Issachar: Tribe of Iyyar

Issachar is the tribe associated with the month of Iyyar, which generally falls between April and May. What does the name Issachar (יִשָּׂשׁכָר) bring to mind?  Anything? Do any famous stories from the Torah come to mind?  Probably not, yet Issachar holds a special place in Jewish tradition.

Issachar was the 5th son of Jacob and Leah, born some time after her other children — so long after that she had already arranged for Jacob to continue bearing children in her line through her handmaiden Zilpah.

Like all of the names of the twelve tribes there are many interpretations of what Issachar means, but the one that resonates most for me is “there is a reward.”  Leah’s hard work and patience has earned  her yet another child. It’s also worth noting the the root שׁכר is associated with earned wages, not just “rewards.”

Issachar is considered to be the tribe of scholars and noted as astronomers and mathematicians.  The month of Iyyar is a month to study, and the month we count the Omer.  RitualWell.org tells us, “In Iyar the ox ploughs the earth, nurturing the new seeds, helping them grow into the harvest of the coming month of Sivan.”  The Ox (שׁוֹר) or Taurus is the astrological sign of the month. Here we see the work of the scholars of Israel in a new way.  The scholars, turn the earth of our rich tradition ensuring that news growth returns year after year.  They are, like the “large-boned ass” Issachar is called (Genesis 49:14), in many ways the beasts of burden of Judaism.  It is they who do the heavy lifting in many generations, ensuring that we all learn the words, ways, and whys.

But, respecting our scholars and taking on the mantle of scholarship is only one lesson.  We must look at the eternal partnership between Issachar and Zebulon.  In Moses’ blessing to the tribes, Deuteronomy 33, he binds these two tribes together.

And of Zebulon he said: Rejoice, Zebulon, in thy going out, and, Issachar, in thy tents.

They shall call peoples unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand.

We cannot have scholars without commerce, and our commerce needs to be informed by the work of the scholars.  Scholarship and teaching are noble callings, but so is doing the work of shipping, fishing, and trading.  I think the lesson of Issachar for Iyyar, is that scholarship is not an end in itself.  It exists to be brought to the outside world and shared.  The letter of the month, Vav (ו), is a conjunction.  It’s grammatical use is equal to the word “and” in English.  It is also the pen and the staff of priests, and can easily also be seen as the oar of the tribe of Zebulon. Iyyar is a conjunction, a connector; it is the “and.”  We have escaped from Egypt — and…..

Take this month to explore your own “and.”  We do not better ourselves just to better ourselves.  We do this to bring our best selves out and create a better world for all.

Adapted from a post originally written for Peeling a Pomegranate (2003-2013) by Kohenet Ketzirah haMa’agelet