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    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 44, no. 2, April-June 2016.

    Issachar (in Hebrew Yissachar) was the ninth son of the patriarch Jacob, his fifth son by Leah (Gen. 30:18). One of the most interesting things about him is his name, its derivation, pronunciation and meaning. Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon[1] says, “etymology and meaning dubious”. Its kernel, s-ch-r, a reward or recompense, is the key word in the whole story and is also central to both the preceding narrative (Gen. 29:15) and its sequel (Gen. 30:35-43), making the story a virtual play on this word.

    When Issachar was born, Leah said, “God has given me my reward (sechari) for having given my maid (Zilpah) to my husband” (Gen. 30:18, JPS 1962). Where the Hebrew has sechari, Targum Onkelos has agri, which can mean both my hire and my reward. The background is given in Genesis 30:9, “When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as concubine”. Zilpah gave birth to Jacob’s sons Gad and Asher. Leah took it for granted that the good deed of offering her maid to her husband to produce more offspring resulted in Leah herself being able to bear more children.

    There is an additional incident involving Leah and a reward. Her sister/co-wife, Rachel, was on better terms than she with Jacob. Jacob had not been cohabiting with Leah. Rachel agreed to allow her to sleep with him in return for some mandrakes (duda’im,[2] fruit or herbs which were believed to arouse sexual desire and facilitate conception), which Leah’s son Reuben had come across (verses 14-16). The bargain between the sisters leads Leah to use the verb s-ch-r again, when she tells Jacob, sachor secharticha, “I have indeed hired you” (verse 16). We expect her to call Issachar a reward (sachar) for “hiring” (sachor) her husband through the mandrakes. But this is not what happens, and the mandrake story is played down. Why does she neither mention nor take any apparent pride in the mandrake episode, speaking only of the Zilpah incident?

    The rabbis offer ethical explanations. TB Eruvin 100b hints that Leah was embarrassed that mandrakes had to be traded in order to get Jacob to carry out his marital duty. Thus, out of respect for Jacob the text downplays the mandrake story when explaining the derivation of Issachar’s name. Rashi (based on Genesis Rabbah 72:3) says that by making the mandrake deal, Rachel was disrespectful towards the patriarch and was punished by not being buried with him. The omission of the mandrake story might be Leah’s way of protecting the honor of Rachel – or her own shame at having to bargain for her husband. Perhaps it is out of respect for God that the mandrake episode was downplayed, as Leah preferred to attribute the birth of a new son to the power of God rather than the mandrakes. Rashbam, however, finds a hint of two deeds in the doubling of the second consonant in Issachar, indicating a double etymology.[3]

    Wellhausen quotes a suggestion that Yissachar reflects an Egyptian god, Seker or Sokar, with the connotation, “Seker – or Sokar’s – man” or “A man (dedicated to) Seker/ Sokar”.[4] However, the Seker/Sokar theory requires evidence that Leah had an affinity to Egyptian cult worship, and needs to indicate why the name of this particular son features an Egyptian deity. Further, even if it was Leah’s wish to honor a heathen god, did Jacob have no say? Above all, the Seker-Sokar theory takes no account of the s-ch-r motif which is central to the narrative. Gordon J Wenham says in the Word Biblical Commentary, “Issachar is an Amorite name attested at Mari: yashur-il, ‘May Il (God) be gracious’”. Here too we wonder why the s-ch-r key word is not acknowledged.[5]

    On balance, the “reward” theory seems most cogent. As a variation on this theme, there is a possibility that instead of “reward” we can translate s-ch-r as “hire” or “wages”. This is the approach of Alfred Jones.[6] In the sense of “wages” it may foreshadow the later words of Jacob’s last message to his children, wherein he says about Issachar, “he bent his shoulder to the burden and became a toiling serf” (Gen. 49:14-15). What exactly this verse refers to is unclear. Ibn Ezra says they would pay tribute in place of military service. Rashi says they would bring Torah knowledge to others. In the context of Leah’s experience, however, it seems better to understand that Issachar would be her wages for hiring Jacob from her sister, which brings us back to the main “reward” motif.

    The spelling of Yissachar raises two connected etymological questions. The first is why is the first letter a yod. The “reward” theory, based on Leah’s statement, derives the name from the two Hebrew words yesh sachar (there is a reward). The suggestion is that the name begins with the word yesh and continues with the word sachar. The two Hebrew words are conjoined to produce a name that is pronounced Yish-sachar. The validity of this pronunciation is borne out by Jeremiah: yesh sachar lif’ulatech (Jer. 31:15) and Chronicles: yesh sachar lif’ulat’chem (II Chron. 15:7) both verses meaning “your work shall be rewarded”. We could also regard the initial yod as a third person masculine imperfect verbal prefix. If we take it that the subject of the verb is Yissachar himself, we can translate his name as “he is wages”, “he brings wages” (or “reward” or “recompense”). However, it may be grammatically preferable to see the name as niph’al, not pa’al, and to translate it “He receives reward”, which hints at blessings enjoyed by Yissachar’s progeny in later generations. If the subject of the verb is God, which is not conceptually impossible, it would allow a translation, “He gives a reward” or “May He give a reward”.

    A possibly better option is to say that the name originally began with ish (aleph-yod-shin), “a man”, but the initial aleph dropped off. This option indicates a man whose birth was a reward. In this case the original pronunciation of Yissachar’s name was ish sachar (maybe ish sachir), which BDB regards as a more probable combination than yesh sachar.[7] The biblical concordances give several instances of names commencing with ish, a man, so it is not unlikely that this phenomenon applied also to Yissachar, and this is the recommendation of the present writer.

    The second etymological question is why the second consonant is duplicated, whether we read the combination as shin/shin, sin/sin, sin/shin, or shin/sin. The ketiv (the written version) of the Masoretic Pentateuch provides no vocalisation of any kind for the second of these two letters. The kri (the read version) tells the reader to ignore this letter, though as we shall see there is a range of customs followed in different Jewish communities. The various theories aver that, at least originally, each of the two letters had its own significance, one probably being a shin and the other a sin. In the yesh sachar theory, the name begins with the yod and shin of yesh and continues with the sin of sachar, conjoined to produce a name that is pronounced Yish-sachar. Care would be needed if a person were to pronounce the adjoining shin and sin separately, and in time a tendency towards ease of pronunciation may have led to the letters flowing into one another, with the sibilant sin, the more dominant sound, overtaking the softer shin. This was less likely in the verses in Jeremiah and II Chronicles noted above, where the cantillation separates the words.

    Rather than positing a shin-sin phenomenon that evolved into the shin being absorbed into the sin, a completely different option found in BDB is that there is a doubled sin, making the original name yissa (yod-sin-aleph) sachar, “he will bring (or receive) a reward” (cf. Ps. 24:5, yissa v’rachah, he shall receive a blessing).[8] In this interpretation there still is a reward, but this time the reward does not go to the mother but the son and his descendants. The pronunciation of the name of Leah’s son would thus technically be Yissas’char, a pronunciation that is used on some occasions in some rites. This theory requires us to posit that the aleph of yissa has been lost.

    It could be that the phenomenon of the coalescence of two letters to produce a sin, resulting in the pronunciation Yissachar with no trace of a shin, is reflected in a passage in TB Sotah 36a, which speaks of two sins pronounced as one. The dropping of a “spare” consonant is seen in II Chronicles 5:12, where the second resh of machtzerim, sounding (trumpets), is dropped in the kri. In our case the “spare” letter simply drops out, though there is an aggadic view that the letter concerned was plucked up from the name and added to a different word. The context is a change in the character of Yissachar’s son Yov (Gen. 46:13), called Yashuv in Numbers 26:24. The rabbis (quoted by Chizkuni on Num. 26:24) thought that he was an undisciplined person who acquired his father’s “spare” shin when he became Yashuv (from y-sh-v, to sit or settle) and settled into life as a student of Torah.

    Turning from academic to practical issues, Bleich affirms that whilst it is accepted practice to pronounce the name as Yissachar, there are other customs.[9] Bleich summarises an article by Shlomo Adler in HaMa’ayan, Tevet 5727, which cites the Torat Moshe of the Chatam Sofer (Moses Schreiber), as advocating the reading of the name as Yissas’char, with each consonant enunciated. Dr Adler recalls that this custom was known in pre-war Germany. The Tishri 5728 issue of HaMa’ayan carries a reply by Ephraim Yehudah (Ernest) Wiesenberg, arguing that the alleged view of the Chatam Sofer was inserted in his writings by his students, and does not reflect the true opinion of the Chatam Sofer. However, whilst preferring the customary Yissachar, Dr Wiesenberg finds a basis for the Yissas’char custom in the Teshuvot Yehoshua of Joshua Heschel Babad. Saul Esh supports the accepted practice in an article in the Nisan 5727 issue, but reports the existence of a custom – based on aggadic considerations – of pronouncing the name as Yissas’char – using both consonants – up to Numbers 26:24, when a letter was taken by Yov, but as Yissachar thereafter. There is a widespread custom that the congregational Torah reader pronounces the name Yissas’char the first time it appears in the Torah but subsequently as Yissachar.


    On the basis of the material noted above, the following conclusions commend themselves. Because the key word of the story is s-ch-r, a reward or recompense, Yissachar was so named because his mother Leah regarded his birth as a reward. It is possible that Yissachar connotes yesh sachar, but it is more likely that to be ish sachar or ish sachir. The initial aleph of ish has dropped out. The second consonant of Yissachar was originally the shin of ish, creating the pronunciation Yish-sachar. The third consonant is the sin of sachar/sachir. The shin has merged into the sin, creating the pronunciation Yissachar. Some customs pronounce both the second and third consonants as sin and read the name as Yissas’char, either on all or some occasions.

    1. Francis Brown, SR Driver & Charles A Briggs (eds.), A Hebrew & English Lexicon of the Old Testament (BDB) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957 ed.), p. 441.
    2. Probably connected with dod, a lover; cf. dodim in Song of Songs (passim) and Proverbs 7:18.
    3. Bible critics argue that the text weaves together two disparate sources, the mandrake story from a J source and the Zilpah story from an E source. See, John Skinner, International Critical Commentary (ICC) on Genesis (Edinburgh: Clark, 1963 ed.), pp. 384-389; Gordon J Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1994), pp. 240-248; James Hastings (ed.), A Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Scribner, 1909), p. 518. However, there seems no necessary logic in this approach, nor does it explain why one incident was preferred to the other. Yair Zakovitch and others address the double etymologies without resorting to the documentary hypothesis. See Yair Zakovitch, “Explicit and Implicit Name-Derivations”, Hebrew Annual Review 4 (1980), p. 182.
    4. Julius Wellhausen, Der Text der Buecher Samuelis Untersucht (1871 ed.), p. 95.
    5. op. cit., pp. 247-248.
    6. Alfred Jones, Proper Names of the Old Testament Scriptures (London: Bagster, 1856), p. 168.
    7. Francis Brown, SR Driver & Charles A Briggs (eds.), A Hebrew & English Lexicon of the Old Testament (BDB), (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957 ed.), p. 441.
    8. ibid.
    9. J David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 1 (NewYork Targum/Feldheim, 1976), pp. 70-71.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Psalms 37:25 and 34:11 – After-meal theology
    Psalm 113: Is verse 9 the woman’s voice?
    Psalm 22: The Esther connection
    Samson Agonistes
    Amen as response and introduction
    The English poets’ “Ritzpah”
    Psalm 34 – does the heading fit?
    Is Pesach Passover?
    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

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