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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.
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  • 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

4 Answers 4

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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 ;-)

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  • 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
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Great question. I will try to offer some thoughts on this.

The first point to consider is that it was not an "accident" that 12 tribes were born, but rather they are an expression of an aspect of the very creation itself. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro zt"l explained that all three-dimensional reality is expressed by the number 12. The shape that best depicts this is the cube. A cube has six sides and 12 lines that hold them together. (Or fours sides that each split into three). The sides would be separate if it were not for the lines that bind them. [In fact, the 12 Gevulei Alachson [12 diagonals] as they are referred to in Kabbalah are not the 12 lines but lines that go from the middle of each line to the base or roof of another line. And they all intersect in the centre of the cube. That is the middle point or 7th side or 13th line which binds them to become something greater than the sum of their parts.] The Jewish people are also built in this way – 3 times 4. Each tribe builds in a different corner that which builds the whole house or structure.

This is also apparent in the important Kabbalistic work Shaarei Orah (Fifth Gate, Sixth Sefira, 80) by Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla where he states that the four letter of Hashem’s name have twelve permutations. Each first letter has three permutations, just as each tribal flag group has three tribes, and each season (of the four) has three months within it. The letter leading the permutation (I.e. the first letter) is the force leading those months. From here he concludes that everything is dependent on the name YKVK and the form of the 12 tribes and their 4 groupings are representations of the 12 permutations of YKVK and its 4 flags.

In this way, the tribes reflect a facet of the creation itself which became manifest within the Jewish people via the tribes with the function of revealing Hashem in this world.

To illustrate this, consider the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 2:2 which states:

וּבְשֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ נִדְגֹּל, שֶׁקָּבַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שְׁמוֹ בִּשְׁמֵנוּ וְעָשָׂה אוֹתָנוּ דְּגָלִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ.

Hashem affixed His name within ours [the Jewish people] and made us degalim [flags or formations].

This is understood better with the context of the same Midrash a little further on (2:3) where it states:

בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁנִּגְלָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל הַר סִינַי יָרְדוּ עִמּוֹ כ"ב רְבָבוֹת שֶׁל מַלְאָכִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים סח, יח): רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן, וְהָיוּ כֻלָּם עֲשׂוּיִם דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שיר השירים ה, י): דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה, כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאוּ אוֹתָן יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהֵם עֲשׂוּיִם דְּגָלִים דְּגָלִים, הִתְחִילוּ מִתְאַוִּים לִדְגָלִים, אָמְרוּ אַלְוַאי כָּךְ אָנוּ נַעֲשִׂים דְּגָלִים כְּמוֹתָן, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: הֱבִיאַנִי אֶל בֵּית הַיָּיִן, זֶה סִינַי שֶׁנִּתְּנָה בּוֹ הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁנִּמְשְׁלָה בַּיַּיִן (משלי ט, ה):

Loose translation: At the moment when Hashem revealed Himself at Mount Sinai, 22,000 angels came down with Him and they were all standing in formation [degalim]. When the Jewish people saw them standing in formation [revealing the Glory of Hashem] they began to desire also having a formation, and asked to be given a formation too.

Additionally, each of the four camps represent a different letter of Hashem’s name - so the formation of Klal Yisrael each standing in their allotted place - was effectively spelling out Hashem’s name in this world. In other words, through the degalim (formation of the twelve different tribes) we create a merkava where the shechina rests. It is how we brought Hashem into the world.

Can also see the Ibn Ezra on Numbers 2:2 who shows how the four groupings of the tribes reflect the four parts to the Divine Throne.

באתת. סימנים היו בכל דגל ודגל וקדמונינו אמרו שהיה בדגל ראובן צורת אדם מכח דרש דודאים ובדגל יהודה צורת אריה כי בו המשילו יעקב ובדגל אפרים צורת שור מטעם בכור שור ובדגל דן צורת נשר עד שידמו לכרובים שראה יחזקאל הנביא

See also Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Bachaye on Numbers 2:2.

Regarding you second question, of whether it would have been better to have just one people without tribes - I believe the answer is that it is specifically through the achdus (unity) of the different tribes, that we reveal a unity of God.

Consider, for example, the opinion of Rebbe Nachman (Likutei Halachot, Yoreh Deah, Laws of Mixed Breeding, 4:16:1):

וְאֵלּוּ הָאַרְבָּעָה דְּגָלִים הָיוּ הוֹלְכִים סְבִיב הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְהָאָרוֹן שֶׁשָּׁם הַלּוּחוֹת שֶׁהֵם מְגַלִּין יִחוּדוֹ וְאַחְדוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ. כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב שָׁם, אָנֹכִי ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ וְכוּ', הַיְנוּ לְהוֹרוֹת שֶׁכָּל הַשְּׁנֵים עָשָׂר שְׁבָטִים שֶׁכְּלוּלִים מֵאַרְבָּעָה דְּגָלִים שֶׁנֶּחֱלָקִים לְשִׁנּוּי דֵּעוֹת הַרְבֵּה, כִּי הֵם שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא נְפָשׁוֹת שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד יֵשׁ לוֹ דֵּעָה מְשֻׁנָּה מֵחֲבֵרוֹ וְאַף-עַל-פִּי-כֵן כָּל אֵלּוּ הַשִּׁנּוּי דֵּעוֹת שֶׁהֵם בְּחִינַת פְּעֻלּוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת כֻּלָּם כְּלוּלִים בְּדֵעָה אַחַת כְּאִלּוּ הָיוּ נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מַמָּשׁ, כִּי כֻּלָּם מַאֲמִינִים בְּלֵב אֶחָד בַּה' אֶחָד שֶׁכָּל הַפְּעֻלּוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת נִמְשָׁכִין מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ כַּנַּ"ל

And these four degalim (camps/formations) went around the Mishkan and the Aron, which contained the Luchos (Tablets), which reveal the Oneness and unity of Hashem. As it says there (on the Tablets) “I am the Lord your God”. To teach us that all the twelve tribes, which are composed of the four degalim (formations), which are split into many different opinions, which are the 600,000 souls, every one of which has his own opinion which is different to his friend, and even so, all these different opinions which are different ways to operate, all of them are included in one opinion, as though they were one soul, as they all believe with one heart in the One God, that all the different ways to operate are drawn from Him.

In other words, the twelve tribes - despite their differences - are themselves a revelation of the unity of God.

The purpose of having twelve tribes is to demonstrate to the world the ability to have unity even within the diversity. The tribes of Israel were a microcosm of how the whole world could operate as a unity within diversity.

In summary, I believe your second question - in a way - answers your first. You are correct to suggest the Jewish people need unity. The question implies that unity would be best achieved if there were no tribes. I would humbly suggest that this is a false assumption. Unity of God is best expressed through the coming together of different aspects of creation, and in particular through the different aspects within the Jewish people (i.e. the twelve tribes). That said, it answers your first question of why the tribes needed to be divided into separate portions of the land and why the sea split for them into twelve pathways, because the unity of faith and purpose of the twelve tribes is itself the greatest revelation of God’s unity in this world.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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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