The Inheritance of Binyamin ֠Portion of the Shekhina (part I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #16: The Inheritance of Binyamin – Portion of the Shekhina (part I)


By Rav Yitzchak Levi



To complete our study of Jerusalem in the Torah, we shall devote the next few shiurim to Moshe's blessing to Binyamin, analyzing the significance of Binyamin's inheritance representing the "inheritance of the Divine Presence." We shall begin with an analysis of the blessing itself, and in particular – the expression "his shoulders"; thereafter we shall examine the various ramifications of having the Divine Presence rest in a place of relatively low altitude. This will round off our study of the topographical situation of Jerusalem, with attention to its spiritual significance.


In this shiur we seek to clarify the meaning of Moshe's blessing to Binyamin:


"And to Binyamin he said: God's beloved shall dwell safely by Him; He shall cover him all the day, and between his shoulders He shall rest."


In this blessing, for the first time, the Torah connects the resting of the Divine Presence with a specific place in Eretz Yisrael – the portion of Binyamin. We shall now try to understand the location mentioned in the blessing and its significance. Why was the inheritance of Binyamin selected to be the portion of the Divine Presence, how is this expressed, and what are its ramifications?


A. Moshe's Blessing to Binyamin


1. Order of the tribes in Moshe's blessing, and the placement of Binyamin within it


In Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha (Devarim 33), the Torah records Moshe's blessing to the tribes prior to his death. In order to understand the blessing to Binyamin, we must first review the order of the tribes in this blessing: Reuven, Yehuda, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Zevulun, Yissakhar, Gad, Dan, Naftali, Asher (Shimon is omitted) [1].


The four last tribes are the sons of the handmaids, and geographically, too, they are located on the outskirts of the country (on the eastern side of the Jordan and in the North). Zevulun and Yissakhar are the last of the children of Leah, and geographically their inheritance is in the North. The tribes whose position within the blessing requires explanation are therefore the first five: Reuven, Yehuda, Levi, Binyamin, and Yosef. There is no clear, single criterion for the order of their appearance; the choice seems to be based on a combination of the order of their birth and the order of their geographical settlement.


Reuven's place at the beginning of the list is obvious, since he is the firstborn of both Yaakov and Leah. Shimon, as mentioned, is omitted – a fact that is undoubtedly related to Yaakov's blessing [2]. What remains to be explained, then, is the order of the blessing of the four other tribes: Yehuda, the leader destined for royalty, who is blessed after Reuven, followed by Levi and Binyamin, and finally Yosef.


The blessing here appears to have a symmetrical structure. At the two ends we find the central forces in Am Yisrael – both at that time and for future generations: Yehuda, destined for royalty from among the children of Leah, and Yosef – the firstborn of Rachel, second-in-command to the king of Egypt, who merited a double inheritance in the land of Israel (the portions of Ephraim and Menashe). In the middle, between Yehuda and Yosef, blessings are given to Levi and Binyamin. Indeed, geographically, the portion of Binyamin is located between the portion of Yosef (more precisely, of Ephraim) to the north, and the portion of Yehuda to the south, while Levi has no portion of his own in the land: God is his portion, because he serves in the Mishkan (see Devarim 10:9; 18:2).


At the same time, we are still left with a difficulty. Why is Binyamin – the younger son of Rachel – blessed immediately after Levi, thereby preceding Yosef, who is Rachel's firstborn? The commentaries address this question; Rashi comments as follows:


"Because the blessing of Levi concerns the sacrificial service, and of Binyamin – the Temple being built in his portion, therefore [Moshe] uttered them consecutively, with Yosef immediately thereafter – for he, too, had the Mishkan of Shilo built in his portion, as it is written: 'He forsook the Tabernacle of Yosef' (Tehillim 78:67). Since the Temple was more beloved than Shilo was, therefore Binyamin is mentioned before Yosef."


According to Rashi, the juxtaposition of Yosef and Binyamin is a result not of their both being sons of Rachel, but rather of the common denominator between all three tribes here – the resting of the Divine Presence, according to which their order is likewise established. First blessings are given, consecutively, to Levi – who performs the Divine service in the Sanctuary, then Binyamin, in whose portion the Temple is built [3], and only afterwards to Yosef, in whose portion the Mishkan of Shilo rested, since the Mishkan was less beloved to God than the Temple.


The Ibn Ezra (quoted in note 1) explains that Levi and Binyamin are juxtaposed "because the Levites dwell in Jerusalem, which was between Yehuda and Binyamin." According to this view they are mentioned consecutively as a result of their geographical proximity, too, and not only because of their common connection to the Divine Presence.


2. Content of the blessing


The formulation of the blessing raises several questions. Who is "God's beloved (yedid hashem)"? Who is the subject of the verse? What is the meaning of the words, "Will dwell safely by Him" and "Cover him"? What is the meaning of the expression, "He shall dwell between his shoulders"? We shall now, with the aid of the commentators, attempt to answer these questions.


On the simplest level, Binyamin himself is God's beloved. But the Ramban introduces an interpretation based on kabbalistic sources, and explains that "God's beloved (yedid hashem) shall dwell upon Binyamin" – referring to God Himself [4].


The subject of the verse and its interpretation depend on who is the "beloved." If the beloved is Binyamin, then the verse means that Binyamin will dwell with God, and that God will cover him eternally and cause His Presence to dwell in his inheritance. According to the second understanding, it is God who dwells with Binyamin.


The expressions "cover" (chofef) and "dwell" (sh-kh-n) are clearly related to the dwelling of the Divine Presence. The word "chofef" hints at the Canopy of Glory – as, for example, in Yishayahu 4:5 – "God will create upon every dwelling place on Mount Zion and upon its assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night, for upon all the glory there shall be a canopy." The Ramban comments that the expressions "will dwell," "will cover" and "dwell" hint at three Temples:


"Concerning the First Temple [Moshe] says, 'He shall dwell safely by Him'… concerning the Second Temple – '[He shall] cover him all the day' – for the Divine Presence did not rest [in the Second Temple], it merely covered and protected it [Rashi agrees)] or literally "fluttered" [as the soul flutters upon the body]… 'And between his shoulders He shall dwell' – referring to the messianic times…."


Rabbeinu Bechaye concludes that the blessing to Binyamin is "for his glory and his honor, since he hosts the Divine Presence… and we learn from all of this that none among all the tribes is as blessed as Binyamin, with the dwelling of the Divine Presence, and status and merit, and he has an advantage over all his brothers" [5]. What certainly arises from the above is the very clear connection between the dwelling of the Divine Presence and the portion of Binyamin.


Concerning the words, "Cover him all the day," Rashi quotes the Mekhilta: "Forever. Since Jerusalem was chosen, the Divine Presence rests nowhere else."


B. "He shall dwell between his shoulders"


Let us now dwell on the meaning of the expression, "He shall dwell between his shoulders." Clearly, the identity of the "dweller" and of the owner of the "shoulders" depends on our understanding of the subject of the verse, as explained above. Let us introduce our discussion with the commentary of Chizkuni:


"'Between His shoulders' – his borders, as in 'the border of the Sea of Galilee' (Bamidbar 34:11); 'he shall dwell' – meaning, Binyamin dwells within the borders of the Holy One; his portion is close to the Temple."


According to this interpretation, the "shoulders" are the borders of the inheritance of Binyamin. Indeed, out of the nine appearances of the word "shoulder" (katef) in the topographical sense, eight – all except the one quoted by Chizkuni, in Bamidbar 34:11 – occur in a description of the borders of Binyamin and the northern border of the Tribe of Yehuda, in Sefer Yehoshua. Rav Yoel Elitzur [6] maintains that this arises, apparently, from the unique topographical character of this region.


The topographical significance of the word "shoulder" is a raised plain with a steep slope. The word in this sense is always accompanied by some indication of direction. From the description of the borders of Binyamin, it arises that there are:


- Three shoulders on the northern border of the inheritance of Yehuda (which is the southern border of Binyamin) (Yehoshua 15:8-11): the shoulder of the Yevusi in the south - Jerusalem; the shoulder of Mount Ye'arim to the north, which is Kesalon, and the 'shoulder of Ekron' to the north.

- Two shoulders on the northern border of the inheritance of Binyamin (which is the southern border of the inheritance of Ephraim) (Yehoshua 18:12-13): the shoulder of Yericho to the north, and the shoulder of Luz to the south – which is Beit-El.

- Three shoulders on the southern border of the portion of Binyamin (which is the northern border of Yehuda) (Ibid. 16-19); the shoulder of the Yevusi to the south; the shoulder facing the Arava to the north, and the shoulder of Beit Chogla, to the north.


We shall not involve ourselves, in the framework of the present study, in the precise topographical identification of each of these shoulders, but it is clear that this tribal unit is surrounded on all sides by "shoulders" that define quite clearly what its borders are. In the south, the shoulder of the Yevusi; to the south-west, the shoulder of Mount Ye'arim and the shoulder of Ekron; to the south-east, the shoulder facing the Arava and the shoulder of Beit Chogla; to the north – the shoulder of Luz; to the north-east, the shoulder of Yericho. This reality is illustrated well in the emphasis of the shoulders in the attached map (map no. 1).


We conclude that, according to the interpretation of Chizkuni, what the verse means is that God chooses to dwell between the defined borders of Binyamin as a whole, which is the portion of the Divine Presence. The very choice of this inheritance, and the resting of the Divine Presence, there singles out the tribe of Binyamin from all the others.


The Ibn Ezra interprets "between his shoulders" to mean – "In the midst of his inheritance" [7].


A third interpretation of these words is offered by Rashi:


"Between his shoulders he shall dwell" – The Temple was built at the height of his portion, but this was twenty-three amot lower than Ein-Eitam, where David had intended to build it, as we read concerning the slaughter of sacrifices (Zevachim 54b), "They said: Let us make it a little lower and build it in Jerusalem, which is lower down, as it is written, his shoulders, rather than his head [Rashi ad loc.], because it is written, "Between his shoulders" – since there is no more choice portion of meat from an ox than the shoulder.


In the same vein, Rabbeinu Behaye elaborates (ad loc.):


"The reason for [the words] 'between his shoulders,' rather than saying 'upon his head,' is because the Temple was not at the height of the actual mountain, but rather slightly lower…."


As Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye understand it, the words "between his shoulders" do not refer to the portion of Binyamin in its entirety, with all of its borders, but rather to the location of the Temple, which is not built at the highest point on the mountain, but rather somewhat lower, between "the shoulders" – or, at most, to the city of Jerusalem (see Rashi, and the Abarbanel ad loc.: "Therefore God's supervision and blessing would always be upon Jerusalem, as it is written: 'My eyes and My heart shall be there for all times' (II Melakhim 9).")


We may, therefore, summarize and say that, from the topographical perspective, the words "He shall dwell between his shoulders" may refer to three different circles: the portion of the Tribe of Binyamin as a whole, the city of Jerusalem, or the Temple. We must clarify, in relation to each of these, what is being referred to by the expression, "His shoulders."


With regard to the tribal portion as a whole, we have already shown, according to the view of Chizkuni, that the shoulders are the borders of the inheritance, and we commented that from the topographical aspect, the shoulder is a particularly well-defined area: it is a raised plain, with a steep slope. To this we should add a more general point – that the surroundings of the inheritance of Binyamin (both to the north and to the south) lie higher than the inheritance itself. In other words, the inheritance of Binyamin as a whole lies lower than that of Ephraim to its north, and that of Yehuda to its south. To the north-east it is bounded by the Ephraim-Binyamin arch, and to the south-west, by the Chevron arch (see map no. 2) [8].


As regards Jerusalem and the Temple, the shoulders are the hills surrounding Jerusalem: to the east and to the north – the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus; to the west – the western hills (the region of Mount Zion and the Jewish and Armenian Quarters of today); further to the west – the region of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, etc.


Since the hills that surround the city and the Temple are higher, the actual Temple building protrudes from between the shoulders that surround it, like a head that stands prominently upon a pair of shoulders. Rashi (quoted above) and other Rishonim quote the Gemara (Zevachim 54b) that explains the slightly low-lying location of the Temple in the verse discussed above:


"Rabba taught: What is the meaning of the verse, 'He [David] and Shemuel went and dwelled in Nayot… in Rama' (I Shemuel 19:18)? What has Nayot to do with Rama? The answer is that they sat in Rama but discussed the beauty (noyo) of the world [the Temple]. They said: 'It is written, 'You shall arise and go up to the place…' (Devarim 17:8); this teaches that the Temple is higher than anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael, and that Eretz Yisrael is higher than any other country.' They did not know where its location was. They brought a Book of Yehoshua. Concerning [the borders of] all [of the tribes] the text says 'descends,' 'the border rises,' 'the border surrounds.' When it comes to the Tribe of Binyamin, we read "'ascends,' but we do not read 'descends.' They said, 'Apparently, this is its place.' They wanted to build it in Ein Eitam, which lies high up. They said, 'Let us make it a little lower, as it is written: 'Between his shoulders he shall dwell' (Devarim 33:12)."


The Gemara here matches the Sifri (Devarim 354): "Just as, in an ox, there is no finer portion that the shoulder, so the Temple is higher and more beautiful than anywhere else in the world." In other words, the shoulders of the ox are the highest point on the animal, and its head rests between them; likewise the Temple rests among the surrounding "shoulders."


C. Significance of the Divine Presence resting in a low place


Having established that God chose to make His Presence dwell in the portion of Binyamin, and having discussed its topographical uniqueness, let us now explore the spiritual significance of the low-lying location of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in relation to the surrounding hills.


1.   Jerusalem


Various verses in the Books of the Prophets and Hagiographia relate to the low-lying location of Jerusalem.


In Tehillim 125:2 we read:


"Jerusalem – hills surround it, and God surrounds His people from now and forever."


Spiritual significance is awarded to the topographical fact that the ancient city lay lower than the surrounding hills. The Radak explains:


"Although hills surround it, it has no physical strength, and various nations will rule over it and conquer it from one another. It will have no strength until God's nation dwells in its midst, when He will surround His people and His Name will be a greater strength for them than the hills, and no enemy will rule over them from then and forever."


The Radak's basic assumption seems to be that the mountains surrounding the city protect it, and that despite this, the verse tells us that in fact the city is truly protected only by God's Name. However, we seek to argue (see our previous shiurim, on the topographical structure of the city) that the mountains surrounding the ancient city not only fail to protect it, but actually represent its point of weakness, since they overlook it. Hence, it is not the mountains that protect the city at all, but rather God Himself. According to this understanding, the topographical conditions of the city – its relatively low altitude – do not provide the necessary protection; they create a situation of inescapable dependence upon Divine protection – "God surrounds His people."


A similar description arises from the prophet's reference to the city as the "Valley of Vision (chizayon)" (Yishayahhu 22:1). The Radak explains (ad loc.):


"This prophecy is uttered in relation to Jerusalem, and it is called the Valley of Vision because it is the place of prophecy. Why is it called a valley even though it is a mountain? This is meant as an expression of denigration, because its inhabitants brought the city down with their evil, and turned it from a mountain into a valley, such that it is no longer worthy of being called a mountain, but rather a valley."


According to the Radak, the term "valley" arises from the evil behavior of the inhabitants of the city. According to what we have said above, the title refers to the city's relatively low-lying position, among the mountains that surround it.


Yirmiyahu, too, refers to Jerusalem as "Dweller of the valley, rock of the plain" (21:13-14). The title, "Rock of the plain" means "rock that protrudes from the valley"; this conjures up the image of Jerusalem as a hill protruding from among the surrounding valleys. However, because of its generally low position, the city is also referred to in the verse as "dweller of the valleys" – a description that matches the appearance of the city as it would be revealed to the prophet coming from Anatot, in the region in between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives [9].


2.         Significance [10]


We shall propose three different meanings attached to the relative lowliness of Jerusalem:


a.         The first significance has already been noted above: the low-lying position of the city expresses its vulnerability, the fact that it is not naturally protected, and is therefore fundamentally reliant on God [11].

b.        We learn in Midrash Tehillim (68:9):


"'The mountain which God desired to make His dwelling there' – I desire only Sinai, which is lower than all of you, as it is written: 'I dwell in a high and holy place, but also with those who are humble and of contrite spirit' (Yishayahu 57:15)… Where did Sinai come from? Rabbi Yossi taught: it was separated from Mount Moriah, as challa is separated from the dough – from the place where Yitzchak was bound as a sacrifice. The Holy One said: Since Yitzchak, their forefather, was bound upon it (this mountain), it is fitting that his descendants should receive the Torah upon it. And from where do we know that [this piece of Mount Moriah] is destined to return to its place? As it is written, 'The mountain of God's House shall be established at the head of the mountains': these are Tabor and Carmel and Sinai and Zion. 'The mountains' (he-harim) – meaning, five mountains (the letter heh in Hebrew signifying the number 5): i.e., as the number of Books of the Torah [12].


In other words, the Holy One chooses to make His Presence dwell specifically in the lowest place because of its humility.


a.         In Tehillim (113:4-6) we read:


"God is high over all the nations; His glory is over the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, ENTHRONED ON HIGH, BUT LOOKING DOWN TO OBSERVE THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH."


The greatness of God is that He is not limited to any specific place; He is revealed both in the heavens and on earth. The same idea is reflected in many other sources, such as a similar verse from Tehillim: "Although God is high, He sees the lowly; but the arrogant [lit. "high"] He knows from afar" (Tehillim 138:6), or the Midrash concerning the revelation at Sinai: "Why was God revealed to Moshe at the bush? To teach us that there is no place in the world that is devoid of the Divine Presence, even a [lowly] thorn bush" (Shemot Rabba 2,9).


This view is diametrically opposed to the faith of the pagan nations, who worshipped their gods "upon the high mountains and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree" (Devarim 12:2). As Rabbi Akiva commented: "In every place where you find a tall mountain, an elevated hill, and a leafy tree – know that there is idolatry there" (Avoda Zara Chapter 3, Mishhna 5). This principle arises from several places in the Torah and in the Prophets: for example, "They shall call people there to the mountain; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness" (Devarim 33:19); "They shall sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer incense upon the hills" (Hoshea 4:13). The form of pagan worship is based upon materialistic faith in which height plays a significant role. The pagans expressed their closeness to their gods on the physical level: they perceived the gods as sitting upon the mountains and other high places and ruling over all those who were beneath them. Therefore, they established their places of worship on the high places, thereby expressing – to their view – similarity and closeness to their gods. Moreover, it is quite reasonable to assume that this physical superiority attributed to the gods also reflected a spiritual sense of superiority and pride – perhaps out of a desire to compete with the God who dwelled even higher. Hence we understand the criticism of the prophets (see, for example, Yishayahu 2) towards pride and arrogance, which represent a desecration of God's Name.


In contrast to this view, the Holy One is manifest everywhere – both in terms of His humility and in terms of His greatness. He is not limited in any way by physical reality, therefore He is able to watch and guide even from a low place, and is revealed even there [13].


* * *


In the next shiur we hope to treat other aspects of the height of the Temple: the Temple as a tikkun for the Tower of Bavel, and its height in the Days to Come.




[1] We shall quote here briefly the commentary of the Ibn Ezra (Devarim 33:6) (which is worthy of more extensive treatment) on the order of the tribes: "[The blessing] starts with the elders, for so it is proper. Shimon is not mentioned because of Ba'al Pe'or…. Following Reuven, [Moshe] mentions Yehuda, the flag-bearer… and then Levi and thereafter Binyamin, because the Levites live in Jerusalem, which was in between Yehuda and Binyamin… And thereafter the Tribe of Yosef, so as not to leave him for the end, since his younger brother had already been mentioned. And then Zevulun… and then Yissakhar… and when the sons of the wives were finished, he began from Gad, who was the standard-bearer of the children of the handmaids…."

Rabbeinu Behaye (ibid.) likewise addresses the matter of the order: "Reuven… because he was the eldest, therefore [Moshe] treats him with the birthright in his blessing. Then Yehuda is brought forward after him, for he was the first tribe to inherit in the land… and after Yehuda he blessed Levi, for they dwell in Jerusalem, together with the children of Yehuda. After the children of Levi he blessed Binyamin, whose portion was with the children of Yehuda, and the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were between Yehuda and Binyamin, and the Levites dwelled with both of them, and after Binyamin – Yosef, so as not to leave him to the end…."

Shadal offers a different explanation as to the order; we shall not elaborate here.

[2] "Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. Let my soul not enter their counsel; let my honor not be united with their assembly. For in their anger they killed a man, and willfully lamed an ox. Cursed is their anger, for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel; I shall divide them amongst Yaakov and scatter them amongst Israel" (Bereishit 49:5-7). The Tribe of Levi corrected its behavior through its actions following the Sin of the Golden Calf, therefore this tribe was scattered for the purposes of sanctity, in the cities of the Levites – as opposed to Shimon, who was swallowed up within the Tribe of Yehuda. We shall not elaborate further here.

[3] Rabbi Y. Bekhor-Shor comments as follows (ad loc.): "Because the children of Levi served in the Temple, which stood in the portion of Binyamin, therefore [Moshe] gave Binyamin's blessing immediately after that of Levi." Chizkuni (ad loc.) similarly explains, "Because the occupation of Levi is in the Temple, which is in the portion of Binyamin."

[4] In Yishayahu 5:1, "yedid" is an adjective for God, as interpreted by Sifri ad loc.

[5] The Sifri (Devarim 252; see also Menachot 53a) interprets the word beloved (yedid) as follows: "Six are called beloved (yedid): The Holy One is called beloved, as it is written (Yishayahu 5), I shall sing to my Beloved; Binyamin is called beloved, as it is written (Devarim 33:12), 'The beloved of God shall dwell safely with Him'; Shelomo is called beloved, as it is written, 'He called his name Yedid-Yah- and God loved him' (II Shemuel 12); Israel are called beloved, as it is written, 'I have given the beloved of My soul into the hands of their enemies' (Yirmiyahu 12); the Temple is called beloved, as it is written, 'How beloved are Your dwelling places' (Tehillim 84); and Avraham is called beloved, as it is written, 'What is My beloved doing in My House?' (Yirmiyahu 11). Let the beloved [Shelomo] come and build the beloved [Temple], in the portion of the beloved [Binyamin], for the Beloved [God], that the beloved [Israel], sons of the beloved [Avraham] may come there."

[6] Rav Y. Elitzur, "What Is "Katef," and Where Is the "Eastern Border of the Sea of Galilee"?" Al Atar 4-5, p. 41 onwards. The essence of his contention is conveyed above.

[7] I am not certain as to his meaning: if he refers to the location of the Temple, it is= in the very southernmost part of the inheritance. If he is speaking of the mid-point of the inheritance in which God dwells, what is this point?

[8] Obviously, the inheritance of Binyamin gradually falls to the east (in the direction of the Dead Sea) and to the west (in the direction of the Mediterranean).

[9] See the beautiful explanation by Noga Ha-Reuveni, "Or Chadash al Sefer Yirmiyahu," Kiryat Sefer 1968, pp. 19-26.

[10] We could, of course, suffice with a statement of fact that this is the city's topographical location. However, in keeping with the general aim of this series, we wish to argue that topography also has spiritual significance, and in this context we shall relate also to the matter of altitude.

[11] This reality reflects the city's overall location, as described in the previous shiurim: its proximity to the desert, its distance from the main highway, and the lack of open expanses for agriculture.

[12] There are many aspects of this wonderful Midrash that are worthy of elaboration: the connection between Mount Sinai and Mount Moriah as the place connected to Torah; the connection between the binding of Yitzhak and the giving of the Torah, etc. For our purposes here, we shall suffice with the matter of the height.

[13] It should be noted, in this context, that alongside the sources that appeal to God from the nethermost recesses of the soul (for example, Tehillim 130:1 – "From the depths I call to You, God"), there are rabbinical sources that speak about building synagogues at the highest point of the city (for example, Tanchuma Bechukotai 3). There is room to discuss whether the height of a synagogue has independent significance, or whether the idea of building it higher than the other buildings in the city is meant solely for God's glory; we shall not elaborate here.


Translated by Kaeren Fish