Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5759/1999

"Shevet" or Tribe used in the sense of Tribal Chief

Prof. Gad B. Sarfatti

Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages

The opening verse of Parashat Nitzavim, "You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d-- your heads, your tribes [New JPS: your tribal heads], your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel" (Deut. 29:9), immediately poses a problem: what is shivteikhem ("your tribes") doing between rasheikhem ("your heads") on the one hand, and "your elders and your officials" on the other? Since the word shivteikhem denotes groups of people, it is essentially synonymous with the phrase, "all the men of Israel," which comes at the end of the verse, whereas the other nouns (heads, elders, officials) denote individuals of power or importance. In light of this problem we can understand Rashi's comment: "Your heads, your tribes -- this means the heads of your tribes." Rashi views these two nouns as a construct phrase--your tribal heads--which brings it into line with the other nouns. Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni also cite this explanation in their commentaries [and so it is rendered by the New JPS translation].

However, without resorting to Rashi's reading, the word shivteikhem alone can be interpreted to mean the "heads of your tribes," without having to combine it with "your heads." Other verses, as well, support this meaning of shivteikhem.

To begin with, we can point to other verses similar to the one at hand, where the nouns "head, elder, and official" are found in conjunction with the word "judge" (shofet) instead of "tribe" (shevet), e.g., "their elders and commanders, their magistrates and officials" (Joshua 23:2); "Israel's elders and commanders, magistrates and officers" (Josh. 24:1). Moreover, in the verse, "When the heads of the people (rashei 'am) assembled, the tribes of Israel (shivtei yisrael) together" (Deut. 33:5), the "tribes of Israel" parallels "heads of the people." Furthermore, the verse, "did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders (shivtei)," from II Samuel 7:7, has a parallel in I Chronicles 17:6--"did I ever reproach any of the judges (shoftei) of Israel"--exchanging shivtei with shoftei.

This appears to be how things developed. Shevet, which actually means staff or scepter (sharvit), symbolizes sovereignty. The word sharvit, scepter, is an expansion of shevet, staff, by the addition of the letter resh, just as sar`apah (branches) in Ezekiel 31:5 is an expansion of se`apah in verses 6 and 8 there. So much for the form of the word shevet.

Now as to its meaning: Just as we speak of "the crown" to denote "the king," metonymically calling the king "crown" because he bears a crown on his head, and just as we speak of the "first violin" to denote the person who plays the leading violin part in an orchestra, so too, the head of a group of people, their chief, is called shevet because he is the one who "wields the staff." Later another metonymic development took place, and the group of people who are subject to the leadership of one head, that is, of one shevet or staff, came to be called a shevet, or tribe.

In short, shevet has three meanings, deriving one from the other: 1) staff, scepter, symbol of sovereignty over a group of people; 2) the one who wields the scepter, head of the group, chief; 3) the unit of people who are under the rule of one person, of one individual who holds a scepter. In biblical Hebrew, definitions 1 and 3 are quite common, whereas 2 has practically disappeared and, being so rare, has been forgotten. Hence our difficulty in understanding certain verses, our own included.

A similar development occurred with the word mateh, which also has two meanings--1) rod or staff, and 2) group of people--and presumably at one stage also had the sense of "one who wields the staff," a meaning has passed out of usage. Compare this to the English word "staff," which in addition to meaning "rod" has also come to mean a "group of senior officers, command"; hence also the use of mateh as "staff" in modern Hebrew military terminology.

The title shofet, whose primary meaning is "judge," also acquired the meaning of "leader." Hence the alternation of shevet and shofet in this sense. Linguistically, another explanation presents itself: alternation of the labial sounds of a voiced bet and a silent peh, which is common in Mishnaic and Talmudic Hebrew (hefker/hevker, botzea/potzea, tevusah/tefusah, etc.), can be traced back to biblical Hebrew in at least one instance: the name of the commander of the army of Hadadezer king of Aram, who in Samuel (II Sam. 10:16, 18) is called Shobach, but in Chronicles (I Chron. 19:16, 18) is called Shophach. This alternation also contributed to the mixing of shevet and shofet.

The main points presented here can be found in Torah Temimah. Those who wish additional reading are referred to the article by Zeev Falk in Leshonenu 30 (1966), pp. 243-247, and to the comments of Samuel E. Loewenstamm, Yehezkel Kutscher and Shlomo Idelberg in Leshonenu 32 (1968), pp. 272-275.

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