Who are the twelve tribes?

Jacob had twelve sons. The offspring of each these men became the twelve tribes (shevatim) of the nation of Israel. Although all the tribes are part of one nation, each tribe (shevet) has unique characteristics. And so, when they were blessed by Jacob,1 and later by Moses,2 each tribe received a different blessing in accordance with their individual nature and purpose.

Tribes in birth order Name of mother Number of men ages 20-60 after the Exodus Where they camped while traveling through the desert Symbol on flag
Reuben Leah 46,500 South Jasmine plant
Simeon Leah 59,300 South City of Shechem
Levi Leah Center Urim VeTurim
Judah Leah 74,600 East Lion
Dan Bilhah 62,700 North Snake
Naphtali Bilhah 53,400 North Gazelle
Gad Zilpah 45,650 South Military camp
Asher Zilpah 41,500 North Olive tree
Issachar Leah 54,400 East Sun and moon
Zebulun Leah 57,400 East Ship
Benjamin Rachel 35,400 West Wolf
Joseph-Ephraim Rachel 40,500 West Bull
Joseph-Menasheh Rachel 32,200 West Re'em (a large horned bovine animal)

Birth of the Twelve Sons of Jacob

The story of the twelve tribes begins when their father, Jacob, escaped from his brother, Esau, who wanted to kill him. As per his mother Rebecca's instructions, Jacob left the Land of Israel and took refuge in his uncle Laban's house, where he worked as a shepherd.

It was there that he met his beautiful cousin Rachel, and they decided to get married. Laban, Rachel’s father, permitted Jacob to marry Rachel only after completing seven years of work. When the seven years were over and it was time for the wedding, Laban tricked Jacob and gave his older daughter, Leah, to Jacob to marry in Rachel's stead. Jacob then worked for Laban for another seven years and married Rachel as a second wife.

Leah had six sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter named Dinah.

Rachel grew envious of her sister Leah, as she still did not have children of her own. She gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. As Bilhah’s mistress, she would be able to raise Bilhah’s children. Additionally, she hoped that in the merit of selflessly giving Jacob her maidservant, G‑d would grant her children. Bilhah did in fact have two sons, whom Rachel named Dan and Naphtali.

At this point Leah also gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a concubine. Zilpah had two sons, Gad and Asher.

G‑d remembered the righteousness of Rachel, who was childless, and granted her wish. She had a son and named him Joseph. Later, once the family of Jacob returned to the Land of Israel, Rachel gave birth to a second son, Benjamin, who was the youngest in the family. Rachel died immediately after the difficult birth. Thus, there were twelve sons and one daughter born from one father and four mothers.3 Each of these twelve sons are the father of one tribe (except for Joseph who is the father of two tribes named for his sons, Menashe and Ephraim).

Reuben - the Fallen Firstborn

Jacob had four wives: Bilhah and Zilpah, who were concubines; and Leah and Rachel who were proper wives. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife, and the one he initially intended to marry, unlike Leah whom he was tricked into marrying. As such, Rachel had special status with Jacob, and Jacob’s bed was regularly placed in Rachel’s tent, and not in the tents of his other wives. When Rachel died at a young age during childbirth, Jacob took his bed and moved it into the tent of Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel.

Reuben, who was the eldest son of Leah, protested his mother’s humiliation. He reasoned that Rachel's maidservant should not enjoy a special place with Jacob over his mother. He felt that after the death of Rachel, Jacob’s bed should be in Leah’s tent, and not in the tent of Bilhah, who was only a concubine and a maidservant. And so, he went ahead and moved Jacob’s bed to Leah’s tent without consulting Jacob.

Even though Reuben’s intentions were good, he was held accountable for having disturbed his father's marital arrangements.4 As the firstborn, he was meant to have had special status. However, due to this incident he lost his privileges.

The Torah law is that the eldest son’s inheritance is twice as much as his brothers’ inheritance. This privilege was taken from Reuben, and instead the tribe of Joseph was divided into two, receiving two portions in the Land of Israel. Additionally, the priesthood was going to be given to the tribe of Reuben, but because of this mistake it was given to the tribe of Levi. Likewise, the kings of the Jewish nations are from the tribe of Judah and not from Reuben because of this incident.5

Shimon and Levi Save Dinah

Jacob and his sons settled in Shechem. When the prince of Shechem saw Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, he kidnapped her and forced her to lay with him. Jacob and his sons were outraged, and were determined to avenge their sister's honor. Shimon and Levi attacked Shechem, taking the lives of all the men, including the prince and his father, the king. Jacob rebuked his sons for rashly antagonizing their powerful neighbors and endangering his family.6

Judah’s Family

Judah was the leader of the brothers. They followed his advice, and he took responsibility for their well-being during difficult times.7 Because of this, he was sometimes blamed for the wrongdoings of the brothers.8 Judah also possessed extraordinary physical strength, which he bravely used to protect his family.9

Judah had three sons. Their names were Er, Onan and Shelah. Er, the oldest, married a woman named Tamar. Shortly after their wedding, Er mysteriously died, leaving his wife a childless widow. Following the law of the levirate marriage, Judah married his second son, Onan, to Tamar so that she would have a child “to keep his brother’s name alive.” Onan was unwilling to have a son that would in effect belong to his late brother, so he “spilled his seed,” and for this he too died young.

This left Judah’s youngest son, Shelah, to marry Tamar. But Judah delayed their marriage, for he was worried that if Shelah married Tamar, he too would die like his two older brothers. When Tamar realized that she wouldn’t be able to marry Shelah, she disguised herself as a prostitute and slept with Judah.

Tamar became pregnant with twins. Judah, unaware that it was Tamar he had been with because of her disguise, concluded that Tamar must have had a forbidden relationship, and ordered her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar—who had taken Judah’s signet, cloak and staff as collateral—sent them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.” Judah now understood that he was the father of her twins. Tamar, unable to marry, yet honor-bound to have a child to perpetuate the memory of her first husband, rightfully tricked her father-in-law into performing the duty he should have allowed his youngest son to do.

The firstborn of the twins was the progenitor of King David. It was decreed on high that Tamar would be the ancestor of the kings of Israel; it was also decreed the kings would be from the tribe of Judah. Thus it was necessary that Tamar have children with the sons of Judah or with Judah himself.10

Joseph and His Brothers

The story of Joseph plays an integral role in the inception of the Jewish nation. It was the backdrop for the children of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent miraculous Exodus.

Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was disliked by his brothers. Their hostility towards him reached a peak when Joseph had dreams that made allusions to his brothers serving him as a ruler. Things got so bad that the brothers plotted to kill Joseph. Reuben, the oldest of the group, attempted to save Joseph, convincing his brothers that instead of murdering him with their own hands, they should throw him into a pit and allow him to die on his own.

Reuben’s secret plan was to return later and rescue Joseph from the pit. However, things did not go according to plan. After Joseph was thrown into the pit, Reuben temporarily left his brothers. In Reuben’s absence, Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave. By the time Reuben returned to rescue Joseph, it was too late. Joseph had already been purchased as a slave and taken away.

Joseph ended up working in Egypt as a slave for Pharaoh’s royal butcher. He rose in rank until he had full responsibility over his master’s household. But this arrangement came to an end when Joseph refused to have relations with his master's wife despite her persistent attempts. She then claimed that he had attempted to rape her and had him imprisoned.

While in prison, Joseph accurately interpreted two dreams that predicted events which indeed came to pass. It then happened that Pharaoh was having mysterious dreams, and his advisers could make no sense of them. Joseph, who now had a reputation for dream interpretation, was summoned to see if he could help Pharoah. Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams as a prediction that there would be seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggested that the Egyptians stock up during the plentiful years for the impending famine. Pharaoh liked what Joseph had said so much that he appointed Joseph as the second in command and commissioned him to spearhead the food storage project.

When the years of famine arrived, everyone had to come to Joseph to purchase food, which made him astonishingly rich and powerful. Among the customers that came to purchase food from Joseph were his estranged brothers who had run out of provisions.

When they met Joseph, they did not recognize him, but he recognized them. For a period of time Joseph harassed and tested his brothers to insure that they felt remorse for what they had done to him. He made his brothers look like thieves and had Simeon imprisoned. When he could no longer contain his emotions, he revealed his true identity and invited them to come with their families to reside comfortably in Egypt. Jacob, his wives and offspring moved to Egypt where they lived happily for the rest of their lives.11

Eventually, after Joseph and his immediate family died, the treatment that the Jews received from the Egyptians deteriorated to the point that they became slaves. When the Jews left Egypt, they took the bodies of Joseph and his brothers with them to be reburied in Israel.

Joseph Splits into Ephraim and Menasheh

As Jacob was lying on his deathbed, he told Joseph that G‑d once appeared to him and said that additional tribes would be counted among his offspring. However, Jacob had no more children to initiate these additional tribes. He therefore understood that G‑d was indicating to him that the two children of Joseph were to be considered tribes of their own.

And so, the tribe of Joseph was divided into two tribes bearing the names of his sons. Thus, there is generally no tribe by the name of Joseph; instead there are the tribes of Ephraim and Menasheh.12

The Priestly Tribe of Levi and the Kohanim

The tribe of Levi was the most pious of the tribes and received special status. While enslaved in Egypt, the Jewish nation reached an all-time moral and religious low, and in many ways began to resemble their evil oppressors. However, the Levites remained steadfast in their Judaism and were never enslaved, serving as a reminder to the rest of the nation of how a Jew is to live (read how and why that happened here).13 The Levites became the spiritual leaders of the nation. Most notably, Moses was a member of the tribe of Levi.14

After the Exodus, when G‑d commanded that a Tabernacle be built, the Levites were chosen to serve there as representatives of the other tribes. Aaron, a Levite, became the first high priest, and his offspring hold the honorable position of priests, kohanim. The primary services of the Temple or Tabernacle must be performed by the priests, grandchildren of Aaron. In fact, there were areas of the Temple that only priests were permitted to enter. There were also many jobs that belonged to the Levites who were not descendants of Aaron. For instance, the Levites were in charge of transporting the Tabernacle while the Jews were traveling in the desert. They were also the musicians of the Temple.15

Even after the destruction of the Temple, and to this day, the Levites and kohanim have kept their special position. When we read the Torah in the synagogue, the first portion is given to a priest, and the second to a Levite.16 The priests bless the Jewish nation during the Jewish holidays.17 There are also restrictions regarding whom a priest may marry, and restrictions on their contact with the dead.18

The Tribes on the Breastplate of the High Priest19

The Torah details precisely what should be worn by the High Priest when he would serve in the Holy Temple. One of these items was a breastplate that was decorated with 12 precious stones. Each of the stones bore the name of one of the tribes. Additionally, there were two shoulder straps that supported the breastplate. On each of the two shoulder straps was a stone on which the names of six of the tribes were engraved, so that all the names were engraved upon the two stones. The High Priest carried the names of the tribes of Israel with him as a remembrance before G‑d.

Traveling Through the Desert

When the Jews traveled through the desert on their way to Israel, they would travel and camp in a precise formation. The Tabernacle would be in the middle of the formation, while the twelve tribes would form a square surrounding it from all four sides, with three tribes on each side. The Levites would camp in the center, as it was their duty to assemble, disassemble and transport the Tabernacle.20

Apportioning the Land of Israel

When the Jewish nation conquered the Land of Israel and were ready to settle, lots were cast to determine which portion of land should be given to which tribe. Miraculously, the lots divided the land fairly, with larger portions of lands being given to larger tribes and smaller ones to smaller tribes.21

There were two and a half tribes that settled in what was initially going to be land that was outside of Israel. But before the Jews crossed the Jordan River into Israel, the tribes of Reuben and Gad chose to stay on the east side of the Jordan instead of continuing across the river. These tribes owned much cattle, and the pasture was very good on that side of the river. They were joined by half of Menasheh as well.22

The tribe of Levi, who were the spiritual leaders of the nation, received no portion in the land. Instead, the Levites lived in 48 cities that were scattered across the country. To compensate for this disadvantage, G‑d ordered the other tribes to give 24 particular gifts (food items and other essentials) to the Levites.23

The Tribes Wage War Against Benjamin24

This is a tragic story of a civil war in ancient Israel. It began when a man from the tribe of Levi and his concubine were traveling through the part of Israel that was designated for the tribe of Benjamin. They were to be guests for a night at the house of an old man and then would continue their journey in the morning. However, a mob of wicked people of the city raped the woman through the night. In the morning she was found dead at the threshold of the old man’s house. The Levite wanted to impress upon the entire nation the disgraceful state of the tribe of Benjamin. He cut up the woman’s body and sent one piece to each of the tribes so they should be aware of the travesty committed by members of the tribe of Benjamin. All the other tribes gathered and made a pact to not marry Benjaminites, and demanded that the perpetrators of the crime be brought out to receive punishment. The Benjaminites refused to hand over the criminals which began a civil war between the Benjaminites and the rest of the Jewish nation. It was a bloody war and many thousands were killed on both sides. When there were only 600 survivors left from the tribe of Benjamin, it was decided that the war should stop lest the tribe be entirely wiped out.

The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

The Torah describes how Jacob blessed his son Judah that the kings of Israel would be from his descendants.25 This blessing became reality when David, who is from the tribe of Judah, became king. Later, David was promised that the kingship would forever remain within his descendants.26 Hence the Messiah will be from the house of David.

During the rule of David and his son Solomon there was only one king for all of Israel. However, as a punishment for sins that were committed in the house of Solomon, after his death, his son and successor would rule over part of the nation only. The kingdom would be divided into two separate kingdoms. There was the kingdom of Judah and the house of David, whose capital was Jerusalem. The members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained faithful to their king, but the other 10 tribes rebelled against Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, shortly after the death of Solomon. In his stead, they appointed Jeroboam, a former officer of King Solomon’s, as their king. Thus the Jewish nation was divided into what is known as the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel.

Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, knew the devotion that the Jewish people had to the Holy Temple and Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah. In order to prevent them from making the customary pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals, he erected temples of idol worship. Many of the Jews who were loyal to G‑d withdrew from Jeroboam’s deplorable domain to the kingdom of Judah.27

The successors of Jeroboam were not much better than he was, and idol worship and immorality were widespread for as long as the kingdom lasted. Many of the kings of Israel ascended to the throne by killing the previous kings. Some of the kings ruled for only a few days or months before usurpers killed the king and took the throne.

The kings of Judah received the rulership as an inheritance from father to son, and so it remained in the family of David. Some of the kings of Judah brought peace and prosperity to the people, and Torah observance flourished. Sadly, many of the kings of Judah were aggressive, corrupt and worshipped idols. There were periods during which the kingdom of Judah attempted to reinstate rulership over all of Israel, which caused strife between the two kingdoms. However, for most of their history, the two kingdoms were at peace with each other.

When the Jews of this period behaved immorally and sinfully, G‑d sent prophets to reprimand the nation and warn them of the impending retribution that would befall them if they failed to mend their ways. Unfortunately the prophets were often disregarded, ridiculed and tortured while the people continued to bring about their own destruction.

End of the Davidic Dynasty and the Ten Lost Tribes

After over 200 years, the kingdom of Israel came to an end when it was captured by the Assyrians. The ten tribes of the kingdom of Israel were gradually exiled to distant provinces of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians repopulated Israel with exiles that had been uprooted from other countries. The ten tribes of the kingdom of Israel have disappeared without a trace.28

The kingdom of Judah came to an end when, in middle of its fifth century, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia conquered Jerusalem. The first Holy Temple was burned down and looted. Many Jews were killed while others were led into captivity in Babylon. Only some of the poorest residents of Jerusalem were permitted to stay. 29

That was the end of the dynasty of kings of the family of David. During the time of the second Temple, the Jewish kings were priests from the tribe of Levi. When the Messiah, who will be a descendant of David, arrives, the Davidic dynasty will resume.

Which Tribe Am I From?

Tribal identity is passed on from the father. The vast majority of Jews do not know which tribe they are from. However, there are many Jews whose families retained their identity as Levites or kohanim. There are only a small handful of families from other tribes who know which tribe their forefathers were from.

When the Messiah comes, we will rediscover who is a member of which tribe.30 It is then that the Jewish nation that we know today and the ten lost tribes will be reunited in the Land of Israel.