שילה is an end-point for Judean rule, not a beginning, as ibn Ezra would have us read it.

R. Samuel b. Meir (“Rashbam” – 1085-1158), again to no one’s surprise, adopts the “straightforward meaning” of the verse (as referring to the town) and addresses our challenge admirably. He understands that Judah will, indeed rule until coming to Shiloh; he explains this as referring to Rehob’am (Solomon’s son), when he came to the city of Shchem (Rashbam: it is near Shiloh) to be crowned as the third Judean monarch. At that point, the people demanded that he lower taxes, he took the (bad) advice of his boyhood chums and threatened to raise taxes even more – at which point, the people rebelled and that was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the united Judean empire – all of this is explicit in the text of I Kings 12.

The difficulties with this approach (from a traditional perspective) are, essentially, two: The lack of any mention of Shiloh as a significant location anywhere in the Patriarchal narratives makes the sudden interjection of this locus a bit jarring. Secondly, as Rashbam himself accedes, Shiloh is near Shechem, but is not Shechem. We might be tempted to defend Rashbam by asking us to consider Jacob’s prophecy as approximate – as we find in the case of many Divinely given prognostications (see BT Berakhot 55a). This is difficult, however, as Shechem was a well-known and centrally located town that played a great role in Jacob’s settlement period (Gen. 34; see the allusion at Gen. 48:22) and he would hardly have “missed” it by a few miles and mentioned Shiloh in its stead.

R. Hizqiyah b. Manoah (“Hizquni”, c. 1250-1310) paraphrases Rashbam’s comment and adds a helpful piece which addresses the problem we raised above – that the kingdom will belong to Judah until such time as it is torn away by the directive of the prophet, Ahiyyah, who hailed from Shiloh (hence, “Ahiyyah haShiloni” – 1 Kings 11:29). Ahiyyah is the prophet who encountered Jeroboam and anointed him, tearing the garment into twelve symbolic pieces and announcing the Divine punishment of the cessation of the majority of the nation from Judah’s rule (ibid. v. 30).

Another innovative approach to the mention of Shiloh here was advanced by Homburg (1749-1841) in his “Hakorem” – the reference to Shiloh is aimed at Samuel the prophet, born of his mother’s fervent prayers at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1) and who would be the prophet to anoint a king from the house of Judah (hence, the nations “gathering” is a reference to the tribes gathering at Ramah to demand that Samuel “give us a king” [1 Sam. 8:4-5]).


That which will befall you at the end of days

Earlier in this essay I suggested that the vast range of comments on our verse can be divided into those that see Shiloh as the name of the town (or a reference to events taking place there) and – everybody else (with a spectrum of interpretations and meanings). I would like to propose that there is another binary division that may make more sense in assessing the exegetical history of this passage – between those who see Jacob’s prophecy as “long-range” (i.e. alluding to Messianic times) and those who view it as “short-range” – in other words, relating to either the Exodus and subsequent conquest or to the later (by approximately 400 years) division of the kingdom at Shechem.

In and of itself, the premise raises a thorny problem – why are we to assume that Jacob’s words here were prophetic at all? He opens the session by informing his sons that he wants to tell them “what will befall you at the end of days” – but nothing in his words seems to speak to any apocalyptic scenario; indeed, his first two addresses (to Reuben and to Simeon and Levi together) address these sons’ wayward behavior, Jacob’s disapproval and his subsequent acts to remove or limit their power. Jacob’s words to Zebulon, Dan, Gad and Asher seem to be futuristic, but may be supporting the particular talents each of these sons has demonstrated in their lives; Zebulon as (potentially seafaring) merchant, Dan and Gad as fighters and Asher as provider of precious goods. The blessings to both Naphtali and Issachar seem to be directed towards their own abilities – as fleet of foot and diligent at work, respectively. His blessing to Benjamin, again, seems to have no meaning (nor realization) as a prophecy aimed at near or distant future. Indeed, the only other long blessing goes to Joseph – and that is descriptive of his attractiveness, travails and ultimate position among his brothers.

Therefore, we might want to reexamine the blessing given to Judah in this context and read it as descriptive and directive – and not prophetic – and to then interpret our passage along those lines.


Go to My Place which is in Shiloh

Before proposing a solution to the riddle of “Shiloh” in our verse, I’d like to suggest that the significance of that Ephraimite town itself needs to be explored.

The establishment of the sanctuary and tabernacle at Shiloh is noted in Joshua 18:1 – before that point, with the exception (it will be argued) of our verse, Shiloh is not yet mentioned – nowhere else in the Five Books, and only as a border marker (“Ta’anat Shiloh”) in Joshua 16:6. No reason is given for the establishment of the “place that God will choose to make His name dwell” at Shiloh; perhaps a proper explanation of our verse will also provide the rationale for Joshua’s selection.

We often think of the relationship between the nation and the Land – and specific loci in the Land – as beginning primarily with the conquest under the leadership of Joshua. Of course we are all aware that Jacob “renamed” Luz to Bethel, that all of the patriarchs lived in both Hebron and Beersheba – yet we don’t typically associate settlement and identification with particular areas in the Land with the period of the “Avot”.

Yet a simple read of Genesis presents a different picture – Abraham built an altar in Shechem (Gen. 12:6-7), built altars and called out in God’s Name on the north-south route between Bethel (to the west) and Ha’ai (to the east) (ibid. v. 8). As has been frequently suggested, settlement in the Jacobite period, between the return from Haran to the descent to Egypt, is clear, is regional and has great impact on the future settlement to take place when their descendants return home.

In all of that narrative, the heartland of the Patriarchal settlement and enterprise was in the mountain region from Shechem to the north to Hebron to the south; Judah’s “leaving his brothers” (Gen. 38:1) involved his going to Timnah (a future city of Judah!), which is down the slopes of the Judean mountains (“Shephelat Yehudah”); Simeon and Levi conquer Shechem and, as is evidenced by their herding father’s flock in that area (far from Jacob’s home in Hebron), have their own financial interests in that area.

As such, the perspective of the sons of Jacob – and of that patriarch himself – was likely that they were beginning the process of settlement, continuing the mission of their great-grandfather Abraham; all of them operating in the orbit of Abraham’s original path, southward from Shechem along the mountain road.

The small town of Shiloh is situated on the road south from Shechem, north of the well-known and much larger Bethel/Luz. Abraham almost assuredly passed by (or through) the site that would become Shiloh. I’d like to propose that Jacob selected Shiloh as the place where his sons’ descendants would build an altar to call out in God’s Name, to continue the mission that is the raison-d’etre for – and justifies – the conquest and settlement of the Land.

That said, what is the ultimate purpose of this shrine? Put differently – how are the sons of Jacob and their descendants to relate to this place and, in parallel, to each other?

The overall impression of Jacob’s deathbed blessing is that each of the sons and his progeny has a specific location, task, economy and role to play within the body politic. In other words, Jacob’s vision is not that of a single nation, rather of a federation of tribes who are unified by their allegiance to the mission to be a blessing to the world, to the privileged task of bringing God’s Name to humanity and, thereby, to be a source of blessing for all of mankind. In other words, the goal is not to reside together but to operate in concert to continue the national destiny. What is it that holds the center? In a politically-defined society, it is the seats of power; in an economically-defined society, it is the vaults of wealth; in a spiritually-oriented society, it is the Tabernacle.

The vision was to establish a national “hub” at Shiloh, picking up off of the mission and the path taken by its first commander, and to have all of the families of Jacob view it as the hub of their national wheel, the center that defines the perimeter.


Ad ki yavo Shiloh – Shiloh as End-Point

If we accept the foregoing, that Jacob’s intent in these blessings is to guide the family’s structure and direction, the Judean passage fits elegantly. Jacob began by “demoting” the first three brothers, Reuben for one reason (the Bilhah episode) and Simeon and Levi for a common reason (likely the massacre at Shechem) from the mantle of leadership of the clan – as it stood at that time.

Judah had proven himself to be the leader of the brothers – both in his persuasive words to the brothers in the matter of the sale of Joseph and his success in convincing father to allow Benjamin to come down to Egypt with him. That the brothers saw Judah as their leader is evidenced by their response to the former event (both of these crises, parenthetically, are points where Reuben abjectly failed, not only as leader but also as brother). Father’s esteem for his fourth son is seen by his choosing Judah to lead the way and prepare Goshen for his arrival. (Gen. 46:28).

Jacob names Judah as head of the family after his death – since “your brothers acknowledge you”. He is then described – as Jacob describes Issachar, Naphtali, Dan and Benjamin – using an image from the animal world. Judah is the lion of the family – the ferocious leader to whom all show obeisance.

Now to our verse:

Lo yasur shevet miY’hudah – the scepter of leadership shall not depart from Judah.

In other words – Judah is not only the leader while father is alive – father is willing him the leadership of the family after his death to hold, as it were, the scepter of rule.

Nor a lawgiver from between his legs – in spite of Shadal’s claim that kings would hold a scepter at their feet, the simple read of this refers to “fruit of the loins”. Given that Jacob has been promised that God will bring him back up to the Land (Gen. 46:4), at which time the families of his children will disperse to their own economies and regions, he is extending Judah’s rule over the brothers to his progeny – until such time as the notion of a single leader among the brothers becomes passé.

Ad ki yavo Shiloh – this is to be Judah’s position until the national spiritual hub is established at Shiloh; the inauguration of a solid foundation of the Tabernacle demonstrates that the “era of the tent of dwelling” is over and the people will have turned a new page to an era of tribal identity oriented towards a common middle. Jacob is simultaneously willing his sons to establish that national hub at Shiloh – as per above – but at the same time directing them that once that has become a “fact on the ground”, there is no need for a single leader among the brothers. It will be time for each tribe to find their own leaders and council of elders – as happens after the establishment of Shiloh.

Velo Yik’hat Amim – the amim (nations) here are the tribes as we find, for instance, in Deut. 33:3 (see Rashi, ibn Ezra and Nachmanides ad loc) and ibid, v. 19. When the tribes gather at שילה to dedicate the משכן, that will be the point at which Judah’s reign will cease and each tribe will rule over himself, as we find during the Shoftim period until David came and united the tribes into one nation – a restoration of the Egyptian-Joshua model.

The final two verses of Judah’s blessing confirm this read. The mixture of red and white, wine and goat’s milk, speaks directly to the territory we know as Judah’s territory – a territory in which his descendants will remain, looking northwards towards that great national center which keeps Judah in the south, Asher in the north, Reuben and Gad on the east bank and Ephraim and Manasseh in the heartland unified in their national quest to fulfill the mission of Abraham.

We have assayed the various approaches to the riddle of “Shiloh” in Jacob’s blessing. Suggesting that it is a reference to the Ephraimite town, I proposed that we read it in its context – not as a “far-range” (Messianic/apocalyptic) nor even as a “close-range” (settlement period) prophecy, rather as a directive to set up the national-spiritual center in Shiloh along the Abrahamic route. The brothers are to obey the leadership of Judah and his children until such time as they arrive in the Land, establish that national center and then disperse to their intended tribal settings, glued together by the common history of the Patriarchs and the Exodus and by the common destiny of realizing the great goal of the Divine mission given to Abraham.



Stepping back from the semantic field for a moment and viewing this directive/prophecy within a historic context – where Jacob was and what he reasonably anticipated of his descendants – we were able to gain a fresh perspective, specifically towards the import of Shiloh within the next few stages of Israelite history. Doing so, we re-assessed the key preposition “‘Ad” and interpreted Jacob’s words as directed towards the return and not beyond, at which point they may be living in a tribal federation.

It is to the other possibility, that they would, one day, form a united people and look to a single sovereign, that the rest of Jacob’s blessings are directed, as we will see in the next chapter.

Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.