Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yehi 5766/ January 14, 2006

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Lion and Ox


Dr. Israel Rosenson




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 Israel, which, like the animals, succeeds in withstanding Pharaoh’s decree.   A tapestry of unique tribal harmony is woven, which emphasizes the vitality of the tribes, even though in Scripture continuity and survival is usually associated with the world of plants:   the “tree of the field” is the outstanding symbol of rootedness.  Imagery from the plant world is used even in matters that are seemingly appropriate to animal metaphors.  For example, Jotham’s fable, which concerns the monarchy, does not make use of lions and the like.  Likewise the passages that present characterizations of the tribes in our Parasha and elsewhere also have quite a number of impressive images taken from the plant world, alongside their animal metaphors.

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:

Judah … his image is like the heavens, with a lion portrayed on it…   Joseph … and on the flag of Ephraim was a picture on an ox [shor], … and on the flag of the tribe of Manasseh was a picture of a wild ox [r’em].

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 Judah:   Judah is a lion’s whelp; on prey, my son, have you grown.  He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts – who dare rouse him?” (Gen. 49:9).  The image of an ox [Heb. shor], however, is not explicitly made with regard to Joseph:  “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring, its branches run over a wall [Heb. shur]” (Gen. 49:22).  In principle, Joseph is compared to a grape vine, and shur means none other than wall (although “the Mighty One [Heb. abir = par, a bull] of Jacob” is a reference to G-d).  The word shor (ox) does appear in this week’s reading, but with reference to Simeon and Levi:  “For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen” (Gen. 49:6).

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 Temple:   “and on the insets within the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim.   Above the frames was a stand; and both above and below the lions and the oxen were spirals of hammered metal” (I Kings 7:29).   From the outset, however, in reality – even though in the agriculture and pagan religions of antiquity the ox signified great strength, [1] and a goring ox was likely to be dangerous and harmful – the basic balance of power was quite clear:  the ox was the one to fall prey.  The contrast between ox and lion is significant also when the “heavens open.”   In Ezekiel’s depiction of the divine chariot they occupy opposing positions:  “Each of them had a human face [at the front]; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right; each of the four had the face of an ox on the left; and each of the four had the face of an eagle [at the back]” (Ezek. 1:10).   In other words, the order was human, lion (right), ox (left), eagle.”  Here it should be mentioned that in their earthly placement Joseph and Judah occupied opposing positions:  “Camped on the front, or east side:  the standard of the division of Judah” (Num. 2:3), whereas “on the west:  the standard of the division of Ephraim, troop by troop” (Num. 2:18).

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

As Judah accosted the ox

            (Y. Yahalom, Piyyutei Simeon bar Migas, p. 138)

Note that the verse, “Judah went up to him” (Gen. 44:18), is cast by the poet in the words, “Judah accosted the ox,” an image which intensifies the drama immensely.   One of the supporting verses cited there is of interest:  “The lion is mightiest among the beasts, and recoils before none” (Prov. 30:30), which presumably the poet understood as meaning that the lion is heroic in contrast to the ox (beast).  The intensity of the confrontation is also depicted homiletically in the piyyut of Yannai:

The lion (aryeh=Judah) asserted his wrath,

“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 Egypt) will be destroyed”

            (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 (Tanhuma, Va-Yigash 4):

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. [2]   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 Israel.

[1] M. D. Cassuto, Encylopedia Mikra’it, see under “El,” p. 284.  For agricultural significance, see Proverbs 14:4.

[2] 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. S. Dar, Sumka – Ayyarah Yehudit ba-Carmel, Tel Aviv 1998, p. 213.