The Lion of Judah (Gur Aryeh Yehuda) is a powerful and enduring symbol within Jewish tradition, representing the historical and spiritual significance of the tribe of Judah. Its roots can be traced back to the book of Genesis (Bereshit) making it Judaism’s oldest symbol. The first reference to the Lion of Judah occurs where Jacob, also known as Israel, blesses his sons and two of his grandsons, who would be the progenitors of the 12 Tribes of Israel. In Genesis 49:8-12, Jacob blesses his fourth son, Judah, with these words:
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion cub; on prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion. Like a lioness —who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”
This blessing is significant because it foretells the leadership and kingship of the tribe of Judah, with all but the first legitimate kings coming from the tribe of Judah. The Lion is used as a symbol of strength, courage, and power, emphasizing the prominent role that Judah and his descendants would play in the history of Israel. The prophecy about the scepter and ruler’s staff not departing from Judah until the coming of Shiloh is often interpreted as a Messianic reference, further associating the tribe with the future redemption of Israel. This is in part because when Moshiach comes, he will be a descendant of King David, from the tribe of Judah.
In addition to the blessing of Judah, there is another reference to a lion in the context of another tribe in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 33:22, when Moses blesses the tribes of Israel before his death, he blesses the tribe of Dan, saying, “Dan is a lion’s cub, leaping forth from Bashan”, the source of the Jordan river. While this verse also associates a tribe with the imagery of a lion, it is the blessing of Judah that has had a more enduring and central role within Jewish tradition. In both cases however, the blessing comes from the nature of the tribes as fierce defenders of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.
The Lion of Judah symbolizes the kingship, strength, and divine favor bestowed upon the tribe of Judah who ruled over the Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem. It has been embraced as a symbol of Jewish identity, seen on the Jerusalem Coat of Arms. This iconic representation serves as a reminder of the leadership and spiritual heritage of the tribe from which the term “Judaism” derives, and it continues to hold a profound place in the hearts and minds of Jewish people around the world.