Why was it necessary for there to be 12 tribes, with different portions of Israel given to each? The Midrash even states that when the sea split, there were 12 separate paths for each tribe (Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer ch. 42). This question is divided into two parts:

  1. It seems pointless that such distinctions were made between the tribes (i.e. the different portions of land, and the separate paths in the Red Sea). What was the point?
  2. Isn't it better if the Jewish people are unified? Both the different allotments of land and the splitting of the sea into different paths seem like they would create a lack of unity.
  • Clarify what you refer to in question 2. WHAT creates a lack of unity? Having 12 tribes in the 1st place or specifically that each tribe had its own path through Yam Suf. Brief answer to concept of 12 tribes - each of Yaa'kov's sons was blessed for his own unique merits and strengths. The land possession that they received was not just random lottery. Each land parcel was fit to each tribes strengths. Certain tribes such as Asher were on the coast IIRC, b/c that land was best for olive trees, in concurrence with Ya'akov's blessing to Asher.
    – DanF
    Apr 16, 2015 at 21:49
  • @DanF See edit. The question is not about the mere concept of 12 tribes.
    – user6618
    Apr 16, 2015 at 21:58
  • It still appears like it is. I'm not sure how the recent edits changed this much. My answer, below, focuses mainly on that. As for the midrash in ADRN about the Sea of Reeds, if I locate something specific to that, I'll edit. If my answer is NOT addressing your question, please edit further, and I will delete my answer.
    – DanF
    Apr 17, 2015 at 18:40
  • @DanF How does your answer address the fact that different portions of Israel were given to each tribe? What was the point of this? Please let me know if this is not clear in my question.
    – user6618
    Apr 17, 2015 at 21:09
  • Perhaps this may be a "chicken and egg" question. Was the apportionment of land in accordance with fulfilling Ya'akov's blessing, or vice versa, Ya'akov blessing was in accordance with the land they were going to receive? E.g. - Asher HAD to live in a land producing olives in accordance with Ya'akov's blessing. Yehuda HAD to live in the land that included Jerusalem, the set of the kingdom, etc.
    – DanF
    Apr 20, 2015 at 3:02

3 Answers 3


Interesting and thoughtful question!

Let's start with:

Genesis 49:28:

כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣ים עָשָׂ֑ר וְ֠זֹאת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר לָהֶ֤ם אֲבִיהֶם֙ וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אוֹתָ֔ם אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כְּבִרְכָת֖וֹ בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֹתָֽם׃

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.

"father" refers to Ya'akov (Jacob). Q? What do the bolded words really mean? Doesn't it seem superfluous to say "...according to his blessing"?

Or HaChaim on Genesis 49:28:1:

אשר כברכתו

פי' הראוי לו כפי בחינת נשמתו וכפי מעשיו, כי יש לך לדעת כי הנפשות כל אחת יש לה בחינת

המעלה יש שמעלתה כהונה ויש מלכות ויש כתר תורה ויש גבורה ויש עושר ויש הצלחה, ונתכוין יעקב בנבואה לברך כל אחד כפי ברכתו הראוי לה המלך במלכות והכהן בכהונה וכן על זה הדרך ולא הפך המסילות:

ברך אותם וג

. אמר אותם לשון רבים להיות כי ברכת כל אחד ואחד תועיל לעצמו ולכל אחיו כמו שתאמר כשיברך למלך שידו בעורף אויביו הנה מגיע הטוב לכל אחיו. וכן כשירבה מעלת אחד ושפעו והדרגתו לכל אחיו יגיעו גם כן מקצת דבר, לזה אמר


[I apologize that while my Hebrew is fairly good, there are some words that I can't accurately translate, here. Also, I'd rather summarize the essential points of the above, for purposes of my answer. I've pasted the entire text, in Hebrew, anyway.]

There are 2 aspects of Yaakov's blessings. The first is that he recognized that each of his sons had his own unique special leadership qualities that should remain independent. That's an essential part of that person's soul, and in terms of a tribe, each tribe has its own "soul". One son had the crown of Torah; another the crown of kingdom; another has bravery; another has riches; another has success. Thus, Ya'akov blessed each one according to his own, personal blessing, e.g. the king was blessed with kingdom, the Cohen with the blessing of Priesthood.

But, the end of the verse seems grammatically unparallel because it ends in אותם - them instead of אותו - him.

Summarizing the 2nd part of Or Hachaim commentary:

Ya'akov also blessed each person that his own unique qualities would influence and help each of the other tribes. For example, the one blessed with Kingship, should be a king and have influence on all the other tribes. (My comment - after all, you can only have one king, otherwise there is chaos!)

My own comments:

Despite the quarreling and bickering in the desert, we see that each of the tribes marched under their own flag and banner, and every was unified. During Joshua, even after the land was apportioned, there was, for the most part, tribal unity. During the days of the Judges, yes, things declined somewhat, but for the most part, there was tribal unity esp. when it came to battles. A few tribes didn't cooperate with Devorah and Barak. And, Binaymin was almost wiped away in their civil war against the other tribes - notable exceptions. Here's where we see unity despite separate tribes

On the reverse, special leaders emerged from various tribes. Shimshon from Dan; Barak from Re'uven, and of course, the 1st king, Saul, was from Binyamin, the smallest of the tribes in population (refer to what I stated that they were almost wiped out by the others!)

In summary, I think that the lesson learned is that while far from a a perfect system, Ya'akov knew what he was doing and what he meant in his blessing. At the end, you and I and all of us turned out OK ;-)

  • I would like to point out that each tribe did not have its own flag only it's own symbol which was part of the 3 symbol flag held by whichever tribe led that group of three.
    – mroll
    May 22, 2015 at 20:16

While it might sound counter-intuitive at first, being just one big people would have an adverse affect on unity. You are much more connected when there are limbs, branches and twigs that reach you, more than being just another sheep in the herd.


You write in your question: "isn't it better that the Jewish People are unified?"

I think there is no contradiction between the division into the tribes and the unification of the Jewish People.

Each tribe has their land allotment and their specific purpose specific for their tribe, however at the same time they share their unification on a higher level, everyone is a member of the Jewish People.

To me, its a bit like comparing it to American plumbers, electricians, Stock brokers etc. Each and every "tribe" has their own "allotments", however, on a higher level everyone is American.

  • And yet so much of the Jewish disunity in neviim was due to the tribes...
    – andrewmh20
    Nov 16, 2015 at 14:25

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