As we get ready for Camp Chai, campers are excited to find out what “tribe” they will be in. Every camp has traditions and Camp Chai at the J has a long standing tradition of naming our groups by the 12 tribes.
Here is part of the blessing that Jacob gave to each of his sons who later became the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel:
Reuben: The eldest who showed a deep sense of responsibility. He convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph. Later, he offered the lives of his own sons if he should fail to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. His symbol is the mandrake, the flower he brought to his mother Leah.
Gad: Means “good fortune” and though “raided by raiders, he shall raid at their heels.” The symbol is camp tents, standing for prowess in battle.
Joseph: The favorite son was noble and distinguished; he was Jacob’s favorite. Joseph’s sons were given a blessing from Jacob because of their father’s honor. The symbol for Joseph includes the bull and the unicorn for his two sons.
Benjamin: “A hungry wolf who eats in the morning,” produced fine soldiers and gave Israel its first king. The symbol is the wolf.
Dan: Means “to judge” and Dan would “judge his people.” But Jacob also said: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way.” The symbol is the serpent and scales of justice.
Judah: Was a “young lion,” declared Jacob. “Rulers will descend from him.” Judah’s descendants include King David and King Solomon. The symbol is the lion.
Naftali: Alert, nimble, and a good speaker. Jacob said he was “a deer let loose; he gives goodly words.” The symbol is a deer, still used by the Israel Ministry of Posts.
Simeon: The descendants of Simeon would be scattered among the tribes. The symbol is the Gates of Shechem, which was a city where the tribe of Simeon lived.
Zebulon: Would “dwell at the shore and be a haven for ships.” The symbol is a ship with the breeze blowing and the white foam flowing.
Asher: Means “happy,” and he would be “rich in oil.” The tribe of Asher grew olive groves and provided the Temple with oil.
The symbol is the olive tree.
Menasha & Ephraim: Joseph’s sons were adopted by Jacob for a special blessing.
“By thee shall Israel bless, saying: ‘God make thee as Ephraim and Menasha.’”
The symbol for Menasha was the unicorn.
Levi: The tribe that served the Kohanim and the Temple. The symbol was the hoshen mishpat — the breastplate of judgment.
On the plate were 12 jewels, each with the name of a tribe.
Now if that is too much to remember, here is a song we sing — it is to the tune of “Catalina Magdalina” (some verses are a little tricky) but the same message is given:
Jacob blesses his sons
CHORUS: Jacob had 12 sons but they came from different moms.
Each became a tribe in Jewish history.
Reuben was the oldest but he didn’t have much spine
So he got the basic blessing but without the bottom line.
As for Simeon and Levi, their families got mixed.
Due to what occurred in Shechem, their blessing was nixed.
All honor goes to Judah the ancestor of David the King.
His tribe would win back the Promised Land and praises would ring.
Zebulon got the seashore and Issachar got the land.
In looking at the blessings, these two were very grand.
The task of judging all the folks was given to Dan.
But for eloquence in speech, Naphtali was the man.
Gad will be a raider with a winning warrior band.
And Asher will lead the traders and bring delicacies to the land.
Benjamin was the baby but he led a wolf-like tribe.
First he takes the goodies and later he will divide.
Joseph was the favorite but we all know that.
He got the longest blessing plus the coat upon his back.
Ephraim and Menasha were Joseph’s pride
They got Grampa Jacob’s blessing as the stood side by side.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.
Singing history of 12 tribes