“The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob calls his sons together in order to bless them before he dies.

Not all of Jacob’s words can be easily understood as blessings. The Torah, however, in Genesis 49:28, assures that Jacob’s words were indeed intended as blessings: “Kol ay’leh shiv’tay Yisrael sh’naym ah’sahr, v’zoht ah’sher dee’ber la’hem ah’vee’hem, va’y’vah’rech oh’tahm eesh ah’sher k’vir’chah’toh bay’rahch oh’tahm,” All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.

While the longest blessing is reserved for Jacob’s beloved son, Joseph, the most important blessing is directed at his older son, Judah. Judah’s blessing opens with the words (Genesis 49:8): “Yehuda, ah’tah yo’doo’chah ah’cheh’chah,” Judah, you shall your brothers praise.” It continues with a prediction that Judah would defeat his enemies, and that his brothers will bow down before him. Jacob describes Judah as a lion cub, who springs up from the prey, and crouches like a lion. Asks Jacob: Who dares rouse such a ferocious beast?

Jacob’s blessing of Judah continues with the pronouncement of the immortal words, Genesis 49:10: “Lo yah’soor shay’vet mee’huda, oo’m’cho’kake mee’bayn rahg’lahv, ahd kee yah’voh Shee’loh, v’loh yik’haht ah’meem,” The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh arrives, and his will be an assemblage of nations.

The commentators are divided over whether Jacob’s statement, that the scepter shall not depart from Judah, was intended as a decree or as a promise. The Abarbanel sees the entire ritual of blessing his sons as Jacob’s way of designating Judah as the future king of Israel. The “blessings” to his other sons was Jacob’s way of indicating that none of the others are worthy of this lofty position.

From Jacob’s words to Judah, the Abarbanel identifies four special qualities that Judah possessed that qualify him to serve as the leader of Israel.

1) Judah’s brothers clearly acknowledge his superiority, and are not jealous of him. 2) Judah’s hand is on the neck of his enemies, and is so strong in battle, that all his enemies turn their backs and flee. 3) Judah rose from the prey, in the sense that he was superior to his brothers spiritually and ethically. It was after all, Judah who saved Joseph from certain death when he said to his brothers, “What gain is there if we kill our brother?” 4) Judah crouches as a lion–he has the required strength and, particularly, the persistence to be king.

The Abarbanel points to a substantial list of events in the life of Judah and the tribe of Judah that indicate that Judah was always well ahead of all his brothers in every respect. It was Judah to whom his brothers listened, rather than proceed with their original plan to kill Joseph. It was Judah who spoke up first to Joseph, when he encountered the fearsome ruler in Egypt. Judah was the son who succeeded in convincing his father, Jacob, to send Benjamin with him down to Egypt. When Jacob himself went down to Egypt, he sent Judah before him to facilitate the family’s relocation. The tribe of Judah was always the first camp to travel in the wilderness. Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, the prince of the Tribe of Judah, was the first leader to bring his sacrifice at the consecration ceremony of the Tabernacle. The list goes on.

Even when in exile, the leader of the Jews, the Exilarch (Resh Galuta), always descended from the Tribe of Judah. In the time of the Second Temple, the head of the Bet Din (religious Supreme Court) was always from the Tribe of Judah. The Abarbanel points out that even in his time (16th century), many of the Jewish leaders of France and Spain were from the house of David.

Although the Abarbanel initially argues that the Maccabees, who assumed the monarchy in their time, were not really monarchs because they were subservient to other nations, the Abarbanel does acknowledge that there were times when the Maccabees were not dependant on outside forces. The Abarbanel, therefore, explains that Jacob did not necessarily mean that Judah would serve as a monarch, but rather that the power to rule and bear authority, both in Israel and outside of the land, would be bestowed upon Judah.

The Ramban disagrees and claims that Jacob’s words to Judah were not a promise but a decree, that no other tribe would ever rule Israel until the time of the Messiah. Nachmanides claims that the monarchy of Saul was based on the improper request of the Israelites who inappropriately demanded a king. That is why Saul’s kingdom was temporary, and why he and his son, Jonathan, were killed in battle. The ten tribes who set up the Northern Kingdom of Israel, were also not an authorized kingdom, as the prophet Hosea 8:4 says of them, “They have set up kings, but not by Me.”

With respect to the Maccabees, Nachmanides declares that they, in fact, violated two principle rules. Not only did they assume the kingship that belonged to Judah, but, as priests, they neglected the service in the Tabernacle that was their primary responsibility. Nachmanides suggests that is why four of Mattathias’ five sons died in battle.

Clearly, Judah was the outstanding leader among his brothers, and was destined to assume the leadership of Israel, whether by promise or decree. The kingdom of Judah, the monarchy of Judah, and the leadership of Judah was to last for millennia, longer than the monarchy or leadership of any other nation.

Jacob was correct in saying about his gifted son, “Judah, you shall your brothers praise.”

May you be blessed.