By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:

לע”נ אמי מורתי מרים בת יצחק ורבקה הכ”מ

In Memory of Miriam Wise z”l Whose life blessed us with great love for the Land



The final 2 sections of Deuteronomy (Chapters 33-34) are comprised of Moses’ farewell blessing to the tribes and the story his ascent to Mt. Nebo, his death and eulogy and the successful transmission of his power to Joshua. We will return to this final scene at the end of this essay, but I’d like to focus our attention on the blessings.

The blessing section is made up of 29 verses, the first and last five of which are introductory and coda, respectively, leaving the middle 19 verses devoted to the specific tribes. In an earlier essay, I focused on the introductory verses as well as the coda; in this study, I’d like to focus on the tribal blessings. Even a cursory look will make it clear that there are numerous questions about structure, sequence, tone and content that make this beautiful passage as enigmatic as Jacob’s deathbed blessings (Gen. 49).


THE BLESSING: Note: I have left spaces of approximately 9 characters to indicate a Masoretic Parashah Stumah (closed paragraph break) and skipped to the next line to indicate a Masoretic Parashah Petuhah (open paragraph break).

    6 Let Reuben live, and not die in that his men become few. 7 And this for Judah, and he said: Hear, Hashem, the voice of Judah, and bring him in unto his people; his hands shall contend for him, and Thou shalt be a help against his adversaries. 8 And of Levi he said: Thy Thummim and Thy Urim be with Thy holy one, whom Thou didst prove at Massah, with whom Thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 9 Who said of his father, and of his mother: ‘I have not seen him’; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew he his own children; for they have observed Thy word, and keep Thy covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob Thine ordinances, and Israel Thy law; they shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt-offering upon Thine altar. 11 Bless, Hashem, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; smite through the loins of them that rise up against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again. 12 Of Benjamin he said: The beloved of Hashem shall dwell in safety by Him; He covers him all the day, and He dwells between his shoulders. 13 And of Joseph he said: Blessed of Hashem be his land; for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that couches beneath, 14 And for the precious things of the fruits of the sun, and for the precious things of the yield of the moons, 15 And for the tops of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the everlasting hills, 16 And for the precious things of the earth and the fullness thereof, and the good will of Him that dwelt in the bush; let the blessing come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the crown of the head of him that is prince among his brethren. 17 His firstling bullock, majesty is his; and his horns are the horns of the wild-ox; with them he shall gore the peoples all of them, even the ends of the earth; and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh. 18 And of Zebulun he said: Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out, and, Issachar, in thy tents. 19 They shall call peoples unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand. 20 And of Gad he said: Blessed be He that enlarges Gad; he dwells as a lioness, and teareth the arm, yea, the crown of the head. 21 And he chose a first part for himself, for there a portion of a ruler was reserved; and there came the heads of the people, he executed the righteousness of Hashem, and His ordinances with Israel. 22 And of Dan he said: Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan. 23 And of Naphtali he said: O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full with the blessing of Hashem: possess thou the sea and the south. 24 And of Asher he said: Blessed be Asher above sons; let him be the favored of his brethren, and let him dip his foot in oil.

QUESTIONS OF INCLUSION Simeon is apparently omitted from the blessing (see Rashi at Deut. 27:24) and the two tribes of Joseph are combined into one blessing, addressed to Joseph himself.

QUESTIONS OF SEQUENCE The sequence of the blessings is unusual as it follows neither birth order of the sons, nor the order of the camps nor is it divided by households (Leah vs. Rachel).

QUESTIONS OF STRUCTURE We also note that whereas most of the tribes’ blessings appear in isolated paragraphs (Parashot), the blessings given to Dan and Naphtali are combined into one Masoretic paragraph. (Note also that Reuben’s blessing at the beginning and Asher’s, at the end, run together with the introduction and coda, respectively). Furthermore, Issachar and Zebulon’s blessings are combined into one verse.

QUESTIONS OF CONTENT Reuben’s blessing seems to be more of a resigned “throwing up of arms” – “let Reuben live and not die”; Judah is blessed to have help from his enemies, which is odd, since Judah seems to be the most powerful of brothers. Levi is first introduced via the Urim veThummim – a phrase used only two (which are four) other places in the canon (Ex. 28:30 and its parallel at Lev. 8:8 and Ezra 2:63 and its parallel in Neh. 7:65). Benjamin is credited with having God’s presence “rest” between his shoulders, an odd description to be sure. The entire focus of Joseph’s blessing is on the bounty of his land; from this point on, all of the blessings seem to focus on the land occupied by that tribe – with Dan in the Bashan (far north and east of their allotted territory in modern-day Tel Aviv).

SUMMARY In short, the anomalies in the structure, sequence and content of the blessings beg attention and analysis.



Moses and David, arguably the two most impactful leaders in Israelite history, have much in common. Both worked for others as shepherds and were “taken from behind the flock to lead their people” (based on II Samuel 7:8). Both had to flee for their lives from the king. Both identified sanctified ground and so on. Perhaps most significantly, both focused the latter days of their careers on a national goal which became a personal crusade. David’s plaint to see the Temple built and to be able to worship there (see II Samuel 7; Psalm 27:4) echoes Moses’ desperate prayer to enter the Land, as he himself states in Deuteronomy 3. Both were denied these great goals and were promised that their chosen successors would be the ones to oversee these epochal moments – Joshua would lead the people into the Land and Solomon would build the Temple.

True to his great sense of historic responsibility, David spent his final years preparing the people for the Temple that he would never see. I Chronicles 6:16 ff. details the Levite families that David appointed as musicians and composers in the Sanctuary.

In much the same way, the entire book of Deuteronomy – which is Moses’ farewell speech – is focused on directing and encouraging the successful conquest of the Land. Successful conquest of the Land where his feet will never trod is his entire focus. The guidelines for centralized worship (ch. 12), the rules of engagement (ch. 20) as well as the speech’s final commands which focus on agricultural gifts from the Land (ch. 26) all point to the orientation of the “Mishneh Torah” as geared towards entering “Eretz K’naan” and the success of the metamorphosis to “Eretz Yisrael”.

Perhaps we ought to look at Moses’ final blessing to the tribes along these lines – as a blessing of successful conquest and settlement in the Land.



As I’ve pointed out in earlier shiurim, it seems from both the patriarchal narratives as well as Jacob’s deathbed blessing that some basic contours of settlement and division of the Land among the tribes was established after the family’s return from Laban’s household. Judah’s move to Timnah (Gen. 38:1), Joseph’s association with the region of Sh’khem (Gen. 37:12 ff.), and Benjamin’s birth (=Rachel’s death) “in his land” (Sifri Devarim #352) are examples of this observation. In my first volume, this observation was used to buttress the argument defending the reference to “Dan” (Gen. 14:14) in the north as a location, already known in Moses’ time. Jacob’s assignment of Zebulon to the water, Judah to a land of grazing and vineyards and so on speaks to the pre-division of Canaan.

Hundreds of years passed between the formation of this (embryonic) settlement map and its implementation; in the meantime, the tribes had grown (and diminished) at various rates, changing the equation somewhat. Most significantly, two tribes rejected their ancestral birthright and requested land on the east bank of the Jordan, subsequent to the conquest of that Land from Sihon and Og (Numbers 21). The request of the Reubenites and Gadites, detailed in Numbers 32, was eventually accepted by Moses, albeit with significant conditions – and that altered the settlement map on the west bank of the Jordan. (As we will discuss in a later essay, the “half-tribe” of Manasseh is a different issue and, for purposes of the impact of “redistricting”, their location plays no role.)



As such, when Moses comes to confer his blessing on the conquest and settlement project before his death, two of the tribes have already settled in, built cities for their families and livestock, and are preparing, per their agreement, to act as the vanguard during the upcoming war for the west bank. As such, it would not surprise us to find that these tribes are blessed first – and with a blessing that reflects an already-accomplished settlement. Indeed, Reuben is mentioned first, with a blessing that perhaps speaks of Moses’ deep disappointment with this tribes settling on – and for – the east bank: May Reuben live and not die…

Gad’s blessing is withheld here; we will suggest its delay when we address it further on.



The conquest of the Land is portrayed in Joshua as the united effort of a single, national army. The opening chapter of Shoftim (“Judges”), however, paints a different picture. The tribal conquests are presented in a sequence, beginning with the most successful tribe – Judah – and concluding with the Danites, who were utterly incapable of taking any of their territory. The chronological setting of this chapter is problematic, as it is prefaced with “after the death of Joshua” yet it recounts the conquest of cities that, according to Joshua, were taken during his storied career.

The first tribe to “go up” to conquer was Judah. They invited the tribe of Simeon to join them in their conquest and committed to mutual alliance – ‘Come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I likewise will go with you into your lot.’ (1:3). Indeed, they fought together and, as recorded in Joshua 19:1, Simeon received cities within Judah’s territory – in spite of the fact that Simeon was denied their own territory.

We can now revisit Moses’ blessing to Judah:

    And this for Judah, and he said: Hear, Hashem, the voice of Judah, and bring him in unto his people; his hands shall contend for him, and Thou shalt be a help against his adversaries.

We asked why Simeon was not included in the blessings. I would like to contend that Simeon is included along with the other tribes, subsumed within Judah’s blessing and his land is swallowed within Judah’s territory. Note the odd phrasing of the blessing: “Hear, Hashem, the voice of Judah” – in Hebrew “Sh’ma, Hashem, qol Yehudah” – a direct allusion to Simeon (who was called that because Hashem heard Leah’s voice – see Gen. 29:33).

The “Midrash Shem” – indirect referencing a person by alluding to his name – is well-documented in the canon. We have an example of “Sh’ma” in Gen. 21:12 and twice in v. 17 ibid. The unnamed child who has been cast out of Abraham’s house is Ishmael; yet the word “Sh’ma” (which is the key root of his name – see Gen. 16:11) appears three times in this brief narrative to allude to the boy whose voice is “heard” by God.

We also understand the end of the blessing to Judah – a reference to help against his enemies may be directly translated as referring to Divine assistance (as the translation here indicates). This is a bit odd, however, as no other tribe is blessed with Divine help in their upcoming battles. Since Judah is unique as the only tribe to have an ally for their conquest, perhaps the “Ezer miTzarav” refers to Simeon’s assistance. The final word “Tih’yeh”, instead of being read as 2nd person masculine (as the translation here has it), may be read as 3rd person feminine – referring to the “hands” mentioned earlier in the verse; keep in mind that poetic texts in the Bible often mix the singular and plural.



The next tribe to be blessed is Levi – which is odd, considering that Levi does not go to war nor do they inherit Land. Although they have cities (cf. Joshua 21), this is not the same as Simeon; rather, they are given those cities from the other tribes and do not conquer them.

Levi does have a significant task, however, in the context of conquest. It is Elazar, the High Priest and successor of Aaron, who is tasked with overseeing the allotment of land, per Numbers 34:17 and Joshua 14:1. His job was to direct the apportionment of the Land based on the Divine oracle, known as Urim veThumim. Now we can appreciate the inclusion, location and content of Moses’ blessing to his own tribe:

    8 And of Levi he said: Thy Thummim and Thy Urim be with Thy holy one, whom Thou didst prove at Massah, with whom Thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 9 Who said of his father, and of his mother: ‘I have not seen him’; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew he his own children; for they have observed Thy word, and keep Thy covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob Thine ordinances, and Israel Thy law; they shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt-offering upon Thine altar. 11 Bless, Hashem, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; smite through the loins of them that rise up against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.

The mention of the Urim veThumim at the beginning is now clear – and Levi’s “credits” as loyal followers of God who teach His laws serve to explain their elevated status regarding the Land. Moses’ prayer that God bless his “substance” is also a reference to the Land, as the original “Hayyil” literally means “wealth” – which was not an essential factor in Levi’s life, as they were civil servants. The blessing to strengthen Levi against his enemies continues the theme of the conquest of the Land – to wit, Levi’s Divinely guided choices should be successful and each tribe should be able to conquer their allotted territory without anyone rising against them.



Nowhere does the association between these blessings and the Land come clearer than in the blessings bestowed on Rachel’s children.

All tribal territory is outlined and detailed in Joshua 13-19; each tribe’s borders are specified and key towns within those borders listed. Benjamin, whose territory is described in the 2nd half of Joshua 18, is the only tribe is defined by cliffs – in Hebrew, “Katef”, literally “shoulder”. There are five “Katef” markers in this chapter – the only ones anywhere in the tribal allotment narratives. Moses’ blessing that God rests “between his shoulders” directly relates to the centrality of Benjamin’s portion and the cliffs which surround it on all sides.

The land given to Ephraim and Manasseh is contiguous – spanning both banks of the Jordan (sort of – Manasseh’s territory to the east is north of the river, so it is not really on the “east bank”). This is all Joseph’s territory and so Moses bestows the blessing on the single family of Joseph. There is a prophetic plea here, as well. Throughout the era of the Shoftim (“Judges”), not only were Ephraim and Manasseh apathetic to each other’s plights, but they often fought against each other. The second biggest civil war recorded in the period was between these two “brothers”, in the aftermath of Jephtah’s war against Ammon. (Shoftim 12). Although Moses delineates Ephraim and Manasseh in the last verse, his joining them in one blessing given to father Joseph may be an attempt to generate a tribal alliance and sense of unity. Tragically, this did not hold after Joshua’s era.



Although Zebulon was originally marked for the coast – as seen in Jacob’s blessing – they ended up occupying inland territory in the lower Galilee. In an odd twist, they turn out to be the only purely land-locked tribe! In any case, their territory and that of Issachar enfold each other; indeed, one of the children of Issachar is named Shimron, evidently related to the city of Shimron which is in Zebulon’s territory. This is why their blessings are enfolded into one blessing – due to their conjoined land.



There are two reasons for Moses’ delay of Gad’s blessing until this point. Keep in mind that Gad, along with Reuben, had requested and been given land on the east bank and was already settled in at the time of this blessing. It is entirely possible that Moses intended to “back- seat” both of these tribes – he was clearly unhappy with their request (see Numbers 32). Perhaps he mentioned Reuben first to give consideration to the descendants of the first-born whose primogeniture was lost due to his hasty actions with Bilhah (see 1 Chronicles 5:1). On the other hand, perhaps he intended to place both first, following the sequence of conquest, but delayed Gad until this point in order to “reinsert” the Levitic tribe towards the end of the blessing. Gad’s blessing highlights Moses himself, the “lawgiver” who is (or soon will be) buried in their territory. As the orchestrator of the conquest and division, he wanted to make mention of his own “territory”. Unlike the tribes, his burial place would never be seen by others – but the tribe that had the pride to host his final resting place was thus highlighted.

There may be another motivation for placing Gad here – by doing so, all four tribes born of the “handmaids” are grouped together, perhaps reflecting some original arrangement of settlement. This may also be reflected in the division of tribes atop Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal in Deuteronomy 27. I hope to explore this further at a later date.



As I discussed at length in the first volume of Between The Lines of the Bible, Dan’s original territory was slated to be in the north – in the area that eventually was founded by that tribe and (re-)named “Dan”, as detailed in Shoftim 18. It is clear that Moses, in this blessing, sees Dan’s territory as in the north – not the Tel-Aviv area as per the allotment in Joshua 19. Moses blesses Dan that they should leap like a lion “from the Bashan” – an area adjacent to Golan, about as far from the southern coast as could be.

We can see why Moses included Dan’s blessing along with Naphtali’s in one Masoretic paragraph. Unlike Simeon, Dan has autonomous territory. Similar to Simeon, however, their territory is inside that of Naphtali – as such, joining their blessings into one paragraph underscores that territorial relationship.



The final tribe to be blessed is Asher. Asher’s territory, rich in olive trees and producing olive oil, is the furthest north and rests on the Lebanese coast.

Beginning with Judah, and with the exception of Gad (exception already noted), Moses’ blessing follows a south-to-north trajectory. Looking at any map of the territories, we see Judah (and Simeon) in the south, Benjamin between Judah and Joseph (Joshua 18:11), Joseph’s tribes occupying the heartland of Samaria, Zebulon and Issachar in the lower Galilee, Dan, Naphtali in the upper Galilee and finally Asher in the Lebanon.

It is clear that Moses is blessing the conquest-settlement enterprise, following their intended/ultimate territory from south to north.



Immediately after the conclusion of Moses’ blessing, we read of Moses’ ascent to Nebo:

    34:1 And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, even Gilead as far as Dan; 2 and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the hinder sea; 3 and the South, and the Plain, even the valley of Jericho the city of palm-trees, as far as Zoar.

A person standing on Nebo today would look due north to gaze at the Gilead. From there, he would have to turn to the northwest to see Naphtali’s land, then turn towards the south – still looking to the northwest – to look at Ephraim and Manasseh’s land. To see Judah’s land, he would look due west and then finally gaze to the southwest to see the plain all the way to Zoar.

In other words, the panorama that God leads Moses to seeing repeats, in reverse order, the sequence of his blessing. The circle is closed – Moses has blessed and God will fulfill that blessing and enable His people to conquer and settle.

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