As a member of the House of Israel, I’ve long been interested in a recorded blessing by patriarchs for their children or their people generally. Deuteronomy 33 records the blessing Moses gave to the children of Israel before his death.
I was excited to find a more verbose version of Moses blessing the children of Israel in Chapter VII, “The Last Day of Moses’ Life,” in The Legends of the Jews: Volume III: From the Exodus to the Death of Moses. The following is a direct excerpt from that chapter. I’ve added headings with the tribe names to make them easier to find while reading without disrupting the text’s paragraphs.
THE BLESSING OF MOSES
The people now came to Moses and said, “The hour of thy death is at hand,” and he replied: “Wait until I have blessed Israel. All my life long they had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them to fear God and fulfil the commandments, therefore do I not now wish to depart out of this world before I have blessed them.” Moses had indeed always cherished the desire of blessing Israel, but the Angel of Death had never permitted him to satisfy his wish, so shortly before dying, he enchained the Angel of Death, cast him beneath his feet, and blessed Israel in spite of their enemy, saying, “Save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance: feed them also, and bear them up for ever.”
History of Covenant Blessings
Moses was not the first to bestow blessings, as former generations had also done so, but no blessing was as effective as his. Noah blessed his sons, but it was a divided blessing, being intended for Shem, whereas Ham, instead of being blessed, was cursed. Isaac blessed his sons, but his blessings led to a dispute, for Esau envied Jacob his blessings. Jacob blessed his sons, but even his blessing was not without a blemish, for in blessing he rebuked Reuben and called him to account for the sins he had committed. Even the number of Moses’ blessings excelled that of his predecessors. For when God created the world, He blessed Adam and Eve, and this blessing remained upon the world until the flood, when it ceased. When Noah left the ark, God appeared before him and bestowed upon him anew the blessing that had vanished during the flood, and this blessing rested upon the world until Abraham came into the world and received a second blessing from God, who said, “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” God then said to Abraham: “Henceforth it no longer behooves Me to bless My creatures in person, but I shall leave the blessings to thee: he whom thou blessest, shall be blessed by Me.” Abraham did not, however, bless his own son Isaac, in order that the villain Esau might not have a share in that blessing. Jacob, however, received not only two blessings from his father, but one other besides from the angel with whom he wrestled, and one from God; and the blessing also that had been Abraham’s to bestow upon his house went to Jacob. When Jacob blessed his sons, he passed on to them the five blessings he had received, and added one other. Balaam should really have blessed Israel with seven benedictions, corresponding to the seven altars he had erected, but he envied Israel greatly, and blessed them with only three blessings. God thereupon said: “Thou villain that begrudgest Israel their blessings! I shall not permit thee to bestow upon Israel all the blessing that are their due. Moses, who had ‘a benevolent eye,’ shall bless Israel.” And so, too, it came to pass. Moses added a seventh blessing to the six benedictions with which Jacob had blessed his twelve sons. This was not, however, the first time that Moses blessed the people. He blessed them at the erection of the Tabernacle, then at its consecration, a third time at the installation of the judges, and a fourth time on the day of his death.
Glorifying God Before Requesting a Blessing
Before bestowing his blessing upon Israel, however, Moses intoned a song in God’s praise, for it is fitting to glorify God’s name before asking a favor of Him, and as Moses was about to ask God to bless Israel, he first proclaimed His grandeur and His majesty.
He said: “When God first revealed Himself to Israel to bestow the Torah upon them, He appeared to them not from one direction, but from all four at once. He ‘came from Sinai,’ which is in the South, ‘and rose from Seir unto them,’ that is in the East; ‘He shined forth from mount Paran,’ that is in the North, ‘and he came from the ten thousands of holy’ angels that dwell in the West. He proclaimed the Torah not only in the language of Sinai, that is Hebrew, but also in the tongue of Seir, that is Roman, as well as in Paran’s speech, that is Arabic, and in the speech of Kadesh, that is Aramaic, for He offered the Torah not to Israel alone, but to all the nations of the earth. These, however, did not want to accept it, hence His wrath against them, and His especial love for Israel who, despite their awed fear and trembling upon God’s appearance on Sinai, still accepted the Torah. Lord of the World!” continued Moses, “When Israel shall have been driven out of their land, be mindful still of the merits of their Patriarchs and stand by them, deliver them in Thy mercy from ‘the yoke of the nations,’ and from death, and guide them in the future world as Thou didst lead them in the desert.”
At these words Israel exclaimed, “The Torah that Moses brought to us at the risk of his life is our bride, and no other nation may lay claim to it. Moses was our king when the seventy elders assembled, and in the future the Messiah will be our king, surrounded by seven shepherds, and he will gather together once more the scattered tribes of Israel.” Then Moses said: “God first appeared in Egypt to deliver His people, then at Sinai to give them the Torah, and He will appear a third time to take vengeance at Edom, and will finally appear to destroy Gog.”
After Moses had praised and glorified God, he began to implore His blessing for the tribes. His first prayer to God concerned Reuben, for whom he implored forgiveness for his sin with Bilhah. He said: “May Reuben come to life again in the future world for his good deed in saving Joseph, and may he not remain forever dead on account of his sin with Bilhah. May Reuben’s descendants also be heroes in war, and heroes in their knowledge of the Torah.” God granted this prayer and forgave Reuben’s sin in accordance with the wish of the other tribes, who begged God to grant forgiveness to their eldest brother. Moses at once perceived that God had granted his prayer, for all the twelve stones in the high priest’s breastplate began to gleam forth, whereas formerly Reuben’s stone had given forth no light.
When Moses saw that God had forgiven Reuben’s sin, he at once set about trying to obtain God’s pardon for Judah, saying, “Was it not Judah that through his penitent confession of his sin with his daughter-in-law Tamar induced Reuben, too, to seek atonement and repentance!” The sin for which Moses asked God to forgive Judah was that he had never redeemed his promise to bring Benjamin back to his father. Owing to this sin, his corpse fell to pieces, so that its bones rolled about in their coffin during the forty years’ march in the desert. But as soon as Moses prayed to God, saying, “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah,” the bones joined together once more, but his sin was not quite forgiven, for he was not yet admitted to the heavenly academy. Therefore Moses continued to pray: “Bring him in unto his people,” and he was admitted. It did not, indeed, benefit him, for in punishment of his sin, God brought it to pass that he could not follow the discussion of the scholars in heaven, much less take part in them, whereupon Moses prayed: “Let his hands be sufficient for him,” and them he no longer sat as one dumb in the heavenly academy. But still his sin was not quite forgiven, for Judah could not succeed in being victorious in the disputes of the learned, hence Moses prayed, “And Thou shalt be an help against his adversaries.” It was only then that Judah’s sin was quite forgiven, and that he succeeded in disputes with his antagonists in the heavenly academy.
As Moses prayed for Judah, so too did he pray for his seed, and especially for David and the royal dynasty of David. He said: “When David, king of Israel, shall be in need, and shall pray to Thee, then, ‘Hear, Lord, his voice, and Thou shalt be an help against his adversaries,’ ‘bring him’ then back ‘to his people’ in peace; and when alone he shall set out into battle against Goliath, ‘let his hands be sufficient for him, and Thou shalt be an help against his adversaries.'” Moses at the same time prayed God to stand by the tribe of Judah, whose chief weapon in war was the bow, that their ‘hands might be sufficient,’ that they might vigorously and with good aim speed the arrow.
No Blessing for Simeon
As Moses had never forgiven Simeon their sin with the daughters of Moab, he bestowed upon them no blessing, but this tribe also was not quite forgotten, for he included this tribe in his blessing for Judah, praying to God, that He might hear Judah’s voice whenever he should pray for the tribe of Simeon when they should be in distress, and that furthermore He should give them their possession in the Holy Land beside Judah’s.
Simeon and Levi “drank out of the same cup,” for both together in their wrath slew the inhabitants of Shechem, but whereas Levi made amends for his sin, Simeon added another new one. It was the Levites who, in their zeal for God, slew those that worshipped the Golden Calf; it was a Levite, Phinehas, moreover, who in his zeal for God slew the wicked prince of the tribe of Simeon, and his mistress. Hence Moses praised and blessed the tribe of Levi, whereas he did not even consider Simeon with a word.
His words first referred to Aaron, prince of the tribe of Levi. He said: “Well may Thy Urim and Tummim belong to Aaron, who ministered services of love to Thy children, who stood every test that Thou didst put upon him, and who at the ‘waters of rebellion’ became the victim of a wrong accusation.” God had then decreed against Aaron that he was to die in the desert, although not he, but Moses had trespassed against Him, saying to Israel, “Hear now, ye rebels.” As Aaron, prince of the tribe of Levi, when Israel was still in Egypt, declaimed passionately against the people because they worshipped idols, so too all the tribe of Levi stood up by God’s standard when Israel worshipped the Golden Calf in the desert, and slew the idolaters, even if they were their half-brothers or their daughters sons. The Levites also were the only ones who, in Egypt as in the desert, remained true to God and His teachings, did not abandon the token of the covenant, and were not tempted to rebellion by the spies. “Hence,” continued Moses, “shall the Levites be the only ones from whose mouth shall issue judgement and instruction for Israel. ‘Thy shall put incense’ in the Holy of Holies, ‘and whole burnt offerings upon His altar.’ Their sacrifices shall reconcile Israel with God, and they themselves shall be blessed with earthly goods. Thou, Lord, ‘smitest through the loins of them that rise up against them’ that dispute the priestly rights of this tribe, Thou didst destroy Korah, and they ‘that hated them’ like king Uzziah, ‘shall not rise again.’ ‘Bless, Lord, the substance of the Levites who give from the tithes that they receive one-tenth to the priests. Mayest Thou accept sacrifice from the hands of the priest Elijah upon mount Carmel, ‘smite the loins’ of his enemy Ahab, break the neck of the latter’s false prophets, and may the enemies of the high priest Johanan rise not again.”
Blessing Benjamin“Benjamin,” said Moses, “is the beloved of the Lord, whom he will always shield, and in whose possession the sanctuary shall stand, in this world as well as in the time of the Messiah, and in the future world.”
Moses blessed Joseph’s tribe with the blessing that their possession might be the most fruitful and blessed land on earth; dew shall ever be there, and many wells spring up. It shall constantly be exposed to the gentle influences of sun and moon, that the fruits may ripen early. “I wish him,” said Moses, “that the blessings given him by the Patriarchs and the wives of the Patriarchs may be fulfilled.” And so, too, it came to pass, for the land of the tribe of Joseph possessed everything, and nothing within it was lacking. This was the reward to Joseph for having fulfilled the will of God that was revealed to Moses in the bush of thorns; and also because as king of Egypt he treated his brothers with high honors although they had thrust him from their midst. Moses furthermore blessed Joseph by promising him that, as he had been the first of Jacob’s sons to come to Egypt, he was also to be the first in the future world to appear in the Holy Land. Moses proclaimed the heroism of Joseph’s seed in the words: “As it is a vain thing to try to force the firstling bullock to labor, so little shall Joseph’s sons be yoked into service by the empires; as the unicorn with his horns pushes away all other animals, so, too, shall Joseph’s sons rule the nations, even to the ends of the earth. The Ephraimite Joshua shall destroy myriads of heathens, and the Manassite Gideon thousands of them.”
Blessing Zebulun and Issachar
Zebulun was the tribe that before all the other tribes devoted itself to commerce, and in this way acted as the agent between Israel and the other nations, selling the products of Palestine to the latter, and foreign wares to the former. Hence the blessing that Moses bestowed upon them. “‘Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out’ on commercial enterprises; at thy instance shall many nations pray upon the sacred mountain of the Temple and offer their sacrifices.” For the people that came into Zebulun’s realms on matters of business used to go from thence to Jerusalem to look upon the sanctuary of the Jews, and many of them were converted through the grand impression that the life in the holy city made upon them. Moses furthermore blessed this tribe by giving them an estate by the sea, which might yield them costly fish and the purple shell, and the sand of whose shores might furnish them the material for glass. The other tribes were therefore dependent upon Zebulun for these articles, which they could not obtain from any one else, for whosoever attempted to rob Zebulun of them, was doomed to bad luck in business. It is the “Sea of Chaifa” also, within Zebulun’s territory, where all the treasures of the ocean were brought to shore; for whenever a ship is wrecked at sea, the ocean sends it and its treasures to the sea of Chaifa, where it is hoarded for the pious until the Judgement Day. One other blessing of Zebulun was that it would always be victorious in battle, whereas the tribe of Issachar, closely bound up with it, was blessed by its distinction in the “tents of learning.” For Issachar was “the tribe of scholars and of judges,” wherefore Moses blessed them, saying that in “the future time,” Israel’s great house of instruction as well as the great Sanhedrin would be located in this tribe.
The tribe of Gad, dwelling on the boundary of the land of Israel, received the benediction that in “the future time” it would be as strong in battle as it had been at the first conquest of Palestine, and would hereafter stand at the head of Israel on their return to the Holy Land, as it had done on their first entrance into the land. Moses praised this tribe for choosing its site on this side the Jordan because that place had been chosen to hold Moses’ tomb. Moses indeed died on mount Nebo, which is Reuben’s possession, but his body was taken from Nebo by the pinions of the Shekinah, and brought to Gad’s territory, a distance of four miles, amid the lamentations of the angels, who said, “He shall enter into peace and rest in his bed.”
Dan, who like Gad had his territory on the boundary of the land, was also blessed with strength and might, that he might ward off the attacks of Israel’s enemies. He was also blessed in receiving his territory in the Holy Land in two different sections of it.
Naphtali’s blessing read: “O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full with the blessing of the Lord: possess thou the west and the south.” This blessing was verified, for the tribe of Naphtali had in its possession an abundance of fish and mushrooms, so that they could maintain themselves without much labor; and the valley of Gennesaret furthermore was their possession, whose fruits were renowned for their extraordinary sweetness. But Naphtali was blessed not with material blessings only, but also with spiritual; for it was the great house of instruction at Tiberias to which Moses alluded when he said of Naphtali, “he is ‘full with the blessings of the Lord.'”
Moses called Asher the favorite of his brethren, for it was this tribe that in the years of release provided nourishment for all Israel, as its soil was so productive that what grew of its own accord sufficed to sustain all. But Moses blessed Asher in particular with a land rich in olives, so that oil flowed in streams through Asher’s land. Hence Moses blessed him the words: “The treasures of all lands shall flow to thee, for the nations shall give thee gold and silver for thine oil.” He blessed Asher moreover with many sons, and with daughters that preserved the charms of youth in their old age.
Tribal Blessings in Moses’ Psalms
As Moses uttered eleven benedictions, so likewise did he compose eleven psalms, corresponding to the eleven tribes blessed by him. These psalms of Moses were later received into David’s Psalter, where the psalms of Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Solomon, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah also found their place. Moses’ first psalms says, “‘Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men,’ and forgivest the forefather of the tribe of Reuben who sinned, but returned again to God.” Another one of Moses’ psalms reads, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty,” which corresponds to the tribe of Levi that dwelled in the sanctuary, the shadow of the Almighty. To the tribe of Judah, whose name signifies, “Praise the Lord,” belongs the psalm, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” The psalm: “The Lord is apparelled with majesty,” is Benjamin’s, for the sanctuary stood in his possession, hence this psalm closes with the words, “Holiness becometh Thine house, O Lord, forevermore.” The psalm: “O Lord, Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth; Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth,” was composed by Moses for the tribe of Gad; for Elijah, a member of this tribe, was to destroy the foundations of the heathens, and to wreak upon them the vengeance of the Lord. To the tribe of learned men, Issachar, goes the psalm: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation,” for it is this tribe that occupy themselves with the Torah, the book of praise.
MOSES PRAYS FOR DEATH
Blessing for the Future World
Moses still had many other blessings for every single tribe, but when he perceived that his time had drawn to a close, he included them all in one blessing, saying, “Happy art thou, O Israel: Who is like unto thee, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and that is the sword of thy excellency!” With these words he at the same time answered a question that Israel had put to him, saying, “O tell us, our teacher Moses, what is the blessing that God will bestow upon us in the future world?” He replied: “I cannot describe it to you, but all I can say is, happy ye that such is decreed for ye!” Moses at the same time begged God that in the future world He might restore to Israel the heavenly weapon that He had taken from them after the worship of the Golden Calf. God said, “I swear that I shall restore it to them.”
When Moses had finished his blessing, he asked Israel to forgive his sternness toward them, saying: “Ye have had much to bear from me in regard to the fulfillment of the Torah and its commandments, but forgive me now.” They replied: “Our teacher, our lord, it is forgiven.” It was not their turn to ask his forgiveness, which they did in these words: “We have often kindled thine anger and have laid many burdens upon thee, but forgive us now.” He said, “It is forgiven.”
In the meanwhile people came to him and said, “The hour has come in which thou departest from the world.” Moses said, “Blessed be His name that liveth and endureth in all eternity!” Turning to Israel, he then said, “I pray ye, when ye shall have entered into the land of Israel, remember me still, and my bones, and say, ‘Woe to the son of Amram that ran before us like a horse, but whose bones remained in the desert.'” Israel said to Moses: “O our teacher, what will become of us when thou art gone?” He replied: “While I was with ye, God was with ye; yet think not that all the signs and miracles that He wrought through me were performed for my sake, for much rather were they done for your sake, and for His love and mercy, and if ye have faith in Him, He will work your desires. ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help,’ for how could ye expect help from a man, a creature of flesh and blood, that cannot shield himself from death? Put, therefore, your trust in Him through whose word arose the world, for He liveth and endureth in all eternity. Whether ye be laden with sin, or not, ‘pour your heart before Him,’ and turn to Him.” Israel said: “‘The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.’ God is our strength and our refuge.”