The Encyclopædia Britannica article “Twelve Tribes of Israel” says (emphasis added),

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 six tribes.

The article continues,

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 six, to make a total of twelve.

But Joseph produces two tribes, Efraim and Manasheh. There is no tribe of Joseph.

So there are thirteen tribes in all.

Perhaps Levi doesn’t count due to its lack of territory. But the article clearly says that Levi is a tribe. And then it goes on pretending that there are twelve tribes all along.

Is my math correct?

This has been bothering me for years since childhood. Why does nobody seem 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 '14 at 3:13
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    A nice question well asked. +1. – msh210 Jun 20 '14 at 3:28
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    And why they are called musketeers while they rarely ever use musket and fight with sabre? Oh a different topic. – user4951 Jun 20 '14 at 3:32
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    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 '14 at 4:50
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    Here's how you know 13 is an unlucky number ;) – MTL Jun 20 '14 at 20:11

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 '14 at 2:17
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    @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 '14 at 3:10
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    @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 '14 at 3:12
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    @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 '14 at 6:52
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    "on spiritual matters, we count those twelve." which spiritual matters are you referring to? – mevaqesh Mar 29 '15 at 3:37

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? – MTL Jun 20 '14 at 20:15
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    @Shokhet that wasn't the question. The question was, why should we say 13 when there are 12 – הנער הזה Jun 20 '14 at 21:11
  • His concluding question was indeed Is my Math correct? ....but I think the underlying question is really why? – MTL Jun 20 '14 at 21:44
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    @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 – הנער הזה Jun 20 '14 at 21:54
  • Fair enough [15 char] – MTL Jun 20 '14 at 22:01

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