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From: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/610959/Twelve-Tribes-of-Israel

Jacob’s first wife, Leah, bore him six sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Each was the father of a tribe

That's 6 tribes.


Two other tribes, Gad and Asher, were named after sons born to Jacob and Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant. Two additional tribes, Dan and Naphtali, were named after sons of Jacob born of Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel, Jacob’s second wife. Rachel bore Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.

That's another 6. Total 12

But Joseph produces 2 tribes. Efraim and Manasheh. There is no tribe Joseph.

So there should be 13.

Perhaps Levi doesn't count due to it's lack of territory. But the article clearly says that Levi is a tribe. And then go on pretending there are 12 tribes all along.

Is my Math correct?

This has been bothering me for years since childhood. I asked at http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/11463/which-of-jacobs-son-dont-correpond-to-a-tribe?noredirect=1#comment21242_11463 and they all act as if it's obvious. Well, it's obviously fishy and nobody seems to think there is any problem.

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Why do people say the "three musketeers" when there are 4? –  Clint Eastwood Jun 20 at 3:13
A nice question well asked. +1. –  msh210 Jun 20 at 3:28
And why they are called musketeers while they rarely ever use musket and fight with sabre? Oh a different topic. –  Jim Thio Jun 20 at 3:32
Also, there are 11 sephiros, not 10. I assume the reason is that the number 12 has better numerological properties than 13, even though 13 is technically more accurate. –  Tatpurusha Jun 20 at 4:50
Here's how you know 13 is an unlucky number ;) –  Shokhet Jun 20 at 20:11

2 Answers 2

Jacob had twelve sons, and on spiritual matters, we count those twelve. With Levi as one and Joseph as one. (That's for instance what you'd find on the High Priest's decision breastplate.)

On financial/land matters, however, Levi did his own thing, and Joseph got a double portion as his sons Ephraim and Menashe. For instance, there were spaces for twelve tribes forming a camp when they traveled in the desert -- Ephraim and Menashe each count as one -- but the Levites stayed inside of the ring of those twelve. Similarly when they got to Israel, a chunk of land was allocated to Ephraim, and another chunk to Menashe. The Levites just got scattered cities all over the land, with special rules.

So: on spiritual matters: yes Levi, and Joseph=1, total =12. On monetary matters: no Levi, and Joseph=2, total=12.

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"monetary matters, no Levi"? Can you please elaborate? Also, I can see the real estate tally making sense, except that when "10 lost tribes" are referred to, this means that Judah and Levi are left? Simeon was within Judah's borders, so wouldn't that mean only 9 tribes were lost after the Assyrian conquest? –  Gary Jun 20 at 2:17
@Gary Since only Yehudah and Binyamin were left with actual land, we refer to all of the tribes that split away as (12 - 2 =) 10 tribes. After the split, many members of the tribes moved into the Kingdom of Judah, but they lost their identity and merged with Judah (as we have today). Thus, they are all considered the "10 lost tribes". –  sabbahillel Jun 20 at 3:10
@Gary Note that in the chumash, whenever the tribes are counted, it is always 12 with either Ephraim and Menashe counted with no Levi (consider the census) or they are counted as Yosef and Levi is also counted. See the references to the tribes in the pesukim. –  sabbahillel Jun 20 at 3:12
Simeon territory is in the south. Why it's called 10 lost tribes is another puzzle. Merged with Judah doesn't mean lost. Also Benjamin also merge with Judah. Who's counting this thing anyway? –  Jim Thio Jun 20 at 3:30
@JimThio, yes. As for the "ten lost" -- around the year 500 BCE, there was Jewish reign over only two parcels of land: Benjamin and Judah. (They, plus scattered Levite cities, made up "the kingdom of Judah" -- but there was still a line that said "Tribe of Benjamin's land" here, "Tribe of Judah's land" there. [The line actually ran right through the Temple in Jerusalem!] You're right, Simeon just disappeared into Judah long before. I guess "the ten lost tribes" is more like "the ten tribes who no longer had parcels by the year 500." –  Shalom Jun 20 at 6:52

The Torah lists off the names of the tribes in multiple places. Every time, there are 12: either because Levi is counted, and Yosef is counted as one tribe, or because Levi is not counted, and in those cases Efraim and Menashe are both counted. Thus, we say '12' because that's clearly what the Torah is trying to do - emphasize that however you count the total should be 12

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What does this add to Shalom's answer? How does this explain why we count sometimes one way and sometimes the other? –  Shokhet Jun 20 at 20:15
@Shokhet that wasn't the question. The question was, why should we say 13 when there are 12 –  Matt Jun 20 at 21:11
His concluding question was indeed Is my Math correct? ....but I think the underlying question is really why? –  Shokhet Jun 20 at 21:44
@Shokhet check out the link in the question to the corresponding q on hermeneutics.SE; I'm pretty sure he was just asking about the numbers. Though the 'why' is certainly a legitimate question, I just think it needs to be asked separately –  Matt Jun 20 at 21:54
Fair enough [15 char] –  Shokhet Jun 20 at 22:01

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