Tag Archives: Chronicles

The Unusual Connection between Jacob, Issachar, and Rabbi Akiva  

This week’s Torah reading is Vayetze, which recounts how Jacob – following the advice of his parents – leaves the Holy Land and journeys to the land of Charan. There he meets Rachel, with whom he falls in love instantly, and agrees to labour for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. As the well-known story goes, we see how Jacob’s father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying Leah, Rachel’s elder sister. Jacob is forced to work yet another seven years for his beloved Rachel. The Torah then gives us a detailed account of the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, setting the foundations for the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who descend from each of the children.

In his commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal focuses specifically on Issachar, the fifth son of Leah. He begins by quoting a verse in Tanakh (I Chronicles 12:33) that describes the tribe of Issachar as yod’ei binah, knowledgeable and wise people. He then draws from the midrash which states that Rabbi Akiva, the famous 2nd century Jewish sage, was Issachar, and that, in addition to being among the greatest rabbis of all time, he was among the aseret harugei malkhut, “The Ten Martyrs” of Israel. These were ten Talmudic sages that were killed mercilessly by the Romans.

Reincarnation and the Ten Martyrs

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

The narrative of the Ten Martyrs appears in many Jewish texts and goes something like this: a certain Roman emperor took an interest in learning the laws and stories of the Torah. He discovered that while the Torah is clear on the rule that kidnapping is punishable by death, the sons of Jacob who kidnapped their half-brother Joseph were never punished for their sin. Technically, by Torah law they should have been put to death.

And so, the emperor summoned ten of the greatest rabbis of the day, among them being Rabbi Akiva and Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest. He presented them with this conundrum and they agreed with his conclusion. The emperor decided that the ten rabbis should suffer the fate that was meant to befall the ten sons of Jacob. He decreed a death penalty upon them and had them imprisoned.

During the rabbis’ confinement, Ishmael ben Elisha invoked God’s Ineffable Name to receive communication from Heaven, and found out that this punishment was indeed decreed upon them from Above. The ten rabbis ended up being tragically martyred at the hands of Rome.

The Arizal explains that this punishment was decreed upon them from Heaven because these ten rabbis were none other than the reincarnations of the ten sons of Jacob! In that sense, they deserved their deaths as a rectification for their sins in their past lives. Each of the ten sages paralleled one of the ten sons of Jacob, and Rabbi Akiva was the reincarnation of Issachar.

The Uniqueness of Issachar

The Arizal brings up an interesting grammatical anomaly in the Torah’s text regarding Issachar’s conception. The text reads v’ishkav ima b’lilah hu, which is typically translated as “And he [Jacob] lay with her [Leah] on that night.” However, such a translation would require the text to say b’lilah hahu, whereas the text actually says b’lilah hu, which may be read “at night, he.” The Arizal explains that on that night, he [Jacob] transferred a major part of his own soul into the newly conceived child. Of all the children, Issachar was most like his father, and this is why he (and his descendants) were so wise and knowledgeable, like the patriarch Jacob himself.

Therefore, since Issachar had such a major share in Jacob’s soul, his reincarnation into Rabbi Akiva meant that Rabbi Akiva had a major part of Jacob’s soul, too. And this is why, the Arizal explains, they share a name, since Akiva is simply an Aramaic rendition of Yakov, “Jacob”. This is also why Rabbi Akiva was so exceedingly wise, like Jacob and Issachar.

The Arizal presents a further proof for this by quoting from the text of Jacob’s blessings to his children before his passing. Jacob’s blessing to Issachar was that he should be a chamor gorem, “a large-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14). In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva tells the story of how before he was himself an observant Torah scholar, he despised all the Torah scholars. He said that he would wish for them to have their bones crushed by the bite of a donkey! The Arizal tells us this is the deeper secret within Jacob’s prophetic blessings, as the similarity of words tie together the lives of Issachar and Rabbi Akiva.

Ultimately, Jacob became Israel and fathered the Jewish people, while the tribe of Issachar was the one that kept Torah wisdom alive throughout Israel’s early history; and finally, it is Rabbi Akiva who is most often credited with saving Judaism from near extinction following the devastating Roman-Jewish wars. Jacob, Issachar, Akiva: three wise figures sharing one soul, and playing a crucial role in the history of the Jewish people.

Yehoshua and the Origins of Christianity

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, named after the grandson of Aaron, who stemmed the tide of immorality that followed the Moabite and Midianite ploy to bring Israel to sin. For his efforts, God blessed Pinchas with an everlasting blessing of peace. In the past, we explored the nature of this blessing, and how it resulted in Pinchas’ apparent immortality, as well as his eventual rebirth as Elijah the Prophet. This week, we will explore another critical figure in the Torah: Yehoshua, better known as Joshua.

Midway through this week’s parasha we read how God commanded Moses to officially appoint Yehoshua as Moses’ successor. Yehoshua is described as a person within whom rests the spirit of God. Although there are a number of Torah figures who are described as possessing some sort of Divine Spirit, Yehoshua is one of only two who are described as having the spirit within them. In most cases throughout the Bible, the spirit of God is said to rest upon an individual (‘alav in Hebrew), or to have temporarily filled an individual (mal’e or timal’e in Hebrew). With regards to Yehoshua, it says that the spirit was within him. The only other person in the Torah who is described in such a way is Yehoshua’s direct forefather Yosef (Genesis 41:38).

An even more peculiar detail about Yehoshua is that he is called “Yehoshua bin Nun”. Every other person in the Bible is referred to by their name, as well as by their father’s name, with the designation ben – “son of” – in the middle. Yehoshua alone is called bin Nun instead of the regular ben Nun. Moreover, a person named Nun cannot be found anywhere in the Torah, and unlike most other Torah figures, Yehoshua’s genealogy is not given (although one is provided in the Book of I Chronicles, written many centuries after the Torah). Other than the fact that Yehoshua stems from the tribe of Ephraim, nothing else of his origins is divulged.

Out of a Fish

A number of midrashim step in to fill some of the details about Yehoshua’s early life. There are a few versions of the story, with one particularly tragic variety that seems to be based on the Greek myth of Oedipus. All the versions agree that at birth, Yehoshua was left by his parents, possibly placed in the Nile River like Moses. Miraculously, a large fish swallowed him up, and Yehoshua was later saved by fishermen. In the Oedipus version, he is saved by the Pharaoh’s fisherman, and thus grows up in the palace, becoming the court executioner. He tragically ends up putting his own father to death, as was originally prophesized when Yehoshua was conceived (which is why his parents abandoned him to begin with).

I prefer to think of it more in the style of Moses, where Yehoshua was placed in the Nile just as Moses was, to avoid the Pharaoh’s decree of slaughtering all the male-born. By also growing up in the palace, alongside Moses, the two would have been well-acquainted, and that might explain why Yehoshua is so close to Moses throughout the Torah narrative.

His title of Bin Nun may come from the fact that he was taken out of a fish, since nun means “fish” in Aramaic. Thus, Nun is not the name of his father at all, explaining why he is not called Ben Nun. Rather, Bin Nun refers to his origins from the fish, with his true genealogy unknown.

Whatever the case, Yehoshua grows up to be a holy man, the personal servant of Moses, one of just two righteous spies, and the leader that finally brought the people into the Holy Land. The Sages describe him as the moon to Moses’ sun, and the key link in the chain of Jewish Oral Tradition.

The Origins of Christianity

'Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon' by John Martin

‘Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon’ by John Martin

When looking at the life story of Yehoshua, it is hard to miss the connection to Christianity. Like Yehoshua, Jesus is a Jew said to have had a miraculous birth, spent time growing up in Egypt, and was described as having the spirit of God within him. Like Yehoshua, Jesus is symbolized by a fish, and is seen as a sort-of successor to Moses (as suggested by his supposed “Transfiguration”, where he ascends to be blessed by Moses and Elijah). In the same way that Yehoshua stems from Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father is said to be Joseph. Jesus is described as a miracle-worker, just as Yehoshua facilitated a number of miracles, such as making the sun and moon stand still at Gibeon, and stopping the flow of the Jordan River. Of course, Jesus’ original name as pronounced in his day was Yeshu, the Aramaic version of Yehoshua.

The similarities don’t end there. Strangely, the Torah makes no mention of Yehoshua’s wife or children (even the genealogy given in I Chronicles ends with Yehoshua himself). Jesus, too, failed to marry or have kids. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) suggests that Yehoshua did later marry Rachav, the harlot that assisted the Israelites in the conquest of the Holy Land. Rachav had repented and become a righteous woman. Similarly, Jesus had close encounters with Mary Magdalene, also described as a harlot, and also rumoured to have possibly married Jesus!

It is important to remember that there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of Jesus outside of the New Testament. It is well-known that the New Testament was written long after Jesus would have lived, and is full of contradictions about the details of his life. Many have challenged the historicity of Jesus, with more and more scholars admitting that he likely did not exist at all.

Considering all that, it isn’t hard to imagine how early Christians would have put together the mythology of Jesus based on previous Torah ideas and narratives: a miraculously-born baby with the spirit of God, whose very name means “salvation”; celibate and childless, a humble, Godly servant bringing others to repentance, and leading the Israelites to the Promised Land… This is the story of the Torah’s Yehoshua, and the story that was adapted to fit the mold of a new religion a couple of millennia ago.

Ultimately, the Jewish Sages always saw Yehoshua as a prototype of Mashiach. After all, he is the one that defeated the embodiment of evil known as Amalek, and the one that ended the exile of the Jews, returning the people to their land. It isn’t surprising that Christians used Yehoshua as a prototype for their own supposed Messiah. Ironically, though, not only did Jesus fail to defeat evil, and fail to bring an end to the exile, he was also responsible for inspiring the murder of countless people thanks to all the holy wars, inquisitions, and crusades fought in his name. Jesus’ own message may have been peace, but his followers used him incessantly for war and bloodshed. Two millennia have passed, and the world is still far from perfect. We continue to await the arrival of the one true Messiah. May we all merit to see his coming soon.


The Stones, Symbols, and Flags of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah, and the name of its first parasha. It is known in English as “Numbers”, since it begins with a detailed census of the Jewish population in the wilderness. We are given a description of how the nation was organized in their camps: the tribes of Yehuda, Issachar, and Zevulun were positioned towards the East; Reuven, Shimon, and Gad to the South; Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the North. The Levites and kohanim were in the centre. We are told that each of the tribes had their own flag, just as in a large military formation. What did these flags look like? Which colours did they bear, and what symbols graced them?

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest's Breastplate

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

In an intriguing passage, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) provides a summary of the flags’ appearance. It begins by telling us that the colours of the flags corresponded to the colours of the stones that were on the Choshen (or Breastplate) of the High Priest. The High Priest was commanded to wear a special breastplate that had twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. Each stone had a symbolic meaning unique to that particular tribe.

Jasmine flower

Jasmine flower


Reuven’s was the odem, a ruby, and so his flag was red. The symbol on the flag was the duda’im, flowers that Reuven had picked for his mother Leah (Genesis 30:14). It was on account of these flowers that Leah went on to have three more children. Duda’im is often translated as “mandrakes”, though according to Rashi they were of the Jasmine plant.

Shimon had the pitdah, probably topaz, and his flag was green. The symbol upon the flag was an image of the city of Shechem. This is in memory of the episode where Shimon (together with his younger brother Levi) took up swords to decimate the Shechem population after the abduction and rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34).

Levi’s was bareket, possibly an emerald or onyx, and the flag had three bands of colours: white, black, and red. Upon the flag was an image of the Urim V’Tumim, the mystical objects kept within the High Priest’s breastplate that were apparently used for communication with the Divine.

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Yehuda had nofech, a stone more difficult to identify, with different opinions holding that it was either red, green, or blue. The Midrash here describes the flag as blue like the skies. Emblazoned upon it was the image of a lion. Before his passing, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, and in his blessing, he described Yehuda as a lion (Genesis 49:9). The lion would later become associated with the Davidic dynasty of kings (which hails from the tribe of Yehuda), and with the seat of their throne in Jerusalem, a city that goes by a number of names, including Ariel (“God’s lion”).

Issachar’s was a sapphire (or lapis lazuli) stone, and his flag was of a very dark blue colour. Upon it was the image of the sun and moon. The Midrash explains why, citing I Chronicles 12:33, which describes the people of Issachar as being wise in astronomical and chronological matters.

Zevulun had a yahalom, today’s Hebrew word for diamond, though there may be other possibilities. Zevulun’s flag was white, and bore a depiction of a ship, again based on Jacob’s blessing to the tribe to be successful sea-going merchants, and live along the Israeli coastline (Genesis 49:13).

Dan had leshem, amber, with a flag of a sapphire-like colour (despite the fact that amber is typically golden-red). Upon the flag was the symbol of a snake, once more based on Jacob’s blessing (v. 17). Likewise, Gad’s flag bore the image of a military camp (v. 19), on a black and white background, based on Gad’s stone of shevo, a black agate or obsidian.

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally "not intoxicating"

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally “not intoxicating”

Naphtali had achlamah, the purple amethyst. His flag was of a similar colour, described by the Midrash as pure wine that isn’t too strong. It is interesting that the Midrash should compare it to wine, since amethyst was believed in ancient times to keep one sober and prevent drunkenness. Upon the flag was an image of a gazelle, also from Jacob’s blessing (v. 21).

Asher’s stone of tarshish is certainly the least identifiable of the dozen. Opinions range from chrysolite and coal to flint and hyacinth. The Midrash doesn’t help in clarifying the matter, describing the flag as similar to the colour of an expensive jewel stone worn by women. Whatever the case, the image upon the flag was that of an olive tree, since Jacob blessed Asher with fatty riches and delicacies (v. 20).

In the encampment, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe were counted separately. On the breastplate, however, they were counted as one, under the banner of their father Yosef. This is because Ephraim and Menashe were not Jacob’s sons, but his grandsons, and on his deathbed, Jacob elevated their status to that of his own sons. Thus, we always maintain that there are twelve tribes: if we include the priestly Levites in the count, then Ephraim and Menashe are combined into one, Yosef, to ensure twelve. If we do not include the Levites since, after all, they are in a different class (and did not inherit any land for that matter), Ephraim and Menashe are counted independently of each other.



The stone of Yosef was shoham, which also has a number of opinions to its identity. The Midrash tells us that the flag was black, which supports the suggestion that shoham is malachite, a stone that has dark green and black colours. Ephraim’s black flag had a bull depicted on it. This is drawn from Moses’ final blessing to the tribes of Yosef (Deuteronomy 33:17), which the Midrash quotes. (Jacob’s blessing also mentions the word for a bull, but it is translated differently there.) The Midrash also tells us that the bull represents Joshua, who was of the tribe of Ephraim.

Based on the same verse in Moses’ blessing, Menashe’s black flag had a re’em, a horned animal sometimes translated as a unicorn, or perhaps an ox or even a rhinoceros. Again, the Midrash points out that this represented the Biblical judge Gideon, who was of the tribe of Menashe.

Last but not least, Binyamin’s flag famously depicted a wolf, based on Jacob’s description (Genesis 49:27). The stone of Binyamin was the yashfe, another unidentified one. The Midrash tells us that Binyamin’s flag had a mix of the colours of all the other tribal flags. This is likely due to the fact that Binyamin was the beloved little brother of the family, and all of his older siblings, though sometimes at odds with one another, always united to protect him. It is said that this is the reason why the Holy of Holies in the Temple was specifically in the territory of Binyamin (while the rest of the Temple was in the land of Yehuda), since the whole nation put aside their differences and united as one when it came to the smallest of their brothers.