Many of the Birchot Ya’akov are rather obscure, and it is often hard to understand not only what events are being referred to, but also how to even translate the words. Yehudah’s Berachah contains a section whose meaning is debated by the Rishonim. The Pasuk states, “Lo Yasur Shevet MiHudah UMechokeik MiBein Raglav Ad Ki Yavo Shiloh VeLo Yikhat Amim,” “The staff shall not leave Yehudah, nor the scepter from between his legs, until Shiloh comes and nations will gather to him” (BeReishit 49:10). Targum Onkelos understands that this Pasuk is teaching us that the Malchut, kingdom, will not depart from Yehudah until Moshiach comes. Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Ad Ki Yavo Shiloh) agrees with this reading and also quotes the Gemara (Sanhedrin 5a) which teaches us that this Pasuk refers to the Jewish leaders in Bavel who will be from Yehudah. The Ibn Ezra (ad loc. s.v. Lo Yasur Shevet MiHudah) interprets the Pasuk to teach that Shiloh refers to David HaMelech and is saying that David will bring Yehudah to full sovereignty, but with no mention of what will happen after that event.
The Ramban (ad loc. s.v. Lo Yasur Shevet MiHudah) famously understands the Pasuk to be a prohibition against anyone other than a member of Shevet Yehudah ever assuming a position of power. He explains that when Shaul, who was from Shevet Binyamin, was appointed as king, it was only a temporary measure from its inception. Since the request for a king was improper at the time, as evidenced by both Shmuel and Hashem’s reaction to the request, the chosen king was never meant to be one whose family would be monarchs for an extended period. Along those lines, he feels that the Malchei Yisrael throughout Sefer Melachim were wrong to continue to usurp the kingship from David’s family. Finally, he claims that the Chashmona’im sinned by becoming kings in the Chanukah period. The Ramban goes so far as to say that this transgression was the cause for the bad end of the Chashmona’im. The end was so extreme that the Gemara (Bava Batra 3b) recounts that anyone who claims to be from the Chashmona’im is in reality a slave, because a slave, Herod, assassinated the entire family line.
While this Ramban is often quoted, it is far from being universally accepted. The Ran (Derashot HaRan 7) responds to the Ramban that the Pasuk is not a command, as the Ramban understood it, but rather a prediction of what will happen. The prediction was fulfilled because it actually meant that sovereignty will never leave Yehudah altogether, not that no one else will ever assume a position of power. With this understanding, the Malchei Yisrael do not present a problem, as they never ruled alone; there was always a parallel Melech from Yehudah. He also is not bothered by the Chashmona’im becoming kings because he feels that they were merely emissaries of the Romans. The Abarbanel contests this last point, as he feels that the Chashmona’im had full sovereignty, which leads him to conclude that it is true that they made a pact with the Romans, but they were not subservient.
The final approach is that of the Abarbanel. He believes that the Pasuk means to say a descendent of Yehudah will always maintain a position of importance, but not necessarily be the main leader. The aforementioned Gemara in Sanhedrin also states that the second half of the Pasuk refers to the children of Hillel who taught Torah in public. The Abarbanel deals with the Chashmona’im period by assuming that the head of the Sanhedrin at the time was from Shevet Yehudah, and, as such, the Pasuk’s prediction did indeed come true.
This final approach contains an important lesson for us. Too often leadership is seen in political terms, but the Abarbanel reminds us that Torah leadership is a critical aspect of leadership in our community as well.