My Search for the Tribes of Zion: Part One

“The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together; for there the tribes ascended – the tribes of God – a testimony for Israel, to give thanks to the Name of Hashem.” (Psalm 122:3,4)


Dear Friends,


Our father, Jacob, was given the additional name “Israel” (Genesis 35:10); moreover, his twelve sons became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  Centuries later, King Solomon, the son of King David, ruled over all the tribes in an era of peace, and it was he who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In his era, all the tribes would make the pilgrimage to the Temple for the Festivals of Passover, Shavuos, and Succos. After King Solomon passed away, ten tribes broke away to form the northern kingdom of Israel, while the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the dynasty of King David. These two tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah.


Within Judah, which contained Jerusalem and the Temple, were also many members of the Tribe of Levi – a tribe which was dedicated to the teaching of Torah and to the Temple service (Deuteronomy 33:10). The Tribe of Levi included the Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon, who had a special priestly role in the Temple service, and who also blessed the people daily.


When the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, its ten tribes went into exile, and when their exact whereabouts were no longer known, they were referred to as, “The Lost Ten Tribes.” After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, the people of Judah went into exile; however, after seventy years, they were given permission to return and build the Second Temple. A minority of the people returned and built the Second Temple, and it lasted until the Romans destroyed it and the long exile began.


According to our tradition, our national identity is passed down through the mother, and our tribal identity is passed down through the father. Due to the suffering and wandering of the exile, the majority of Jews did not preserve their exact tribal identity; thus, they called themselves by the general national name, “Yisrael” – Israel. The one exception was the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim, as most of the members of this tribe managed to pass on their tribal identity from generation to generation.


When there is a public reading of the Torah, a Kohen is called up to make the blessing over the first portion which is read, a Levi is called up to make the blessing over the second portion, and a Yisrael is called up to make the blessing over the third portion. My grandfather, Avraham Hakohen, immigrated to the United States from Russia, and he was a radical socialist who rarely attended synagogue services; however, he did pass on to my father the awareness that we are a family of Kohanim; thus, when my father was called up to the Torah for his bar mitzvah, he said the blessing over the first portion of the Torah. Most of the Jews of my father’s generation become more Americanized, and passing on the tribal identity no longer seemed relevant, especially since most of them only attended services at the synagogue on the High Holidays.


When I began to attend the local afternoon Hebrew school at age 9, Rabbi Gabriel Beer told us to ask our fathers what tribe we are from. I went home and asked my father this question, and he told me that I was a Kohen. This was the first time that I heard this term. When I went to Hebrew school the next day, Rabbi Beer told the students to share with the class the information on their tribal identity. Rabbi Beer began with the students in the front row, and I was sitting in the last row. As the students announced their tribe, I noticed that the majority were Yisrael, and that there were also a few Levites. No one was a Kohen! I started to feel very low, as I assumed that I must belong to an insignificant tribe. I already felt different from the other boys in the class since I was not good in sports, and now I had another reason to feel different, for I belonged to a tribe that no one else belonged to. When it became my turn to announce my tribe, I said, somewhat sadly, “Kohen.” Rabbi Beer became excited when he heard my announcement, and he began to tell the class about the special role of the Kohanim. I felt both relieved and elated. I now realized that although I was the frail boy in class who was not good in sports, I had a special role of service among my people.


When I was age ten, I started to attend a Jewish day school, and in our English class, we read a novel about a Jewish boy who set out to find the lost ten tribes. This story caused me to feel a great yearning for the reunion of all the tribes of Israel. As I grew older, I learned that the Kohanim and the Levites are to feel a special concern and responsibility for the spiritual well-being of all the tribes, as when Moshe blessed all the tribes before they entered the Promised Land, he gave the following blessing to the Tribe of Levi, including the Kohanim:


“They shall teach Your social laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10).


The Tribe of Levi was given the responsibility to serve as Torah teachers for the People of Israel. This is a major reason why they were not given a portion within the Land of Israel like all the other tribes; instead, they lived in cities which were scattered throughout the Land – cities which served as centers of Torah for each of the tribes. The Kohanim and the Levites therefore served as a constant reminder to all the tribes of their responsibility to fulfill all the mitzvos of the Torah, for on Mount Sinai, all the Tribes of Israel proclaimed:


“Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will listen!” (Exodus 24:7).


Although Israel is one nation, each of our tribes is also a nation, and a source for this idea is found in the following Divine promise to Jacob, our father:


“And a nation and a community of nations will emerge from you.” (Genesis 35:11)  


“A community of nations” – Targum Onkelos, the ancient and revered Aramaic translation of the Torah, states: “A community of tribes will emerge from you.”


In his commentary on the above verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that each tribe within Israel has a unique national characteristic. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the tribes of Israel – each with its own special characteristic – can serve as a universal model for all the diverse tribes of humankind. Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“Hence, this people should not present a one-sided image. As a model nation, it should reflect diverse national characteristics...In this manner, it will become clear to all that the sanctification of human life in the Divine covenant of the Torah does not depend on a particular way of life or national characteristic. Rather, all of humankind, with all its diversity, is called upon to accept the unifying spirit of the God of Israel. From the diversity of human and national characteristics will emerge one united kingdom of God.”


According to the Midrash, the following verse indicates that the tribes had their own individual flags:


The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person by his flag according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” (Numbers 2:2)


“Each person by his flag” – The flag of each tribe had a distinguishing color and emblem representing the tribe. (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 2:7)


The Tent of Meeting – the Sanctuary – contained the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark of the Covenant were the Tablets of the Covenant. After the Sanctuary was built, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were commanded to encamp around the Sanctuary with their respective flags. Before the building of the Sanctuary, there is no mention of their encamping with flags.


Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, a leading sage of the previous generation, raised the following question: Why did the Twelve Tribes of Israel have to wait to encamp with their respective flags until “after” the Sanctuary was built? He answers that until the Children of Israel had the Sanctuary – the unifying center – the differences between the tribes were a potential source of conflict. If the tribes would have encamped with their separate flags without a unifying spiritual center, there would have been a surge of “nationalistic” feeling within each tribe, with each tribe feeling superior to the other. The Sanctuary, however, provided a central focus to communal life and revealed that, whatever their differences, the tribes were united by their common service of Hashem. Once the Sanctuary was built, it was no longer dangerous to emphasize the unique nature of each tribe through their separate flags.


Rabbi Kamenetsky added a related idea: The diversity of the tribes has a positive role within the Divine plan for Israel, and we were reminded of this after the Exodus, when Hashem split the Sea of Reeds into twelve different paths – one for each tribe (Mechilata on Exodus 14:6). This positive role can only be fulfilled, however, when all the tribes are devoted to a common spiritual goal, and when there is mutual respect for the unique role of each tribe in the achievement of that goal. (Cited in the ArtScroll biography, “Reb Yaakov” by Yonason Rosenblum)


The Twelve Tribes of Israel were reminded of their common spiritual goal when they made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as it is written:


“The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together; for there the tribes ascended – the tribes of God – a testimony for Israel” (Psalm 122:3,4).



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision