The meaning of Yissachar’s blessing in this week’s Parashah has more than one interpretation.
Before blessing Yissachar, Ya’akov blesses Zevulun, describing him as a seafaring merchant (BeReishit 49:13). As opposed to Zevulun’s blessing, Yissachar’s blessing is not as clear. Ya’akov’s Berachah to Yissachar is that he is a “strong boned donkey who crouches between the boundaries” (49:13). Yissachar “saw that the land was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to the burden and became an indentured laborer” (49:15). In explaining this blessing, Rashi (49:14 s.v. Yissachar Chamor Garem) cites the Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 99:9) which explains that Yissachar and Zevulun agreed upon a business deal in which each would share his own goods with the other: Zevulun, a successful merchant, would finance the constant study of Yissachar, the full time Torah student. In return, Yissachar would share a portion of the Sechar, reward, from his learning with Zevulun. It may seem that Rashi is of the opinion that since Yissachar occupied all his time studying Torah, he therefore had the right to benefit from Zevulun’s aid.
However, upon closer examination, it is clear that Rashi means something else – Yissachar did engage in physical labor and provided a tangible service to his brother. Rashi (49:15 s.v. VaYar Menuchah Ki Tov), citing Onkelos, explains that the words, “he saw that the land was pleasant” mean “the land of Yissachar produced favorable fruit.” This was valuable to Zevulun, as these fruit could be sold at the market and abroad. In addition to this, Rashi lists a practical service that Yissachar provided. After David HaMelech succeeded Sha’ul, all the tribes sent soldiers to Chevron (I Divrei HaYamim 12:24). However, Yissachar sent two hundred men “with understanding of the times” (I Divrei HaYamim 12:33). The Midrash (Pitron Moshe, Parashat VeZot HaBerachah) identifies these Bnei Yissachar as masters of the Jewish calendar who knew exactly when and how to add a 13th month to the year. They served not only Zevulun, but the entire nation, as they had the responsibility to determine the proper days to observe the Chagim. Rashi is of the opinion that Bnei Yissachar provided Am Yisrael with these valuable services, and only because of these did they have the right to Zevulun’s aid.
Rashbam (BeReishit 49:14 s.v. Yissachar Chamor Garem) has a different opinion regarding the role of Yissachar. Noting the agricultural references in Yissachar’s blessing, he writes that the tribe of Yissachar consisted of farmers. In contrast with Bnei Zevulun, who traveled across the seas to trade, Bnei Yissachar remained within their boundaries and worked the land. Because of the wealth generated by Bnei Yissachar, the kings of Bnei Yisrael taxed their grain heavily (Ibn Ezra 49:15 s.v. VaYar Menuchah). Apparently, Yissachar was not at all dependent on Zevulun for financial support.
Before his death, Moshe Rabbeinu, just like Ya’akov Avinu, blesses the Shevatim, awarding them with blessings similar to those of Ya’akov. To Zevulun and Yissachar he proclaims, “Rejoice, Zevulun, on your journeys, and Yissachar, in your tents” (Devarim 33:18). Rashi’s approach (ad loc. s.v. VeYissachar) to this Berachah is that “tents” refer to Torah study, just as Ya’akov is described as “dwelling in tents.” However, many of the more Peshat-orientated commentators explain that “dwelling in tents” simply means that Bnei Yissachar were shepherds and farmers. Rashbam explains that this reinforces the contrast set up in BeReishit between the travelling Zevulun and the stationary farmers of Yissachar.
Another example of Yissachar’s physical contributions to the Jewish nation can be found in Sefer Shofetim. After the military victory against Sisera, Devorah praises Yissachar, saying, “The leaders of Yissachar were with Devorah, and so was (the rest of) Yissachar with Barak” (Shofetim 5:15). This does not sound like the Yissachar of the Midrash, exclusively devoted to Torah and dependent on Zevulun for even the most basic of necessities, such as food. In a time of national crisis, Yissachar volunteered and fought bravely in the war.
Most of us at some point remember hearing the Midrash about the Zevulun-Yissachar partnership. However, this Midrash is only one way of interpreting the blessings. Based on a close reading of Rashi, Rashbam, and accounts from both Sefer Shofetim and Sefer Divrei HaYamim, it appears that Yissachar was self-sufficient. It is important to realize that there are often many interpretations to verses in the Torah other than the interpretations we may be accustomed to hearing.