Parashat Va-Yehi 5766/ January 14, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Lion and Ox
The Tribal Symbols
In the blessings that Jacob gives his sons, he compares some of them to various animals. The original signification of these metaphors evolved into general symbols, and today these emblems have become fixed motifs: even separated from their metaphorical context, they reside in our consciousness as picture-symbols. Nowadays they are found on ark curtains and Torah mantels, and when the State of Israel sought to honor its roots in the Bible, on a series of postage stamps. The symbol is so closely identified with the tribe that many probably assume it accompanied the tribe from birth; symbol and tribe have become one.
The Sages also spoke of rigidly fixed symbols for the tribes. For example, in a relatively late midrash that deals with the banners of the tribes (Numbers Rabbah 2, s.v. be-otot) we read:
Each chieftain (of each tribe) had a sign, each a banner, in the color of the precious stones that Aaron wore over his heart. From these, other sovereigns learned to make flags (mappah), each flag with its own color.
Thus, according to this midrash, each group of tribes in the tribal encampment in the wilderness had a clear symbol on their flags. Behind these symbols, however, lies the story of their creation, originating in the textual characterization of the tribes as found in this week’s reading and in parashat Ve-zot ha-Berachah in Deuteronomy. In midrashic style, statements with visual potential were worked into symbolic representations through a complex process. Suffice it to note that the symbols which the Sages used were generally chosen according to the needs of the homily dealing with them, each homily with its own dictates, and not in order to discuss their identification. Even the midrash on the flags, presented above, takes imagery from Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy and works it into an earlier setting in the book of Numbers (the tribal encampment) in order to reinforce the motif of tribal harmony.
Between Symbol and Metaphor
In what follows we seek to elucidate one point that has to do with the reciprocal relations between the literary midrash and a visual symbol. In some of their homilies the Sages emphasized the metaphorical view of the tribes as animals (Exodus Rabbah 1,16, Mirkin Edition, p. 29):
This nation has been compared to wild beasts who have no need of human assistance. Judah is likened to a lion, as it is said, “Judah is a lion’s whelp” (Gen. 49:9); Dan is said to be “a serpent by the road” (Gen. 49:17); Naphtali, “a hind let loose” (Gen. 49:21); Issachar, “a strong-boned ass” (Gen. 49:14); Joseph, “like a firstling bull in his majesty” (Deut. 33:17); Benjamin, “a ravenous wolf” (Gen. 49:27); and about the rest of the tribes it is written, “What a lioness was your mother among the lions!” (Ezek. 19:2).
In a world that is not
foreign to nature, living creatures undoubtedly can serve as excellent visual
symbols. Indeed, the Sages made use
of such imagery; but did they have an actual tribal symbol in their mind’s
eye? It seems that the midrash
enlists animals in order to achieve a literary end. Those tribes about whom animals
are indeed mentioned serve as prototypes for the other tribes, and with the
help of a final verse from Ezekiel a zoological mosaic is obtained of all
Among the animals that have been associated with the tribes, the most prominent are two whose symbolism is especially clear: the lion and the ox. As Numbers Rabbah says:
The wild ox was added, of
course, because of the internal division into two parts within the tribe of
Joseph. To what extent does this
visual symbolism draw on the passages characterizing the tribes?
It would seem that the images are
borrowed directly from the verses, yet the matter is complex.
Parashat Va-Yehi does not set the
lion up in contrast to the ox.
Indeed, several expressions, appellations, and images associated with
the actions of lions occur with regard to
Quite a different picture emerges from parashat Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah. There Joseph is indeed likened to a bull: “Like a firstling bull in his majesty, he has horns like the horns of the wild ox” (Deut. 33:17). The lion there, however, is not Judah but Dan: “Dan is a lion’s whelp” (Deut. 33:22). It is the Midrash above which takes the figures of lion and bull from various passages in the Torah and juxtaposes one against the other in the tribes of Judah and Joseph. The words shur (=wall, but also the letters of the word shor, ‘bull’) and abir (=par, bull), mentioned with respect to Joseph, may have contributed to shaping the midrash about the emblem of Joseph as a bull.
The idea of taking the figures of lion and bull out of
their contexts and juxtaposing one to the other may have been inspired by the
contrast between them that is expressed in several biblical pictures.
Peace shall reign between them in the
future: “The calf, the beast
of prey, and the fatling together … and the lion, like the ox,
shall eat straw” (Isa. 11:6-7).
Such an image is depicted in the
To sum up, in the appurtenances of the Temple, in the End of Days and in visions of G-d, awareness of the opposite natures of the ox and the lion did not prevent their being grouped together in a certain harmonic order; as for Judah and Joseph, they are incorporated in a similar manner in the arrangement of their encampment in the desert.
Extensive homiletic use of the images of ox and lion can be found in the tension-fraught encounter between Judah and Joseph in parashat Va-Yigash. There are many legends about this meeting, but before presenting one of them we shall sketch the picture of this encounter that was popular with the liturgical poets of the classical era:
He toiled and raised a cry of fear
His hunters were seized with trembling
His roar heavy like a lion
(Y. Yahalom, Piyyutei Simeon bar Migas, p. 138)
Note that the verse, “
The lion (aryeh=
“Let my mouth have its say,” he said wisely.
As a lion (kefir) he roared at him;
The ox (=Joseph) did not panic at his growl.
(M. Z. Rabinowitz, Yanai, I, p. 236)
The lion approached the ox and said,
“If I say but one word,
All of Zoan (a city in
(loc. sit., p. 240)
While the paytan could have taken his imagery from
the Bible, these verses also hint at pacification between the two and the
ability to dwell together, while Yannai wanted to stress
their hostility to one another. A
particular aspect of this hostility is presented by one of the homilies (
The ministering angels said to one another: Let us go down and watch the ox and the lion wrestling with each other. In the general way of the world, the ox is afraid of the lion, but now the ox and the lion are engaged in combat, and jealousy reigns between them until the Messiah shall come.
Here the ox and lion have come to symbolize inner forces within the Jewish people, engaged in prolonged combat. To whom in his day was the homilist alluding, and what moved him to draw out the struggle to his present day? It remains a riddle, although there is no lack of inner conflicts in Jewish history which might be lurking behind the picture sketched here. Be that as it may, the solution is messianic and presumably is based on awareness of the picture evoked by the prophecy: “Take a stick and write on it, ‘Of Judah’… and take another stick and write on it, ‘Of Joseph’… Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick” (Ezek. 37:16-17). Out of this prophecy there developed a notion regarding the future of these sticks, culminating in the presence of a descendant of Joseph and a descendant of David in Redemption, both being included in the messianic idea.
Synagogue goers presumably heard about the drama of this wrestling and its possible resolution in the words of preachers and liturgical poets, but some even saw its representation with their eyes. For example, anyone who entered the synagogue at Beit Alpha in the Byzantine era was greeted by the sight of an ox across from a lion, represented in the mosaic floor of the synagogue; and other examples could be cited.  Thus this highly significant encounter was experienced through a variety of senses.
The greatest Ashkenazi liturgical poet in the Middle Ages,
Simeon bar Isaac, wrote a penitential poem for the Ten Days of Repentance in
which he described a throne on which Jacob’s name (“The Innocent”) was
hewn. Flanking the throne were
images of a lion and an ox, imagery that appears in the depiction of the divine
chariot in Ezekiel (prominent in the change of order, with the man and the
eagle afterwards): “carved on the throne, a lion on the right.” The poem
continues with a prayer for restoring the Davidic dynasty, “Restoring the line
of the lion’s whelp,” and imagery of an ox, “restoring the glory of the
first-born ox.” The harmony
between opposites reaches its climax as these forces that struggle with each
other on earth join forces on high in order to beseech the Holy One, blessed be
He, for the sake of
 M. D. Cassuto, Encylopedia Mikra’it, see under “El,” p. 284. For agricultural significance, see Proverbs 14:4.
 This is
not the place for an exhaustive survey of ox and lion imagery in syngogue art,
including scenes of prey. On images
of lions facing oxen that have been found in catacombs, cf.