Ask The Rabbi

All Tribes Created Equal

The Color of HeavenArtscroll
Topic: 12 Tribes

Gabriella from Tampa, FL wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

For the first time in my life, I went to Synagogue on Friday night! It was such an interesting experience. I found the people there to be so open, honest and nice. What I liked the most was the singing and the chanting of the man (I forget what you call him.) Anyway, I met this really nice girl there who is the Rabbi's daughter. Her name is Shira Chana and she showed me around and explained some things to me. I must say I felt very much at home there.

I'm very interested in the 12 tribes. Someone there told me that you can determine which tribe you are from by your last name. My real mom's last name was Levin. What tribe would I be from? I would also like to know the ranks and orders of the tribes. Like who was the best tribe and which tribe wasn't so good.

These past few weeks have been so interesting for me. I have had an opportunity to really learn a lot about who I am and I'm really proud and happy to call myself a Jew. Thank you so much for your friendship and your kindness. I know one Hebrew word besides "shalom" which is "mitzvah," and that is what you do for me. Shalom, Gabriella.


Dear Gabriella,

It's wonderful to hear about someone returning to Judaism and to their heritage. May G-d help you on your path.

The tribes are: Reuben, Shimon, Levi (from whom come kohanim or Priests), Judah (the Royal line, from whom King David and mashiach are descended), Issachar, Zevulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher and Efraim and Menashe. There are actually 13 tribes, but since Efraim and Menashe are Joseph's sons, they are sometimes counted as one tribe, the tribe of Yosef.

The name Levin commonly indicates that a person is from the tribe of Levi, but it's not conclusive proof. Unfortunately, it's impossible in most cases to determine the tribe you are from just from your surname, as family names are a relatively recent addition to Jewish names and may be based on other factors. Most Jews don't know what tribe they are from.

Regarding which tribes are "better," we believe they all have unique qualities and are all of equal value in the eyes of G-d. Here is what one of the great sages, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, says: "The nation is to represent agriculture as well as commerce, militarism as well as culture and learning. The Jewish people will be a nation of farmers, a nation of businessman, a nation of soldiers and a nation of science. Thereby, as a model nation, to establish the truth that the one great personal and national calling which G-d revealed in His Torah, is not dependent on any particular kind of calling or trait, but that the whole of mankind in all its shades of diversity can equally find its calling in the one common spiritual and moral mission and outlook in life."

By the way, "the man singing" is called the chazan.

Sources:

  • Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on Genesis 48:3-4


 
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