In Parshas Vayechi we read of Jacob’s blessings to his sons before his passing. After blessing the four eldest sons of Leah, Jacob then blessed Leah’s two youngest sons, Yissachar and Zevulun. However, in this case, Jacob blessed Zevulun before his elder brother, Yissachar, saying (Genesis 49:13):
זבולן לחוף ימים ישכן והוא לחוף אנית וירכתו על צידן
Zevulun shall dwell by the seashores; he shall be a port for ships, and his border shall reach until
Many commentaries note this change in order. The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 11) explains:
קדם זבולן ליששכר, ולמה? שזבולן עוסק בפרקמטיא, ויששכר עוסק בתורה. עשו שותפות ביניהם שיהא פרקמטיא של זבולן ליששכר, שכן משה ברכן, "שמח זבולן בצאתך ויששכר באהליך", שמח זבולן בצאתך לפרקמטיא משום דיששכר באהליך עוסק בתורה. למה? "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה." לפיכך הקדים זבולן ליששכר, שאלמלא זבולן לא עסק יששכר בתורה. ומתוך שנתיחד יששכר בתורה ולא עסק בפרקמטיא ולא היה לו עמל בדבר אחר לפיכך כתוב בו, "מבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים."
Why did he put Zevulun before Yissachar? For Zevulun was occupied in trade and Yissachar was occupied in Torah study. They made a partnership with each other, so that Yissachar would be supported by Zevulun’s trade. For thus were they they blessed by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:18), “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents.” [Meaning,] “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out” for trade, because “Yissachar is in your tents” studying Torah. Why [should he rejoice]? “For it (i.e. the Torah) is a tree of life to those who support it.” (Proverbs 3:18). For this reason he gave priority to Zevulun over Yissachar, for if it were not for Zevulun, Yissachar would not be occupied with Torah. And from the fact that Yissachar was devoted exclusively to Torah, and was not involved with trade and did not have to labor in any other area, therefore it was said of him (1 Chronicles 12:33), “And from the children of Yissachar came men that had understanding of the times.”
The medrash tells us that Zevulun was given priority over Yissachar because he supported Yissachar in his Torah studies. The medrash adds that thanks to Zevulun’s support, Yissachar was able to devote himself purely to Torah study and thereby produced many important Torah scholars who served as leaders of the Jewish people.
The Seforno (R’ Ovadia Seforno, d.1550) expands on this teaching in his commentary:
והקדים זבולון העוסק בפרקמטיא ליששכר העוסק בתורה, וכן משה רבינו בברכתו, באמרו, "שמח זבולון בצאתך, ויששכר באהליך", כי אמנם אי אפשר לעסוק בתורה מבלי שישיג האדם קודם די מחסורו, כאמרם, "אם אין קמח, אין תורה." וכשיסייע האחד את חבירו להמציאו די מחסורו כדי שיעסוק בתורה, כמו שאמרו בזבולון, הנה עבודת הא-ל ית' בהשתדלות העוסק בתורה תהיה מיוחדת לשניהם.
וזאת היתה כונת התורה במתנות כהונה ולויה, שיסייע כל העם לתופשי התורה, שהם הכהנים והלויים, כאמרו "יורו משפטיך ליעקב," ויזכו כולם לחיי עולם, כאמרם, "כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא."
He placed Zevulun, who is involved in trade, before Yissachar, who is involved in Torah study (as did our teacher, Moses, when he said (Deuteronomy 33:18), “Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents”) because it is not possible for a person to devote himself to Torah study unless he first is able to supply his basic needs, as the Sages taught (Avos 3:17), “If there is no flour, there is no Torah.” So, when a person helps provide his fellow with his basic needs so that he can devote himself to Torah study, as we are taught about Zevulun, the service of God that is achieved through the efforts of the one who is devoted to Torah study is attributed to both of them.
This is also the intent of the Torah with regard to the various gifts given to the Kohanim and Leviim, so that the entire nation should thereby provide support for the Torah scholars, who are the Kohanim and Leviim (as it says (Deuteronomy 33:10), “They shall teach Your law to Jacob”), and through this they will all merit eternal life, as the Sages say (Sanhedrin 90a), “Every Jew has a share in the world to come.”
The Seforno tells us that the underlying principle of the Yissachar and Zevulun arrangement, i.e. that by enabling others to study Torah we share in the merit earned through that Torah, is the basis for the relationship between the priestly tribe of Levi and the rest of the Jewish people. Moreover, the Seforno indicates that it is precisely this principle that makes it possible for the entire Jewish people to merit a share in the world-to-come.
So we find that Zevulun was blessed before Yissachar in order to teach us that Zevulun’s merit is equal to that of Yissachar (contrary to what we would otherwise have assumed), and they are equal partners in the merit of Yissachar’s Torah study.
However, this leaves us with a difficulty because, when all is said and done, Yissachar seems to be getting the far better end of the deal. Granted that, in the end, both Yissachar and Zevulun will share the merit equally, but in the meantime, while Zevulun is stuck working as a merchant, Yissachar actually gets to study Torah! (Of course, even with his support of Yissachar, Zevulun is still subject to the obligation to study Torah, just like any other Jew. However, the nature of the arrangement is such that Yissachar is able to devote himself to Torah to a far greater degree than Zevulun.)
We are all familiar with many famous verses and sayings that stress the great benefit and pleasure of Torah study in of itself, which stands entirely independent from the reward that it earns. As we say to God every evening in our prayers:
אהבת עולם בית ישראל עמך אהבת, תורה ומצות, חוקים ומשפטים, אותנו למדת. על כן ה' אלקינו, בשכבינו ובקומינו נשיח בחקיך, ונשמח בדברי תורתך ובמצותיך לעולם ועד, כי הם חיינו וארך ימינו ובהם נהגה יומם ולילה.
You have loved Your people, the House of Israel, with an eternal love, and You have taught us Torah and commandments, decrees and laws. Therefore, Hashem, our God, when we lay down and when we arise, we shall speak of Your decrees, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and in Your commandments for all eternity, for they are our life and the length of our days, and in them we shall meditate day and night!
The partnership between Yissachar and Zevulun would therefore seem to be grossly imbalanced in favor of Yissachar. Why would Zevulun be satisfied with such an arrangement, in which Yissachar gets both the pleasure and the merit of studying Torah, while Zevulun only gets to share in the merit? What is Zevulun’s compensation for accepting this role in the first place?
To add a slightly more esoteric element to our question, the Zohar HaKadosh (1:242a) also discusses the blessing of Zevulun:
אמאי אקדים בברכאן זבולון ליששכר תדיר? והא יששכר אשתדלותיה באורייתא, ואורייתא אקדים בכל אתר. אמאי אקדים ליה זבולון בברכאן? אבוי אקדים ליה, משה אקדים ליה. אלא זבולן זכה על דאפיק פתא מפומיה ויהב לפומיה דיששכר. בגיני כך אקדים ליה בברכאן. מהכא אוליפנא מאן דסעיד למריה דאורייתא נטיל ברכאן מעילא ותתא. ולא עוד אלא דזכי לתרי פתורי, מה דלא זכי בר נש אחרא. זכי לעותרא דיתברך בהאי עלמא וזכי למהוי ליה חולקא בעלמא דאתי.
Why is Zevulun always placed before [his elder brother] Yissachar in the blessings? [Especially,] being that Yissachar was devoted to Torah study, and the Torah is always given priority, why is Zevulun first in the blessings? [For we find that both] their father put him first and Moses put him first?
Zevulun merited because he took bread from his own mouth and gave it into the mouth of Yissachar. This is why he is before [Yissachar] in the blessings.
From here we learn that one who supports a Torah scholar receives blessing from above and below. And not only that, but he merits to two tables, that which no other person merits. He merits blessed wealth in this world, and he merits a share in the world-to-come.
From the Zohar we see that in addition to receiving reward both in this world and the next, Zevulun also receives “blessing from above and below.” What does that mean?
The Arugas HaBosem (commentary on the Torah by R’ Moshe Greenwald of Chust, d.1910) discusses the question of the apparent unfairness of the tribal blessings in relegating Zevulun to the mundane role of a merchant, in order to enable Yissachar to exclusively study Torah.
He compares this apparent injustice to a medrash (cited in Rashi on Leviticus 2:13) that says that on the second day of Creation, when God created the firmament to separate the “upper” and “lower” waters (Genesis 1:6-7), the lower waters complained of being separated from God. God appeased the lower waters by promising that they would be used in the
service, in the form of the salt added to every offering, and the nisuch
hamayim – the water libation – of Sukkos.
Similarly, it would seem that the tribe of Zevulun would have been justified in complaining of their being “separated” from God, and being given the mundane task of earning money, while Yissachar is able to engage exclusively in Torah study. However, this is not so, for in reality Zevulun has been given a spiritual task that, in certain respects, is superior to that of Yissachar.
At the end of the book of Proverbs we read the famous poem, Eishes Chayil – “A Woman of Valor”. The commentaries tell us that, in addition to its simple meaning, this poem is also an allegory for the Torah. In the poem we read (Proverbs 31:14):
היתה כאניות סוחר ממרחק תביא לחמה:
She is like a trader’s ships, bringing her bread from afar.
A sea-merchant’s trade is based on the idea of buying merchandise in a location where it is plentiful and cheap, and then transporting the merchandise for sale in a location where it is rare and valuable. Generally speaking, the further the merchandise travels, the more valuable it becomes because of its rarity in its new location.
The Arugas HaBosem explains that just as a sea-trader’s merchandise is of great value because it comes from far away, in a similar sense, the Torah enables us to transport into this world a holiness that comes from highest spiritual realms, and also gives us the ability to lift our physical actions up to those same spiritual heights. Just as merchandise from far distant lands is precious, so too are our physical acts of avodas Hashem (service of God) of immense value in the Heavenly realms.
From this we can understand why the service of Zevulun, who works to earn money in order to support Torah study, is in certain respects even more precious than the service of Yissachar, who devotes himself purely to Torah study. For Zevulun takes the most mundane of activities and lifts it up to the highest spiritual heights by using his earnings to support Yissachar’s Torah study.
Zevulun, therefore, truly has no grounds for complaint, for his spiritual task is indeed equal, if not superior, to that of Yissachar. The Arugas HaBosem sees this idea as hinted to in the blessing, in the words, “זבולן לחוף ימים” – literally, “Zevulun dwells by the shores of the seas.” The verse ought to have said, “לחוף ים” – “by the shores of the sea” – in the singular. The use of the plural, “seas”, is an allusion to the “upper” and “lower” waters, and is telling us that we should not think that Zevulun's apparently mundane role has relegated him to the lower realm, but that, in reality, Zevulun dwells on the “shores of the seas” of both the lower and higher realms.
With this understanding, we can perhaps also explain the statement of the Zohar that Zevulun receives blessing “from above and below”. By supporting Yissachar, not only does Zevulun receive reward in this world and the next, but he also experiences the immediate blessing of spiritually unifying the highest and lowest realms.
Zevulun’s role as a supporter of Torah study is clearly far more significant that it might appear at first glance. While Yissachar represents the deveikus – spiritual connection with God – that is achieved through Torah study, Zevulun represents the deveikus that is achieved by fulfilling the concept taught by the Sages (Talmud, Brachos 63a):
איזוהי פרשה קטנה שכל גופי תורה תלוין בה? "בכל דרכיך דעהו"
What is a small verse upon which all the basics of Torah depend? “In all your ways know Him.” (Proverbs 3:6)
In his Asara Maamaros, the Shelah HaKadosh (R’ Isaiah Horowitz, d.1630) devotes the entire eighth maamar to this concept, which he describes as "דביקות הלב בכל הדרכים לעבודת ה' יתברך" – “Connecting the heart in every way to the service of God.” Towards the end of the maamar, the Shelah HaKadosh uses this idea to explain an otherwise difficult medrash on the verse in Psalms (119:59):
חשבתי דרכי ואשיבה רגלי אל עדתיך:
I considered my ways, and I turned my feet to your testimonies.
The medrash (Vayikra Raba 35:1) states:
אמ' דוד לפני הקב"ה, רבון העולמים בכל יום ויום הייתי מחשב ואומר למקום פלוני אני הולך , לבית דירה פלונית אני הולך, והיו רגליי מביאות אותי לבתי כניסיות ולבתי מדרשות, הה"ד ואשיבה רגלי אל עדותיך.
David said to the Holy One, blessed is He, “Master of the Worlds! Every day I plan and say, ‘I will go to such-and-such location,’ ‘I will go to the home of so-and-so,’ and my legs bring me to the synagogues and the batei medrash (houses of study).”
At first glance, this medrash seems to be saying that every day King David would plan out his day, yet despite his plans otherwise, he would always end up at the shuls and batei medrash! However, the Shelah HaKadosh rejects this understanding for several reasons, including the fact that this would imply that in some sense, King David’s free will had been compromised, which would make his good deeds meaningless.
Instead, the Shelah haKadosh explains that in reality, King David indeed made plans every day to take care of his many responsibilities as a king, and he did exactly what he planned to do. He went here, he visited there, and he met with whomever. However, King David is saying in this medrash that everything he did, throughout the day, as mundane and workaday as it seemed, was all for the purpose of maintaining the synagogues and study halls of the Jewish people. Thus, even though he was going here and there, from a spiritual perspective it was as if he was going to the synagogues and study halls himself!
While their techniques are different, both Yissachar and Zevulun are fulfilling the purpose of this world by spiritually lifting this physical world up to the highest spiritual realms. Each one makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution. This is the reason God made the world in such a manner, in which different people find themselves serving Hashem in different ways.
The Chofetz Chaim taught (ח"ח עה"ת) that God has never expected the entire Jewish people to be exclusively involved in Torah study. From the beginning of the establishment of the Jewish people, God gave different roles to different tribes, and He distinguished Yissachar as a tribe that was uniquely suited for exclusive Torah study and Zevulun as a tribe that was uniquely suited to the role of supporting Torah study. Together, the two tribes are the “pillars of the world”, for their combined efforts uphold God’s creation, which only exists through the merit of Torah study.
Today we no longer have the clear-cut roles that once existed for the tribes. Nevertheless, every one of us can still choose to be a pillar of the world if we truly devote ourselves to the study of Torah, whether through study or by supporting those who study, or, ideally, both!