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? Your math is correct the Levites were the priests however both sons Mannassah and Ephraim came from Joseph and because they were brothers counted as 2 tribe

  • 10
    Why do people say the "three musketeers" when there are 4? Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 3:13
  • 3
    A nice question well asked. +1.
    – msh210
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 3:28
  • 4
    And why they are called musketeers while they rarely ever use musket and fight with sabre? Oh a different topic.
    – user4951
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 3:32
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 4:50
  • 2
    Here's how you know 13 is an unlucky number ;)
    – MTL
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 20:11

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 1
    "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
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 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". Commented Jun 20, 2014 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. Commented Jun 20, 2014 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
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 6:52
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    "on spiritual matters, we count those twelve." which spiritual matters are you referring to?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 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

  • What does this add to Shalom's answer? How does this explain why we count sometimes one way and sometimes the other?
    – MTL
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 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 Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 21:11
  • His concluding question was indeed Is my Math correct? ....but I think the underlying question is really why?
    – MTL
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 21:44
  • 1
    @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 Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 21:54
  • Fair enough [15 char]
    – MTL
    Commented Jun 20, 2014 at 22:01

Your math is quite correct. Others have explained the details of how you get to twelve anyhow, in various different places in the Torah. In case you're also interested in why, there's a couple of Rambans:

שנים עשר מטות. מטה אהרן הוא בי"ב, כי לא אמר ותקח מטה לבית לוי ותכתוב עליו שם אהרן, אבל הוא במנין הנזכר, והנה לא נחשב יוסף רק לשבט אחד. והטעם, כי לא ימנו שבטי ישראל לעולם רק שנים עשר, ומפני שיחשוב לוי יחשוב יוסף רק אחד. ועוד אפרש זה בסדר וזאת הברכה (דברים לג ו) אם יברכני ה' להגיע לשם: This is because the tribes of Israel are always twelve, and since the tribe of Levi was counted among the twelve, Yosef had to be counted as only one tribe. I will explain more about this in seder V’zos Habracha if Hashem blesses me to reach there. [Numbers 17:17]

והנכון בעיני, כי הכתוב לא ימנה בשבטי ישראל רק שנים עשר, וכך אמר בברכת יעקב (בראשית מט כח) כל אלה שבטי ישראל שנים עשר. והנה יעקב הזכיר בניו השנים עשר והזכיר יוסף בשבט אחד, ומשה ראה להזכיר ביוסף שני שבטים כמו שאמר (פסוק יז) והם רבבות אפרים והם אלפי מנשה, והיה זה בעבור שני דברים, האחד כי אחר שצוה הקדוש ברוך הוא ועשאם שני שבטים בחנכת המזבח, ובדגלים, ובנחלת הארץ, הנה הוא צריך למנותם שנים בברכתם, ועוד שהזכיר יהושע המנחילם את הארץ והוא מאפרים הקטן והוצרך להזכיר אחיו שגדול ממנו והנה רצה לברך את לוי כי מברכתו יתברכו כל ישראל, שיהיו קרבנותיו לרצון להם לפני השם, והוצרך להשאיר אחד מן השבטים שאינן נימנין בשום מקום רק שנים עשר, כנגד שנים עשר מזלות ברקיע, ושנים עשר חדשים בשנה, ושנים עשר גבולי אלכסונין,
The correct explanation to me is that the Torah always counts the tribes of Israel as twelve, as in the blessings of Yaakov, These are the tribes of Israel, twelve. Behold, Yaakov counted his sons as twelve and mentioned Yosef as just one. Whereas Moshe wanted to count the sons of Yosef as two [for the following reasons...] And he wanted to count Levi [for the following reasons...] - therefore he needed to leave off one of the other tribes not to be counted. For never are the tribes anything but twelve, corresponding to the twelve constellations in the heavens, and the twelve months of the year, and the twelve diagonal directions... [Deuteronomy 33:6]

Fascinating and of course needs more explanation. But one of the hidden parts of the Torah.

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