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I remember that every tribe has his own symbol, e.g. Benjamin's symbol is a wolf. What are the symbols of the 12 tribes?

(I am especially interested in knowing what the symbol is for Levi.)

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Benjamin, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for bringing your question here! I hope you look around and find plenty that interests you. –  Isaac Moses Jan 10 '13 at 18:21
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thank you very much, i hope that too. –  Benjamin Jan 10 '13 at 20:22

4 Answers 4

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Fascinating! I've always wondered about this myself.

BaMidbar Rabbah 2:7 has a list of each tribe and its flag, with the colour, stone, and symbol associated with it, which I believe is probably the original source (or one of the earliest that we'll find) for this. I'd be interested to see what other people come up with.

Interestingly, the list is a little different than the one more commonly known. I've often seen a pair of scales as a symbol of Dan, for instance, rather than a snake. I imagine that people often have their own associations with the tribes and so there may be more than one "official" list of the 12 Tribes and their symbols.

Anyway, here it is from the Midrash Rabba. I've left the names of the precious stones untranslated — I will check with my father and get back to you.

Be’otot [“according to the standards”, Numbers 2:2]: There was a symbol for each leader [of each tribe], with a flag and a colour, and the colour of each flag was like the colour of the precious stones that was over the heart of Aaron [the High Priest, i.e. on the hoshen/breastplate]. From this the kingdoms learned to make flags and a colour for each flag. Each tribe had its own leader, and the colour of the flag was similar to the colour of its stone.

  • Reuben’s stone was odem, and the colour of his flag was red, and mandrakes were drawn on it [cf. Genesis 30:14].
  • 
Simeon’s [stone was] piteda, and the colour of his flag was green, and [the city of] Shechem was drawn on it [cf. Genesis 34].
  • 
Levi’s [stone was] bareqet, and the colour of his flag was one third white, one third black, and one third red, and the Urim weTummim were drawn on it.
  • 
Judah’s [stone was] was nofekh, and the colour of his flag was like the colour of the sky, and a lion was drawn on it [cf. Genesis 49:9].
  • 
Issachar’s [stone was] sappir, and the colour of his flag was dark blue [lit. black like kohl], and a sun and a moon were drawn on it, as it is written [I Chronicles 12:33]: “And from the sons of Issachar were those who knew the wisdom of the times [i.e. astronomy and calendars].”
  • 
Zebulon’s [stone was] yahalom, and the colour of his flag was like the moon, and a ship was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:13]: “Zebulon shall dwell by the seashore.”
  • 
Dan’s [stone was] leshem, and the colour of his flag was similar to sappir, and a snake was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:17]: “Dan shall be a snake.”
  • 
Gad’s [stone was] shevo, and the colour of his flag was not white and not black but a mixture of black and white, and a military camp was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:19]: “Gad shall camp in troops [Heb: Gad gedud yegudenu].”
  • 
Naftali's [stone was] ahlama, and the colour of his flag was like diluted wine whose red [colour] was no longer strong, and a deer was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:21]: “Naftali is a swift deer.”
  • 
Asher's [stone was] tarshish, and the colour of his flag was like a precious stone that women decorate themselves with, and an olive tree was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:20]: “From Asher will be his rich bread.”
  • 
Joseph’s [stone was] shoham, and the colour of his flag was very black, and the [picture] drawn on it for the two leaders, Ephraim and Menasseh, was Egypt, because they were born in Egypt. And on the flag of Ephraim was drawn an ox, as it is written [Deuteronomy 33:17]: “His first born is his ox;” this is [a reference to] Joshua, who was from the tribe of Ephraim. And on the flag of Menasseh was drawn a re’em [oryx], as it is written [Deut. 33:17]: “and his horn will be like the horns of the re’em;” this is [a reference to] Gideon, son of Joash, who was from the tribe of Menasseh.
  • 
Benjamin’s [stone was] yashpe, and the colour of his flag was like all the colours of the twelve colours, and a wolf was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:17]: “Benjamin is like a scavenging wolf.”

Thus it says be’otot [literally “in the signs”], for there were symbols for each leader.

באותות: סימנין היו לכל נשיא ונשיא, מפה וצבע על כל מפה ומפה, כצבע של אבנים טובות שהיו על לבו של אהרן. מהם למדה המלכות להיות עושין מפה וצבע לכל מפה ומפה: כל שבט ושבט נשיא שלו, צבע מפה שלו דומה לצבע של אבנו.

ראובן - אבנו אודם, ומפה שלו צבוע אדום, ומצוייר עליו דודאים.

שמעון - פטדה, ומפה שלו צבוע ירוק, ומצוייר עליו שכם.

לוי - ברקת, ומפה שלו צבוע שליש לבן ושליש שחור ושליש אדום, ומצוייר עליו אורים ותומים.

יהודה - נפך, וצבע מפה שלו דמותו כמין שמים, ומצוייר עליו אריה.

יששכר - ספיר, ומפה שלו צבוע שחור דומה לכחול, ומצוייר עליו שמש וירח, על שם (ד"ה א יב) ומבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים.

זבולן - יהלם, וצבע מפה שלו לבנה, ומצוייר עליו ספינה, על שם: זבולן לחוף ימים ישכון.

דן - לשם, וצבע מפה שלו דומה לספיר, ומצוייר עליו נחש, על שם: יהי דן נחש.

גד - שבו, וצבע מפה שלו לא לבן ולא שחור אלא מעורב שחור ולבן, ומצוייר עליו מחנה, על שם (בראשית מט): גד גדוד יגודנו.

נפתלי - אחלמה, וצבע מפה שלו דומה ליין צלול, שאין אדמתו עזה, ומצוייר עליו אילה, על שם: נפתלי אילה שלוחה.

אשר - תרשיש וצבע מפה שלו דומה לאבן יקרה, שמתקשטות בו הנשים, ומצוייר עליו אילן זית על שם: מאשר שמנה לחמו.

יוסף - שוהם וצבע מפה שלו שחור עד מאד, ומצוייר לשני נשיאים, אפרים ומנשה, מצרים על שם שהיו תולדותם במצרים, ועל מפה של אפרים היה מצוייר שור, על שם בכור שורו, זה יהושע, שהיה משבט אפרים. ועל מפה שבט מנשה היה מצוייר ראם, על שם (דברים לג): וקרני ראם קרניו על שם: גדעון בן יואש, שהיה משבט מנשה.

בנימין - ישפה וצבע מפה שלו דומה לכל הצבעים, לי"ב הצבעים, ומצוייר עליו זאב, על שם: בנימין זאב יטרף.

לכך נאמר: באותות, שסימנין היו להם, לכל נשיא ונשיא:

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Re: the names of the stones (also relevant to Shalom's answer below), my father writes in his book (soon to published by Berman House!): "most of the biblical Hebrew names cannot be identified with any certainty; there is virtually no agreement among translations and commentators. Many translations do not reflect the most current biblical scholarship, and most identifications, are at best, educated guesses... MH bareqet (emerald) and yahalom (diamond) were almost certainly not their original meaning." If people want, I can post the modern identifications of each stone (as a separate comment?) –  Noam Sienna Jan 11 '13 at 20:50
    
Yes, it would be fantastic. Thank you very much for the complete and documentated answer. Thank you again, Ben. –  Benjamin Jan 12 '13 at 21:30
    
The urim v'sumim were a slip of parchment, is that right? –  msh210 Jan 13 '13 at 6:18
    
Oops! I must have missed seeing these. @Benjamin, I've posted them below. msh210, we don't really know! They were connected to the hoshen in some way, and were used as a sort of oracle in answering simple questions. They may have been stones (e.g. one white and one black), or small tablets of wood or stone. The idea is that you could ask the question and then draw one, or let one fall out. More than that we don't know... We're not even sure which is "yes" and which is "no". –  Noam Sienna Jan 18 '13 at 22:14
    
Interesting. Halacha seems to prohibit drawing the sun or the moon or the stars and planets:judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/34193/what-can-a-jew-draw/…, the only exception being for pedagogical purposes. Maybe Issachar had an image of what the new moon looked like and how to figure out when to sanctify the sun? –  Baby Seal Jan 24 at 19:28

Revach.net has a nice table of the tribes populations, flags, symbols, and camp locations.

Levi's symbol was the Urim V'tumim (High Preist's breastplate).

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What is the primary source for the symbols? It seems a shame to just source a website. –  Isaac Moses Jan 10 '13 at 18:37
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@IsaacMoses AskMoses.com says it's from Meam Loez. I'll take a look in there. –  HodofHod Jan 10 '13 at 19:10
    
@IsaacMoses So I found the source in the Meam Loez (Bamidbar 2:2), but I can't find an online copy. –  HodofHod Jan 10 '13 at 23:13

The Targum Yonasan on Chapter 2 of BaMidbar mentions the flags for each "super-tribe", i.e. cluster of three tribes that camped together:

  • (2:3) Camp Judah's flag had stripes corresponding to the member tribes' stones [on the breastplate], namely red, green, and "shiny"; it bore the names of the three tribes Judah Issachar and Zebulon, with the inscription "Arise o G-d and may Your enemies scatter, and may Your foes flee from You", with the image of a young lion ...

  • (3:10) Camp Reuben's flag had colored stripes corresponding to its member tribes' stones, namely azmorar, shavziz, and savhalom [the latter is probably diamond, I'll let you have fun with translating the others]; the names of its tribes, Reuben, Simeon, and Gad; and the inscription "Listen Israel G-d is our L-rd, G-d is One", with the image of a young ram; it should have been a bull [why?], but Moses switched it to avoid any reminder of guilt from the Golden Calf.

  • (3:18) Camp Ehraim ... had stripes colored kankirin, tarkin, and calf's eye, with the names Ephraim Menasseh and Benjamin and the verse "And the cloud of G-d was above them all day as they traveled from the camp", with the image of a child

  • (3:25) Camp Dan ... had stripes sea-colored, birlevat chala, and apantor, with the names Dan Naftali and Asher and the verse "Dwell Your Honor, G-d, among the tens-of-thousands and thousands of Israel" ... with the image of a snake.

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Update on the stones of the hoshen / 12 Tribes, and their identification. This information is from my father's book "The Natural Bible: Judaism and the Environment", which will be published (be"h) by Berman House this spring.

  • Odem: clearly a red stone. Scholars suggest either red jasper, or carnelian sard (a type of quartz).

  • Piteda: some sort of yellowish-green stone, probably topaz. Others suggest peridot, chrysolite or perhaps green-yellow chalcedony.

  • Bareqet - translated in the Aramaic Targumim as azmaragd, a loanword from the Greek smaragdos for “emerald”. Some suggest beryl (of which emerald is a type). Others suggest the green malachite.

  • Nophekh - its colour is unclear. Is it supposed to be sky blue? Some suggest turquoise. Or red, perhaps more likely (as suggested by the etymology of nophekh)? If so, it may be garnet.

  • Sappir - a blue gem, but unlikely to be sapphire, even though the words are etymologically related. Most likely lapis lazuli.

  • Yahalom - even though in modern Hebrew it means diamond, almost no scholars think this is correct. It appears to be a white/moon-like stone. Chalcedony is likely, and others suggest moonstone, amethyst or even jade.

  • Leshem - apparently similar to sappir. Aventurine? Hyacinth? Turquoise?

  • Shevo - almost everyone agrees that this is agate, perhaps striped or spotted.

  • Ahlama - this is also fairly unanimous that this is amethyst, and the wine connection makes that even clearer (amethyst was associated in the ancient world with wine, and was reputed to prevent drunkenness).

  • Tarshish - very unclear, especially since we don’t have a colour to associate it with. We don’t even know if it is the name of a stone or simply a precious gem that comes from the city of Tarshish. Scholars have suggested aquamarine, or some kind of beryl. The Targum suggests a stone associated with (the colour of) the ocean.

  • Shoham - Most likely onyx, although the Targumim give burla or birlewa, which means beryl.

  • Yashfe - again, one of the clearer identifications. Almost all scholars are in agreement that this is jasper. The Targum’s association with panthers suggests that it was spotted or veined jasper.

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Isn't it: Yashefei? (Ya-Shi-Fay) –  Double AA Jan 18 '13 at 22:25
    
Thank you very much, you and your father for the collaboration. –  Benjamin Jan 19 '13 at 20:43
    
@DoubleAA you are absolutely right!!!! My apologies! I was being lazy and didn't bother to look up the correct vocalization. How embarrassing. I've fixed that... –  Noam Sienna Jan 20 '13 at 0:39

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