(Vere, Stein Atle. ©2011. “Heraldry of the Twelve Tribes”. brakha.blogspot.com.
Source enhanced: Mosaic in wall of unspecified synagogue, Yrushalayim.
Online: Ori229. Public domain 2007. wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaic_Tribes.jpg
Source enhanced: Mosaic in wall of unspecified synagogue, Yrushalayim.
Online: Ori229. Public domain 2007. wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mosaic_Tribes.jpg
Also Known As
• Tora תורה : “Instruction”, Torah, books of Moshe, Mosheh, Moses, Law: the set of five books that form the first part of the Tanakh: also the ongoing application of the Tora, Judaism.
• Tanakh תנ״ך : Tanach, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Bible: organizing into three parts Tora, Nviim, Ktuvim.
• Bamidbar: Ba'Midbar, B'Midbar, Numbers: the fourth book of the Tora.
• Rabi רבי : “My Massive” One, Great Teacher, Rabbi, plural Rabanim רבנים , Rabbanim, Rabbis: Teacher of Tora, spiritual leader of Jewish community.
• Midrash מדרש : “Demand” for answers, interpretation, homiletics, exegeses, hermeneutics: methods and results of the Rabanim to interpret the Tora.
• Agada אגדה : Aggada, “Tale”, story, narrative: a specific kind of Midrash that explores the ongoing story of the Tora.
• Midrash Raba מדרש רבה , Rabbah, Rabba, Rabah: a set of medieval books of Agada, one book for each of the books in the Tora.
• Bamidbar Raba במדבר רבה , Ba'Midbar Rabbah: the fourth book of the Midrash Raba, on Bamidbar.
• Aharon Ha'Kohen Ha'Mashiakh: אהרן הכהן המשיח : Mashiach Ha'Cohen משיח הכהן , Aaron the Messiah Priest, Anointed Priest, Ha'Kohen Ha'Gadol הכהן הגדול , the High Priest: the formative ancestor of the priestly dynasty.
• Mashiakh משיח : Mashiach, Mashiah, Messiah: an officially “anointed” leader, analogous to being crowned or inaugurated: especially Mashiakh Ben David, a future leader who ushers in the Mashiakh Age, a time of peace, prosperity, longevity, compassion, and holiness.
• Khosen חשן : Choshen, Hoshen, Chestpouch amulet, Breastplate, a square embroidered linen pouch that hang across the chest of the Kohen Ha'Mashiakh, to enter the Holiness of Holinesses in the nomadic Tent Shrine or later the permanent Temple.
Bamidbar Raba is the fourth book of the five books of Midrash Raba.
As the title conveys, it is a Midrash (interpretation) that investigates the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), the fourth book in the Tora, in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
Bamidbar Raba compiles during the Medieval Age circa 1100s. Its authorship is Rabanim (Rabbis) who investigate both contemporary and much earlier traditions.
BAMIDBAR RABA 2'6
Here in this passage, Bamidbar Raba 2'6 (chapter 2', section 6, but often counted as 2'7), the Rabanim endeavor to reconstruct the appearance of each 'flag' דגל that each tribe of ancient nomadic Yisrael uses to rally its members in an orderly manner.
The Rabanim conclude, each of the twelve different gemstones for the intaglio seals that decorate the priestly Khoshen amulet, exhibits the official color of each tribe. By extension, the color of each tribal flag is the same official color.
Then, the Rabanim begin the process of reconstructing these original tribal colors by the twelve stones.
The tribal heraldry of the Tora inspires the Rabanim to fashion heraldic badges, the “symbol” on the coat of arms, for each of the twelve future tribes of Yisrael.
As the Rabanim reconstruct the tribal flags, their text of Bamidbar Raba 2'6 takes shape by means of three main layers of interpretation, three stratums (strata).
Each layer adds to, and even interpolates into, the previous layer that they write.
The Tora itself is Stratum 0, the bedrock that all stratums of interpretation extrapolate from and build on.
Each generation of Rabanim views the world from a higher vantage point, on the accumulating supporting layers of interpretation. Meanwhile, they also interact with each of these deeper layers, thereby extrapolate, build and record their own contemporary stratum, to express how to best understand the Tora.
Sometimes the same Rabani authorship can form several stratums of interpretation, as new implications arise from the preceding conclusion.
• Stratum 1, the earliest layer: The Rabanim explore the curious wording in the Tora itself. Within it, the book of Bamidbar (Exodus 2'2) says: “On ‹behalf of› his flag, by its signs”. The Rabanim ask what “signs”. They conclude, the “sign” of the flag refers to its color, corresponding to one of the twelve tribal colors.
• Stratum 2, the next layer of interpretation: The Rabanim make an effort to reconstruct what each tribal color is. The intertribal Khoshen amulet needs twelve different kinds of gem stones for its respective tribal intaglio seals. This implies, each gem displays a quality peculiar to its tribe. The Rabanim surmise, it is the tribal colors that the gem exhibits. Thus, the same tribal colors are the “sign” for each flag. These intaglio seals and these flags are an ancient form of heraldry.
• Stratum 3, the latest stratum: The Rabanim emphasize, the ancestors of the tribes of Yisrael set a precedent for the contemporary tribes of Yisrael. The Rabanim adapt the medieval customs of heraldry, by applying the precedents in the Tora to fashion new heraldic badges and mottos, in addition to the ancient flags with tribal colors. In the future, during the Mashiakh Age of prophecy, God will restore the twelve tribes of Yisrael. Just as the ancients use insignias to expedite the tribal activities in an orderly manner, the restoration of the twelve tribes will too.
These three stratums of interpretation intermix to form a single, complex, comprehensive text.
Reading the Tora
The Tora, in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers 2'2), describes how the nomads of Yisrael pause from their journeying and set up tents.
They assign the areas for their tents, tribe by tribe, around the courtyard of the Mishkan משכן (“Residence” of the Presence of God). Here the Tora calls this portable Tent Shrine, the Tent of Appointed Time.
Bamidbar 2'2 (translated by Stein Atle Vere ©2011):
“The children of ‹the twelve tribes of› Yisrael will make camp, ‹each› person against ones flag, in ‹regard to› the signs ‹that belong› to the House of their Fathers. They will make camp, from the countering surrounding the Tent of Appointed ‹Time›.”
אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ .
When the nomads set camp for the season, they organize their locations according to their intertribal social structure. Each tribe coordinates these locations by a flag.
Question: One “house” of many “fathers”?
Yisrael is a tribal society.
By definition, each “father” has his own “house”.
When referring to humans, a “house” בית usually means the household of an extended family living under one roof, including several generations of children, plus friends and workers who become part of the family.
The head of each household is the patriarch, literally the “father” אב .
Note: Even a father and child can technically be called “siblings” אחים when they both live with a grandparent who functions as the “father” of their household. Also note: While the tribal structure is typically masculine and patriarchal, it is a known phenomenon, sometimes women serve in these leadership roles. While relatively awkward, it is usually because the women are competent, and their influence promotes an unusual period of prosperity. Moreover, a widow of a “father” often continues to manage the household even as one of her sons becomes the new “father”. The sons continue to honor their mother. Tribes can enjoy the same flexibility about making decisions that households can.
A group of “houses”, generally cousins who descend from a common ancestor and who often live or travel near eachother, define a “clan” משפחה .
The head of a prominent house of a clan serves as the clan “elder” זקן . The elder facilitates the clan activities as the “father” of the whole clan, and represents the clan visavis others.
At a higher level of government organization, those clan elders who belong to the same ethnic community, gather together to define the “tribe” שבט . They assemble to form the tribal council of elders.
The Tora mentions one “president” for each tribe. (Bamidbar 2'3.) In the tribal council, the elders appoint one among them as their “president” נשיא who presides over their council, literally the councilor who is “carried” above the fellow councilors.
So, in this tribal context, where the many “fathers” have many “houses”, in what sense can fathers share one same “house”?
Answer: This “House” is the Tent Shrine, and these “fathers” are the twelve “presidents” who assemble at the Tent Shrine.
The Rabanim read this one “house” as referring to the “House” of God, namely the Tent Shrine where the twelve tribes camp around.
It is unclear if applying the term “house” to nomads, rather than “tent”, is an anachronism from the notes by later scribes of the Tora, during the Iron Age, after these nomads urbanize. Etymologically, the word “house” בית means “building” or structure, and possibly applies to portable cloth structures as well as permanent structures of wood, mud, brick, or stone. The book of Shoftim (Judges 18'31) calls this Tent Shrine, a “House”, later when it stays in Shilo. There, the book of Shmuel A (1 Samuel 3'15) mentions “doors”, possibly referring to a permanent wall enclosing the courtyard. In any case, this “House” denotes the Tent Shrine.
In addition to being for intertribal prayer, the Tent Shrine is also for the intertribal government. Its name here is, “the Tent of Appointed ‹Time›” אהל מועד . The Hebrew term literally means “one being appointed”, referring to a calendar date, but substantively means any official appointment. In other words, this name expresses the meeting place, where the heads of each tribe hold their “appointed” assemblies.
The sacred tent is a nomadic version of a national house of assembly, at a higher level of organization than the more ancient council of elders of each tribe. Altho the tribes of Yisrael are still nomads, they are familiar with the bureaucracy of Mitsrayim (Egypt), in the royal court of the Pharaoh.
The Tora preserves a memory of separate tribes formally allying to innovate an intertribal kinship system, for a united “kin of Yisrael” עם ישראל . It is a social revolution that forges a new kind of national identity.
The Rabanim read “the House of their Fathers” to mean the national Tent of Appointed Time, where the patriarchs - namely the presidents - meet to discuss intertribal issues, whence a national government.
Question: One “flag” in regard to many “signs”?
Answer: One “flag” for each of the twelve “signs”.
In this context of the leader of each tribe assembling together, the “signs” refer to the twelve tribal signs.
The Tora, via Bamidbar 2'3-31, describes the locations of the tribal areas around the Tent Shrine. Each of the twelve tribes has its own flag. There are twelve flags. Each flag uses a unique sign to signify the tribe.
Accordingly, each president displays this tribal flag at the intertribal assembly.
Medieval Age Heraldry
The Rabanim observe the contemporary heraldry in the royal courts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Each aristocratic family identifies itself by means of traditional insignias: a heraldic “flag” מפה (including the banner on a standard, the pennon on a lance, and so on), a heraldic “color” צבע (from the equipment of soldiers to the decor of banquet halls), a heraldic badge being a “symbol” סימן (the emblematic picture for coat of arms, flag, shield, medal, broach, and so on), a heraldic motto, and so on.
Leaders and the groups that they represent need official “signs”.
Bronze Age “Heraldry”
The Rabanim realize, the “signs” אותיות that the Tora mentions for each of the flags of Yisrael obviously serves an official function.
These are the insignias that the tribes use to represent themselves. The Tora describes the nomads setting up camp in an orderly fashion, tribe by tribe, around the intertribal Tent Shrine.
The presidents require visible tribal insignias, both around the Tent of Appointed Time to expedite orderly procedure, and in it to signify the authority to negotiate intertribal concerns on behalf of their respective tribes.
The Official Colors for the Twelve Stones
The “sign” of each flag is the official color of the tribe.
This is the same color as the official gem stone of the tribe.
Each president of a tribe uses a seal that artisans carve from the tribal-color gem.
The carving of each stone is an intaglio seal that imprints the name of the tribe.
The tribe of Levi emerges as an intertribal priestly caste, and among Levi, Aharon emerges as the founder of the priestly dynasty.
Arahon becomes the first Kohen Ha'Mashiakh (“the anointed priest”) for all twelve tribes. He receives a set of these twelve tribal stones, for the Khoshen amulet of his own sacred clothing. The Kohen Ha'Mashiakh dons them to enter the Holiness of the Holinesses of the Mishkan - the most sacred area of the Tent Shrine - thus unifies these official symbols of each tribes authority with the authority of God.
Probably under the influence of the scarabs of Mitsrayim (Egypt), Yisrael adapts the custom of using engraved gems to represent authority. Note: The tribal intaglios of Yisrael apparently avoid the dung-beetle shape of a scarab, but their use as an official insignia of power is similar.
In cooperation, the presidents donate a special set of twelve tribal seals to the Kohen Ha'Mashiakh as a permanent sacred offering. These twelve stones that the Kohen Ha'Mashiakh wears across his chest - “on his heart” - are precisely the governmental emblems of each tribe of Yisrael.
All the power of the tribes of Yisrael belongs to God.
Twelve Stones of Twelve Colors
The Rabanim question why there are separate kinds of gems, concluding it is because these exhibit twelve different colors.
The tribal gems signify the tribal colors.
Why not make twelve intaglios with different names using the same kind of gem? The Rabanim sense the tribes require different kinds of gems. They notice each gem stone has a distinctive coloring. The Rabanim surmise, it is the visual symbol of color that makes the choice of gem significant.
Each gem displays a tribal “sign”.
Note: When the twelve tribes make Levi, who is one among them, a kind of sacred caste to serve all of the other tribes, the largest tribe Yosef then splits its two clans, Efrayim and Mnashe, into separate tribes. Thereby the tribes restore their number of tribes to the compelling twelve, plus add an intertribal “thirteenth” tribe that unifies them. This development complicates the counting of “twelve” tribes of Yisrael. Different lists vary depending on intention. Here, in this formative moment, the Rabanim count Levi as still one of the twelve tribes but also mentions both Efrayim and Mnashe as the subdivisions of the one tribe of Yosef.
The Rabanim pioneer the effort to reconstruct the twelve tribal colors by identifying the colors of their gems.
Reuben: “Red”. Shimon: “Green”. Levi: “A third white and a third black and a third red”. Yhuda: “a kind of heavens”. Yshakhar: “Black likening to blue”. Zvulun: “White”. Dan: “Likening to” the black likening to blue, apparently a variant shade of dark blue. Naftali: “transparent wine”, being pale purple-red. Asher: “Likening to a valuable stone that by it the women adorn themselves” - seemingly a riddle, but likely refers to the color of gold. Yosef: “Black”, “very” black as opposed to blue-black. And, Binyamin: “Each of the colors” of the twelve tribes, whence an interplay of white, black, red, green, blue, purple, and probably gold.
Later, I will show how the Midrash by the Rabanim derives these gem colors. Their reconstruction is insightful and helpful, but this context requires precise caution when using it to help identify the colors of the historical stones of the Khoshen.
In the current context, these gemmy colors organize the official intertribal activities by means of their same-color flags.
Mashiakh Age Heraldry
The Midrash is holy because the quest to recover this lost information about Yisrael is holy.
While the Rabanim reconstruct the lifestyles of their ancestors in the ancient ages, they also lay the groundwork for the future during the Mashiakh Age. In the future, God will restore all twelve tribes of Yisrael. All these children of Yisrael will serve as Mlakhim and Kohanim (“kings and priests”), to facilitate the needs of a global humanity to sustain international peace and cooperation, marvelous prosperity, and extraordinary longevity.
Yes, these colors represent the ancient tribal presidents, but they also represent the future tribal presidents. The Rabanim assert: “From them”, from these signs, “the kingships” of the future must “study to be doing” their own tribal “flag”, for their own royal heraldry of their tribe.
To exemplify such study, the Rabanim go on not only to recreate the tribal colors, but also to create new tribal heraldic badges for future coats of arms.
Apparently the Rabanim reread the wording of their earlier interpretation. Originally, their Hebrew word “symbol” סימן refers to a symbolic color. But now, alternatively, it refers to a pictorial “symbol”, namely the emblem of a heraldic “badge”. Both possibilities can be simultaneously true. Thus the Rabanim draw from other references in the Tora, especially the book of Breshit (Genesis 50'), to establish what the tribal badges ought to look like.
In the context of this medieval heraldry, the prooftexts themselves for the badges resemble heraldic mottos. Example: The one for Binyamin, “A wolf will prey”, makes a fine motto for a cunning and cooperative medieval family. Possibly, the Rabanim intend these as such.
The Rabanim start the process of codifying the official government emblems for the future Mashiakh Age.
As the Rabanim reconstruct the Yisrael of the sacred past, they likewise shape the Yisrael of the sacred future.
Together, by these stratums of the Midrash, the Rabanim evoke the tribal nomads of the Bronze Age, and apply these memories in the context of their Medieval Age to program a pragmatic government for the Mashiakh Age.
By means of these twelve tribes, by means of their twelve gems, by means of their twelve colors.
The holy twelve stones of the Khoshen are requirements to organize the tribal social structure of Yisrael, and ultimately to coordinate a workable society for the Mashiakh Age.