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Who were the Twelve Tribes?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg and Rabbi Ari Shishler


Library » History » Patriarchs, 12 Tribes | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the Jewish Patriarchs. Jacob, the last of the Patriarchs, had four wives -- Leah, and her maidservant Zilpah; Rachel and her maidservant Bilha. These four wives bore him twelve sons,1   the progenitors of the Jewish nation.

Leah's sons were Reuven (Reuben), Shimon (Simeon), Levi, Yehudah (Judah), Yissachar (Issachar), and Zevulun (Zebulun).

Rachel, who was childless until the seventh year of their marriage, finally was blessed with a son, (Yoseph) Joseph. She passed away after giving bith to her second son who she named Benyamin (Benjamin).

Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naftali.

Zilpah's sons were Gad and Asher.

The life stories of these great men are recorded in the latter part of the book of Genesis.

Each of the Tribes was a great Tzaddik in his own right; each one embodying a unique approach to serving G-d. They passed on their legacies to their descendents, who continued along their path.2  

Each of the Tribes was a great tzaddik in his own right; each one embodying a unique approach to serving G-d
Eventually, the Tribe of Levi was sanctified by G-d, designated to be the priests and spiritual leaders, and devoted to service in the Temple. They were "separated" from the rest of their brethren, becoming a category unto themselves and excluded from the official census.

Just prior to his passing, Jacob conveyed tribal status to Joseph's two sons, Menasheh (Manasseh) and Ephraim, thus completeing the twelve tribes.3 This entitled Ephraim and Menasheh to certain tribal privileges, most importantly individual portions in the land of Israel.

Each tribe had its own leaders and maintained an independent judicial system. When the Israelites traveled through the desert en route to Israel, the twelve Tribes camped separately. When they entered Israel, the land was divided into twelve parts, each Tribe settling in their own section.4   Thus the land of Israel somewhat resembled the Unites States -- twelve tribal "states" governed by a federal government headed by a king from the Tribe of Judah.5

Today we can only trace our lineage back to the tribes of Yehudah, Benyamin and Levi. The Assyrians exiled nine out of ten of the twelve tribes when they attacked Israel in 722 BCE. Prior to that, the tribe of Dan emigrated southward into Africa to escape civil war in Israel. To date, we do not know any the 'lost tribes'' whereabouts.

[Ed. note: Also read "Which tribe are you?".]


  • 1. Leah also gave birth to a daughter, Dinah. According to Midrashic tradition, each of the Tribes was born with a twin sister, and Benjamin was born with two twin sisters, and the Tribes all married their half-sisters.
  • 2. For example, Judah exemplified serving G-d with absolute humility; Issachar devoted himself completely to Torah study; Zebulun emphasized charity.
  • 3. Genesis 48:5
  • 4. The Tribe of Levi did not receive a portion of the Land. Instead they were given 48 cities of residence. Thus they were able to serve G-d without the distraction of owning fields, orchards and livestock.
  • 5. This idyllic state didn't last for long. After the death of King Solomon, the Tribes divided into two separate kingdoms. Ten Tribes -- all of them but Judah and Benjamin -- seceded to create the "Northern Kingdom of Israel."


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(fem. Tzidkanit; pl. Tzaddikim). A saint, or righteous person.
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Third of the four Jewish matriarchs. Daughter of Laban, favorite wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Died while giving birth to Benjamin in 1557 BCE.
Fourth of the four Jewish matriarchs. Elder daughter of Laban, wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of six of the Tribes, including Levi and Judah.
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
1. Name of Patriarch Jacob's third son. 2. A Levite -- a Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of Levi. Levites had special duties in the Holy Temple, and are still accorded special respect.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.