Tag Archives: Levi

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

Embracing Converts, and the Seeds of Amalek

'The Meeting of Jacob and Esau' by Gustav Doré

‘The Meeting of Jacob and Esau’ by Gustav Doré

This week’s parasha is Vayishlach, which recounts Jacob’s return and settlement in the Holy Land after twenty years of living in Charan. At the end of the parasha is a long list of the genealogies of Jacob’s brother, Esau. The list seems unnecessary, and many Sages have wondered why the Torah bothers to spend so much time recounting Esau’s descendants. There have even been debates on whether the entire text of the Torah is equally holy, or if passages like the Ten Commandments are holier than passages such as this list of Esau’s genealogies. Meanwhile, the Arizal states that many of the deepest secrets of Creation are embedded particularly in this seemingly boring and superfluous passage. He draws particular significance from the list of the kings of Edom. The Arizal says these kings are codenames for the Sefirot, and a careful reading of the text reveals the cosmological rectifications (tikkunim) required to repair all of Creation and restore the world to perfection.

About half way through the list we are told that “… the sister of Lotan was Timna” (Genesis 36:22). Again, the Sages are baffled at this extra addition. We already care little enough that there was once an Edomite chief named Lotan – who cares that he had a sister named Timna? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) notes how there were those who scoffed at such verses, saying: “Did Moses have nothing better to write?” And then, the same page of Talmud comes in to explain its tremendous significance:

Timna was a royal princess… Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I’d rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.” From her, Amalek was descended, who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have repulsed her!

The Talmud combines the verse in question – which states that Timna was the royal sister of the chief, or prince, Lotan – with an earlier verse (36:12) that says she married Esau’s son Eliphaz and bore Amalek. She wished to convert to Judaism and approached the Patriarchs. All three rebuffed her. So, she ended up with Eliphaz – the closest she could get to being part of the nation. This union gave rise to the evil Amalek, that antagonizing force which has been oppressing Israel for millennia. The Sages state that the Patriarchs should have embraced this potential convert, instead of pushing her away. Their failure to open their arms led to centuries of Jewish suffering. The Talmud sends a pretty clear message: gentiles and converts should not be turned away, and doing so only breeds more resentment against Jews, bringing out all of the world’s “Amaleks”.

Soulmates of Jacob and Moses

The Arizal comments on the Timna passage and points out something even more amazing. He taught (Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Shoftim) that Timna was actually the soulmate of Jacob! Timna contained a great deal of holiness, and Jacob was meant to convert her and marry her, thereby elevating her spiritual sparks. That would have been a massive tikkun of its own, and would have hastened the coming of Mashiach. Instead, Jacob rejected her, and she went on to produce Amalek, bringing evermore evil into the world, and further delaying the coming of Mashiach.

The Arizal highlights that Moses made a similar mistake in not consummating his marriage to the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman. Both Tzipporah and the Cushite woman were Moses’ soulmates, and while Moses did the right thing in converting the Cushite, he never properly married her. Her sparks of holiness were not fully elevated, and the tikkun was left incomplete. This is why Aaron and Miriam were upset with their brother, as we read later in Numbers 12:1, “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married…”

Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 Students in Shechem

In this week’s parasha, too, we read how the people of Shechem genuinely wished to unite with Jacob’s family, agreed to circumcise themselves, and converted en masse. However, Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi rejected them and resorted to violence in avenging what was done to their sister Dinah. Jacob was horrified at the actions of his sons, and later did not bless the two on his deathbed. It appears their sin was never forgiven, as hundreds of years later the tribes of Shimon and Levi were not given set borders within the Holy Land, but only a handful of cities interspersed among the other tribes. Kabbalistic texts reveal that Shimon and Levi killed 24,000 people in Shechem, and these 24,000 converted souls later reincarnated as the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva!

All of these narratives point to the same lesson: converts should be welcomed and accepted wholeheartedly. They have the potential for great holiness. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 38a) states that a gentile who occupies himself with Torah is equal to a kohen gadol, a High Priest! The Arizal describes five types of Jewish souls, and the souls of converts are among the purest. (The other types are “Old Souls”, “New Souls”, “True New Souls”, and the “Souls of Cain and Abel”. Of these, the most impure are Old Souls.) It goes without saying that there is no place for racism of any kind within Judaism – Moses himself married a black woman, and was reprimanded for not being diligent in consummating that union.

Historically, Jews were never the proselytizing kind. There are no Jewish missionaries that go out knocking on the doors of gentiles to seek converts. At the same time, Judaism was rarely a popular religion to convert in to. But this will change very soon, and we have to be ready for that day, for the prophet Zechariah (8:23) predicted:

It shall come to pass that ten men shall take hold – from all the languages of the nations – shall take hold of the corners of a Jew’s clothes, saying: “We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you…”

Mysteries of the Twelve Tribes and the Borders of Israel

In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we read about the six “cities of refuge” that God commanded the Israelites to establish. These cities were places where an inadvertent murderer could take refuge. The Torah gives an example: two people are chopping trees when the axe of one suddenly breaks, flinging the sharp end and killing the other person accidentally. It is understandable that the victim’s family might want to take revenge and pursue the inadvertent murderer. The Torah states that the inadvertent murderer should flee to the nearest city of refuge, where the victim’s family has no right to pursue him, and where he will be protected by Levites.

Six Cities of Refuge

Six Cities of Refuge

Of the six refuge cities, three were on the west side of the Jordan River – within the proper borders of the Holy Land – and three on the east side of the Jordan, where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled. The Arizal explains that this allowed Moses to fulfil an important mitzvah – after all, Moses himself was an inadvertent murderer! Back in Egypt, he had accidentally killed the Egyptian officer who was senselessly beating an Israelite slave. The Arizal states that Moses only wished to defend the Jew, but ended up killing the Egyptian inadvertently. While Moses was forbidden from entering the Holy Land, he was permitted to traverse the territories on the east side of the Jordan, so by establishing cities of refuge there, Moses could finally fulfil the mitzvah of an inadvertent murderer.

Tribal Border of Israel

Tribal Borders of Israel

A bigger question one might ask is why were the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled outside of the Holy Land to begin with? The Torah tells us the simple meaning: the Reubenites and Gadites liked the land on the east side of the Jordan, and were more than happy to settle there. Moses wanted half the tribe of Menashe to join them, perhaps to keep an eye on them to make sure they fulfil their vow in helping the rest of the Israelites conquer and settle the Holy Land.

Of course, nothing in the Torah is without its deeper meaning. If Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were settled outside of the land, there must be a good spiritual reason for it. The Arizal gives us some incredible mystical insights into the matter.

Conception in Holiness

After seven years of hard labour, Jacob was ready to marry his beloved Rachel. Instead, his father-in-law Laban tricked him by having him marry Leah. That night, Leah conceived. However, the whole time Jacob thought he was with Rachel! Thus, Reuben was conceived through trickery and deception, bringing a certain spiritual stain upon him. Later on, Reuben “mounted the bed” of his father (Genesis 35:22, 49:4), and apparently slept with Jacob’s wife Bilhah (originally Rachel’s maidservant).  Therefore, Reuben lost his status as the firstborn son. Instead, the firstborn status went to Joseph, who was meant to be the firstborn all along since Jacob intended to marry Rachel. In Torah law, the firstborn receives a double portion from his father’s inheritance, and so, Joseph had two tribes – and two territories – issue from him, that of Menashe and Ephraim.

After Reuben’s birth, Jacob and Leah had Shimon, Levi, and Judah. These three were conceived in holiness, without any deception. At this point, Rachel was still childless so she suggested that Jacob use her maidservant Bilhah as a surrogate. Bilhah had two children: Dan and Naftali.

Now it was Leah’s turn to be jealous. Seeing that she stopped having children, Leah gave her own maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate. Zilpah conceived and Leah called the child Gad. Peculiarly, the Torah states that Leah named him thus from the word bagad. This word literally means “traitor”. To avoid negative connotations, the word is traditionally split in two and read as ba gad, “luck has come”. But the Torah makes no such division. In fact, Rashi comments here that Leah said bagad because she felt like Jacob had cheated on her! Perhaps she regretted giving her maidservant to her beloved husband.

twelvetribesmosaicThe Arizal goes further, pointing out another deception based on a careful reading of the verses. The night that Gad was conceived, Jacob was supposed to be with Leah. Instead, Leah wanted children so badly that she secretly had Zilpah go in her place! Jacob was deceived yet again. This child, too, would have a spiritual stain upon him, like Reuben. Zilpah went on to have one more child, Asher. The Arizal says that this name (אשר) is an anagram of rosh (ראש), “head”, since this time Jacob was in his right mind and had the correct intentions.

After this, Leah would have two more sons conceived in holiness, and Rachel would have her own two. Of the twelve sons, we see that two came into the world through deceit, and carried a certain spiritual defect. Thus, these two tribes – Reuben and Gad – were ultimately excluded from settling in the Holy Land.

What about the half-territory of Menashe?

Spiritual Genetics

Menashe was the firstborn son of Joseph. The Torah tells us that Joseph was married in Egypt to a woman named Osnat (Asenath), the daughter of an Egyptian priest. To solve the mystery of Menashe’s territory, we need to delve further into Osnat’s origins. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134) fills in the missing details.

After Leah had six sons, she had a seventh child, a daughter named Dinah. When Jacob returned to the Holy Land after twenty years with Laban, he settled in Shechem, and Dinah went out to meet “the daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). A young man named Shechem (not to be confused with the city of the same name) seduced Dinah and raped her. In their rage, Dinah’s two older brothers Shimon and Levi slaughtered Shechem and his compatriots. Jacob was not very happy with his violent sons, and for this reason, neither Shimon nor Levi would inherit complete territories in the Holy Land. Instead, each tribe received a number of cities interspersed among the territories of their fellow tribes.

Meanwhile, Dinah had conceived a child with Shechem. A daughter was born, which Shimon and Levi wanted to get rid of as well. To protect her, Jacob wrote a certain Divine Name on a piece of gold and tied it around her neck when she was abandoned (or fled). The girl hid in a bush, hence her name Osnat, which comes from the root s’neh, “bush”. The angel Michael (or in other versions, Gabriel) saved the girl and brought her to Egypt, to be raised by an Egyptian priest, Potiphar (or Poti-Phera), and his barren wife (named Zuleikha, according to Sefer HaYashar). Joseph met Osnat while working as a servant in the priest’s home. He knew he was meant to marry her because of the Divine Name on her special golden necklace.

The Arizal explains that Osnat’s spiritual make-up contained a holy portion (from Dinah) and an unholy portion (from Shechem). Joseph’s spiritual make-up, from Jacob and Rachel, was entirely holy. In conceiving Ephraim, Osnat’s holy portion combined with Joseph’s holy portion; in conceiving Menashe, however, it was Osnat’s unholy part that combined with Joseph’s, making their firstborn half pure and half impure. For this reason, half of the tribe of Menashe was inside the borders of the Holy Land, and half was outside!

In this way, the Arizal gives us a beautiful explanation of why Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were excluded from the Holy Land. Of course, when Mashiach comes and all of the spiritual rectifications are complete, the borders of the Holy Land will expand “from the Nile to the Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18), or from the Red Sea to the Euphrates (Exodus 23:31), and the territories of Reuben, Gad, and all of Menashe will indeed be part of the Holy Land. May we merit to see this day soon.

A Deeper Look at the Sin of the Spies

This week’s parasha is Shlach, which begins with the infamous incident of the spies. God permits Moses to send twelves spies – one representing each of the Twelve Tribes – to explore the land of Israel before its conquest. The spies are apparently shocked by what they see: the land is dotted by impenetrable fortresses and populated by giants! They report back that while the land is indeed fruitful, it is unconquerable. The spies convince the masses to abandon the foray into Israel. Only two of the twelve spies – Joshua and Caleb – maintain that the land is certainly conquerable. Their pleas are unheard, and the nation weeps and wishes to return to Egypt. The people’s lack of faith is astonishing, considering all of the miracles that God had wrought on their behalf. Did they not see how everything God decreed so far had happened precisely? If God promised them the land, how could they even begin to question it?

"Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise" by Gustave Doré

“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré

It is clear at this point that while the adult Israelite population may have physically left Egypt, they were still very much in Egypt mentally. Despite all the miracles and wonders, they yearned to go back to the house of slavery. They still showed little faith. God remarks that the nation had already tested Him ten times in the short duration since they left Egypt (Numbers 14:22). This people were simply not ready for Israel.

Thus, God decreed that the nation will remain in the Wilderness for forty years – one year for each day that the spies spent in the Holy Land – and the entire adult population would perish in the desert. Only those under the age of twenty would enter the land of Israel, together with Joshua and Caleb, the spies that offered a positive report. It seems that even Moses and Aaron were not spared God’s decree. This is understandable in light of verse 14:5, where Moses and Aaron are speechless, and simply “fall on their faces”. Joshua and Caleb alone speak up.

(Of course, the decree against Moses and Aaron is sealed with the striking of the rock in Numbers 20. However, it is already introduced at this point. The Sages teach that it would have been quite inappropriate for Moses to enter the Holy Land while the nation he led perished in the Wilderness. The captain must go down with his sinking ship!)

While we might understand the mentality of the general population, it is much harder to grasp how the spies, who were specially selected leaders of their tribes, and great people in their own right, could err so terribly. Could there be another explanation for their negative report? Rabbi Shmuel Vital, the son of Rabbi Chaim Vital (the primary disciple of the Arizal), presents one fascinating answer in Sha’ar HaPesukim.

Saving Moses

In the end of the previous parasha (Beha’alotcha), we read about the prophecies of the two elders, Eldad and Meidad (Numbers 11:26). The Torah does not tell us explicitly what it is that they prophesized, but it was bad enough that Joshua wanted Moses to imprison them. Moses calmed Joshua and told him that he is not the only prophet among the people, and he would only wish for the entire nation to be made up of prophets. Alas, the prediction of Eldad and Meidad was indeed true: the Sages state that they foresaw Moses dying in the Wilderness, and Joshua leading the Israelites into the Holy Land.

The incident of the spies follows, and Rabbi Shmuel connects it directly with this prophecy. The spies, along with the entire nation, loved Moses dearly and did not want to see him perish in the desert. They came up with a plan: we’ll convince the people not to enter the Holy Land so that Moses can continue to lead us in the Wilderness! Moreover, to ensure Moses’ unchallenged leadership, the spies actually intended to have Joshua “accidentally” killed! The details of this plot sound like a previous episode: the sale of Joseph. And this is precisely where the Arizal draws a connection.

Brothers Reincarnated

The Arizal (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36) taught that the souls of the sons of Jacob, the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, actually reincarnated into (or at least temporarily entered) the twelve spies. This is why when the brothers came down to Egypt and were arrested by Joseph, he had accused them of being spies (Genesis 42:9)! Joseph prophetically foresaw that in a future life, they would indeed become spies. In that capacity, they might again turn against one of their brothers. Just like the brothers wanted to have Joseph killed, the spies wanted to rid of Joshua – a direct descendent of Joseph. The Arizal concludes that once the spies wanted to sin, the souls of the brothers actually departed their bodies, and avoided making the same mistake.

Meanwhile, Moses also foresaw the danger that Joshua was in. This is why he renamed him prior to sending him off (Numbers 13:16). Originally, Joshua was named Hoshea, but Moses added a yud to make him Yehoshua. The Arizal explains that by adding this yud, Moses infused him with the soul of his ancestor Levi. The additional spiritual power protected him. (Since the Levite tribe did not have a portion in the land of Israel, they did not send a spy. Instead, Joseph was split into two tribes of Menashe and Ephraim.)

At the same time, the Arizal explains that Caleb was protected two-fold. Firstly, by having the soul of Judah, who repented wholeheartedly for the sale of Joseph and later stood up to him to protect his siblings. Secondly, by being a reincarnation of Abraham’s trusted servant Eliezer. This is why upon entering the land, Caleb went straight to Hebron to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs. In his lifetime, Eliezer wished nothing more than to be a part of Abraham’s family. He even tried to get his daughter to marry Isaac, but his Canaanite status prevented the union. However, he earned the merit to be reincarnated as an Israelite in the Exodus generation; to stand at Mt. Sinai, become a great leader of Israel, and be one of only two men out of Egypt to settle the Holy Land.

In fact, with regards to this incident, Caleb showed a higher degree of greatness than Joshua, and careful analysis of the text reveals an important lesson about faith and leadership. Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky writes (based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe):

According to the Talmud, Caleb said, “Even if our destination were the heavens and Moses would tell us to make ladders and ascend, we would succeed in all that he instructs” (Sotah 35a; cited by Rashi). Both Joshua and Caleb equally defied the doubt of their colleagues and declared that the people could conquer the land. However, a close look at their words shows a subtle difference between them. Firstly, when both of them spoke, the entire nation wished to stone them; but when Caleb alone spoke, he quieted the entire nation, including the spies.

Secondly, when both of them spoke they used logical reasoning: “do not fear the people of the land, since their protector is gone” (meaning that the righteous among them had died), whereas Caleb himself, in addition to presenting logical arguments, said that they could accomplish even the logically impossible when following Moses’ command and “ascend to heaven.”

These differences reflect an essential distinction in the way Joshua and Caleb resisted the influence of their colleagues: Joshua received inspiration from Moses, who had prayed for him before he left for Canaan. Caleb, on the other hand, sought inspiration on his own. While in Canaan, he prayed at the graves of the patriarchs in Hebron. Joshua’s resilience was a gift, while Caleb’s was self-made. Because Caleb’s resilience was the product of his own efforts, his faith had a stronger impact: he was able to silence the doubts of all the people, even the spies. Furthermore, because God desires our effort, He grants us access to His boundlessness when He sees us doing our best. Thus, Caleb, who had fought doubt with his own efforts, reached this boundlessness, where impossibilities do not exist and “the heavens can be ascended.”

The Stones, Symbols, and Flags of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah, and the name of its first parasha. It is known in English as “Numbers”, since it begins with a detailed census of the Jewish population in the wilderness. We are given a description of how the nation was organized in their camps: the tribes of Yehuda, Issachar, and Zevulun were positioned towards the East; Reuven, Shimon, and Gad to the South; Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the North. The Levites and kohanim were in the centre. We are told that each of the tribes had their own flag, just as in a large military formation. What did these flags look like? Which colours did they bear, and what symbols graced them?

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest's Breastplate

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

In an intriguing passage, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) provides a summary of the flags’ appearance. It begins by telling us that the colours of the flags corresponded to the colours of the stones that were on the Choshen (or Breastplate) of the High Priest. The High Priest was commanded to wear a special breastplate that had twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. Each stone had a symbolic meaning unique to that particular tribe.

Jasmine flower

Jasmine flower

 

Reuven’s was the odem, a ruby, and so his flag was red. The symbol on the flag was the duda’im, flowers that Reuven had picked for his mother Leah (Genesis 30:14). It was on account of these flowers that Leah went on to have three more children. Duda’im is often translated as “mandrakes”, though according to Rashi they were of the Jasmine plant.

Shimon had the pitdah, probably topaz, and his flag was green. The symbol upon the flag was an image of the city of Shechem. This is in memory of the episode where Shimon (together with his younger brother Levi) took up swords to decimate the Shechem population after the abduction and rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34).

Levi’s was bareket, possibly an emerald or onyx, and the flag had three bands of colours: white, black, and red. Upon the flag was an image of the Urim V’Tumim, the mystical objects kept within the High Priest’s breastplate that were apparently used for communication with the Divine.

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Yehuda had nofech, a stone more difficult to identify, with different opinions holding that it was either red, green, or blue. The Midrash here describes the flag as blue like the skies. Emblazoned upon it was the image of a lion. Before his passing, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, and in his blessing, he described Yehuda as a lion (Genesis 49:9). The lion would later become associated with the Davidic dynasty of kings (which hails from the tribe of Yehuda), and with the seat of their throne in Jerusalem, a city that goes by a number of names, including Ariel (“God’s lion”).

Issachar’s was a sapphire (or lapis lazuli) stone, and his flag was of a very dark blue colour. Upon it was the image of the sun and moon. The Midrash explains why, citing I Chronicles 12:33, which describes the people of Issachar as being wise in astronomical and chronological matters.

Zevulun had a yahalom, today’s Hebrew word for diamond, though there may be other possibilities. Zevulun’s flag was white, and bore a depiction of a ship, again based on Jacob’s blessing to the tribe to be successful sea-going merchants, and live along the Israeli coastline (Genesis 49:13).

Dan had leshem, amber, with a flag of a sapphire-like colour (despite the fact that amber is typically golden-red). Upon the flag was the symbol of a snake, once more based on Jacob’s blessing (v. 17). Likewise, Gad’s flag bore the image of a military camp (v. 19), on a black and white background, based on Gad’s stone of shevo, a black agate or obsidian.

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally "not intoxicating"

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally “not intoxicating”

Naphtali had achlamah, the purple amethyst. His flag was of a similar colour, described by the Midrash as pure wine that isn’t too strong. It is interesting that the Midrash should compare it to wine, since amethyst was believed in ancient times to keep one sober and prevent drunkenness. Upon the flag was an image of a gazelle, also from Jacob’s blessing (v. 21).

Asher’s stone of tarshish is certainly the least identifiable of the dozen. Opinions range from chrysolite and coal to flint and hyacinth. The Midrash doesn’t help in clarifying the matter, describing the flag as similar to the colour of an expensive jewel stone worn by women. Whatever the case, the image upon the flag was that of an olive tree, since Jacob blessed Asher with fatty riches and delicacies (v. 20).

In the encampment, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe were counted separately. On the breastplate, however, they were counted as one, under the banner of their father Yosef. This is because Ephraim and Menashe were not Jacob’s sons, but his grandsons, and on his deathbed, Jacob elevated their status to that of his own sons. Thus, we always maintain that there are twelve tribes: if we include the priestly Levites in the count, then Ephraim and Menashe are combined into one, Yosef, to ensure twelve. If we do not include the Levites since, after all, they are in a different class (and did not inherit any land for that matter), Ephraim and Menashe are counted independently of each other.

Malachite

Malachite

The stone of Yosef was shoham, which also has a number of opinions to its identity. The Midrash tells us that the flag was black, which supports the suggestion that shoham is malachite, a stone that has dark green and black colours. Ephraim’s black flag had a bull depicted on it. This is drawn from Moses’ final blessing to the tribes of Yosef (Deuteronomy 33:17), which the Midrash quotes. (Jacob’s blessing also mentions the word for a bull, but it is translated differently there.) The Midrash also tells us that the bull represents Joshua, who was of the tribe of Ephraim.

Based on the same verse in Moses’ blessing, Menashe’s black flag had a re’em, a horned animal sometimes translated as a unicorn, or perhaps an ox or even a rhinoceros. Again, the Midrash points out that this represented the Biblical judge Gideon, who was of the tribe of Menashe.

Last but not least, Binyamin’s flag famously depicted a wolf, based on Jacob’s description (Genesis 49:27). The stone of Binyamin was the yashfe, another unidentified one. The Midrash tells us that Binyamin’s flag had a mix of the colours of all the other tribal flags. This is likely due to the fact that Binyamin was the beloved little brother of the family, and all of his older siblings, though sometimes at odds with one another, always united to protect him. It is said that this is the reason why the Holy of Holies in the Temple was specifically in the territory of Binyamin (while the rest of the Temple was in the land of Yehuda), since the whole nation put aside their differences and united as one when it came to the smallest of their brothers.