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Saturday, May 30, 2020
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At Genesis 49:21, Naftali is given the following blessing: “Naftali ayalah sheluchah, ha-noten imrei shefer.” Here is the translation in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash: “a hind let loose who delivers beautiful sayings.”

An “ayalah=hind” is a female deer. The simplest interpretation of “imrei” is that it derives from “A-M-R” with the meaning “say,” and the simplest interpretation of “Sh-F-R” is that it derives from a root that means “beauty, pleasant.”

But what is the import of the entire verse, and is there a connection between the two different phrases?

Nachmanides writes that in ancient times there was a custom for kings to communicate using deer. For example, a deer born in a northern kingdom would be raised in a southern kingdom. Then when the king of the southern kingdom wanted to send a message to his counterpart in the north, he would attach the message to the horns of such a deer and let it loose. The deer would then return swiftly to its birth region and the message was communicated! (How clever they were prior to postal systems and the internet!) The verse is referring to such a deer sent with good news. Nachmanides cites a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud that refers to this method of communication. He further explains the symbolism: From the land of Naftali will come news to all of Israel that the land of Naftali has produced fruits abundantly.

One problem with this interpretation is that there is nothing in the verse to suggest that it relates to abundant produce.

What about that word “sheluchah”? We just gave a “messenger” interpretation. But another widespread and very reasonable interpretation of the first three words is an image of swiftness. See, e.g., Sotah 13a, the Hertz Chumash and the ArtScroll Stone Chumash.

But Ibn Ezra takes a different approach. He suggests that the symbolism of “sheluchah” is “sent as a gift” (see I Kings 9:16), and that the second phrase reflects the words of thanks expressed by the recipient.

Ibn Ezra’s explanation is too brief. (Ibn Ezra’s explanations are often brief and cryptic.) One interpretation of his explanation notes that there is an expression “ayelet ahavim” at Mishlei 5:19, and suggests that Ibn Ezra meant that Naftali is as beloved and beautiful as a deer that is sent as a present between lovers. (But “ayelet ahavim” at 5:19 is not describing a present between lovers.) Another explanation is that Ibn Ezra is referring to the produce of Naftali being sent as a gift. In any event, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation does not read well, as there is nothing in the verse that suggests that it is the recipient that makes the “imrei shefer” statement.

Rashbam suggests that the first two words allude to military men who are as fast as deer. They return from war quickly to announce the glad tidings of victory. The problem with this interpretation is that there is nothing in the verse referring to war.

Abravanel and others view “ha-noten imrei shefer” as alluding to the eloquence of the tribe. But what would be the connection with the first phrase? (Admittedly, there does not have to be a connection.)

A very simple interpretation is found at Bamidbar Rabbah 14:11. Naftali was very good at honoring his father, so he went wherever Yaakov sent him and accomplished his tasks quickly. His statements to Yaakov were also very pleasant.

  1. S. D. Luzzatto brings down many interpretations. At the end, he suggests the one he prefers: Naftali was a jovial man who would run like a deer as joyful people do. With regard to the last three words, they should be understood as “he who gives praise to his God.” The blessing here is that Naftali and his descendants should always remain joyful and thankful to God. (See also Moses’ blessing to Naftali at Deut. 33:23.) But query whether a deer that is let loose/sent out reflects an image of “joy.” The image seems to be one of “speed.”

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Until now, we have been assuming that “imrei” meant “words” and that “shefer” means “beauty.” But there are other ways to translate these words.

As to “imrei,” from Isa. 17:6 and 17:9, we see that A-M-R can mean something like “branch of a tree” (in the form A-M-Y-R). In this view, the meaning of the second half of the statement relates to beautiful branches. Some also translate “ayalah” in the first phrase with a “tree” meaning. See, e.g, Malbim. But translating “ayalah” as a tree is a stretch. “Alah” and “Elah” are words for tree in Tanach, not “ayalah.” Also, “sheluchah” fits better with the animal meaning. Since the first phrase is not referring to a tree, the second phrase probably has nothing to do with trees either.

There is another way to translate “imrei.” An “imer” is a lamb in Aramaic. Accordingly, I have seen the suggestion that in our verse “imrei” has a “deer” meaning. For example, the Drazin-Wagner edition of Onkelos translates the latter phrase in our verse as “that bears lovely fawns.” A fawn is a young deer. This is before it gives the translation of Onkelos himself. (“Sh-F-R” as “beauty/splendor” is also fundamentally an Aramaic word. It appears rarely in Tanach.) The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon also mentions “beautiful young animals” as a possibility. But is it not the female that bears the newborn animals? The verse should have read “ha-notenet”!

With regard to the root Sh-P-R, a different approach is to connect it with the word “shofar” and its “horn” meaning. If A-M-R is given its “tree, branch” meaning, the result is something like “branched antlers.” This interpretation is one of several mentioned in Koehler-Baumgartner and in the Daat Mikra. It is also mentioned in the concordance of S. Mandelkern, in the entry for “ayal.” He suggests that it is an image of “hod” and “tiferet.” But the word “ha-noten” (=gives) is difficult in this interpretation. Something like “grows” would have been better.

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As you can see, I have not suggested a preferred interpretation. In order to do that, it is necessary to analyze all of Yaakov’s blessings and see whether they generally point to qualities of the son, qualities of the tribe, or qualities of the land. Or perhaps they typically predict particular events or individuals. Also, perhaps they should be understood in light of the blessings that Moshe gave. All of this is beyond the scope of this limited presentation.

(An interesting approach to all the blessings is suggested by Abravanel: Each of Yaakov’s blessings is insinuating why the tribe is not fit for royalty, unlike Yehudah.)

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One midrashic tradition is that Serach, daughter of Asher, was the one who first informed Yaakov that Yosef was alive. But there is another such tradition that Naftali was the one who delivered this message of good news. See Targum Yonatan to Gen. 46:17 and to our verse. Surely this midrashic tradition derives from our verse!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] As an attorney, he tries to move his litigations quickly. As a Jewish scholar, he tries to write beautiful columns.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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