Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tribal Flags

Full disclosure: I'm back-dating this one to make it match the parsha which we read, in actuality, yesterday (although it won't be read for another week outside Israel), not to mention to make an entry for last month. Here it's Yom Yerushalayim, and the young man, a budding vexillologist, much to his father's delight, has begun to identify every Israeli flag as that of "Shalayim." This Shabbat, with the help of a flag-spangled shirt of his mother's, I taught him Gibraltar as well. More to come later this week!

It reminded me that 13 years ago exactly I submitted a long post about the flags of the tribes of Israel to the Flags of the World Mailing List, which I would later manage for a while. It was essentially a translation of the commentaries on Parshat Bamidbar, of course- hence the timing both then and now. You can read it here; I present an edited version below.

The two rabbinic commentaries concerning the flags of the tribes are Numbers Rabbah and Pseudo-Jonathan.

Numbers Rabbah is a Midrash, part of the collection called Midrash Rabbah, the Great Midrash. A Midrash (there are about a hundred) expounds (which is the meaning of the word "midrash") on verses in the Bible, whether to determine Jewish law or, alternatively, non-legal matters such as history or lore from them. They were written over a large span of time, from about the first century until about the tenth. (Some collections date from the next few centuries after that) Numbers Rabbah, on the Book of Numbers, was written in about the ninth century. It's in Hebrew, and the somewhat loose translation below is my own.

Pseudo-Jonathan is a Targum, that is, a translation of the Bible (here, of the first five books, including Numbers) into Aramaic. There are several Targums, of different style. Some are simple translations with minimal exposition, but Pseudo-Jonathan gives much commentary among its translation- all of what is below is not in the actual Biblical text. (The text here was actually called the "Jerusalem Targum, "as it was written in Israel, but someone mistook the initials for Targum Jonathan, another Targum, and the name stuck, hence the use of the term "Pseudo-Jonathan.) This Targum was written in about the seventh or eighth century. The translation from the Aramaic is my own; as my knowledge of Aramaic isn't as good as my knowledge of Hebrew, it's a bit rougher.

An important note: Although the two works were written at the above dates, each uses sources that were much older, dating to the first or second centuries. These sources, in turn, may have been based on even older traditions, perhaps dating back to the time of the writing of the Bible and/or the events described therein. Going back that far, one would have to see what the vexillological customs of the ancient Mesopotamia (the place of origin of the Israelites), ancient Canaan/Phoenicia (where they had originally come from and where they were going back to) and ancient Egypt (where they had just come from) were. Of course, it is hard to tell what portions of these two works have long traditions behind them and what portions do not, and one cannot discount the fact the descriptions of flags here are undoubtedly influenced by flags that existed in the early Middle Ages, when they were written. The word "flags" here may thus mean "banner" or "strip of cloth" or "vexillum" or perhaps even "flag" in our modern sense. However, the original standards, if any, may have been an object (a vexillloid) of some sort. (Note that the Midrash attributes the widespread use of colored cloth flags to the example of the Israelites!)

Numbers Rabbah, 2:7, commenting on Numbers Chapter 2, Verse 2: "The Israelites shall each camp according to his degel ["division", modern: "flag"] under the otot ["symbols"] of their fathers' houses."

Each tribe had a symbol, a mapah ["cloth," "spread," hereafter "flag"], and the color of each flag was the color of the precious stone that was on the chest of Aaron [the High Priest]. [The breastplate of the high priest contained twelve precious stones, one for each tribe. The exact definition of each is not known, so the Hebrew is given here; possibilities may be guessed from the colors described here and are given as well.] From this the kingdoms of the world learned to make flags and have a color for each flag.

- Reuben's stone was Odem [carnelian? ruby?], and his flag was red, and mandrakes were drawn on it. [Mandrakes figure in a story about Reuben, the founder of the tribe, Genesis 30:14. I'm not sure where the image of a rising sun sometimes seen comes from.]

- Simeon's stone was Pitedah [emerald?], and his flag was green, and a picture of the city of Shechem was drawn on it. [Simeon, together with Levi, destroyed that city, Genesis 34.]

- Levi's stone was Bareket [topaz? carbuncle? smaragd?], and his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red [as a banded stone], and  the Urim VeTummim [that is, the twelve-stone breastplate containing the Urim VeTummim- square, with four rows of three stones each, usually horizontal but sometimes vertical] was drawn on it. [The priesthood was drawn from the tribe of Levi, and the whole tribe participated in holy service. Levi is omitted from the list by some, as he was not counted among the others, with the two tribes of Joseph making up the total of twelve.]

- Judah's stone was was Nofekh [carbuncle? topaz?], and his flag was sky blue, and a lion was drawn on it. [Judah, from whom the monarchy descended, is compared to the king of beasts in Genesis 49:9, the blessing of Jacob.]

- Issachar's stone was Sapir [sapphire?], and his flag was azure [some: black], and the sun and moon were drawn on it, because [quoting I Chronicles 12:33] "And from the sons of Issachar were those who knew the wisdom of the times [i.e., astronomy and calendars]". [Jacob's blessing calls Issachar a "laden donkey," and sometimes the symbol is shown as that or as a man with a burden.]

- Zebulun's stone was Yahalom [beryl?], and his flag was white [according to some, silver, alluding to his wealth], and a ship was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49:13] "Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore” [i.e., engage in trade].

- Dan's stone was Leshem [jacinth?], and his flag was the color of sapphire [others: black], and a snake was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49: 17] "Dan shall be [as] a snake [when he attacks from an ambush]." [As Dan's descendants were judges, scales are sometimes shown as well.]

- Gad's stone was Shevo [agate?], and his flag was not white and not black but a mixture of black and white [gray?], and a picture of a military camp was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49: 19] "Gad shall camp in troops" [a reference to his fighting strength]. [Sometimes actual troops, not tents, are shown.]

- Naftali's stone was Achlamah [amethyst?], and his flag was the color diluted wine whose red color was no longer strong, and a deer was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49: 21] "Naftali shall be as a swift  deer “ [i.e., he was a fast runner].

- Asher's stone was Tarshish [chrysolite?], and his flag was the color of  an expensive stone women decorate themselves with [pearl? opal?] [others: olive, or the light given by olive oil], and an olive tree was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49: 20] "From Asher will come rich bread” [i.e., he will live in a fertile area]. [Sometimes other signs of agricultural wealth, such as a cornucopia, are shown.]

- Joseph's stone was Shoham [onyx?], and his flag was very black, and drawn on it for the two tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh was Egypt [a pyramid?], because they were born in Egypt. And on the flag of Ephraim was drawn an ox, because [quoting Deuteronomy 33:17] "His first born is his ox," a reference to Joshua who was from the tribe of Ephraim [in addition, although the younger brother, Ephraim was considered the senior tribe, and Genesis 49:22 calls Joseph an ox as well]. And on the flag of Menasseh was drawn a re'em [a wild ox], because [quoting Deuteronomy 33:17] "And the horns of the re'em will be his horn," referring Gideon son of Joash who was from the tribe of Menasseh. [Was there one black flag with an overall picture of Egypt plus the two animals, or a flag with Egypt for the whole Joseph plus a flag for each tribe, or just a flag for each tribe each with two symbols?]

- Benjamin's stone was Yashpeh [jasper?], and the color of his flag was all the colors of the twelve flags, and a wolf was drawn on it, because [quoting Genesis 49:17] "Benjamin is like a scavenging wolf".

Therefore the word “symbols” is used, for there were symbols for each tribe. [End of Numbers Rabbah translation.]

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan interprets the verse as giving not one flag to each tribe, but one flag for each camp- that is, each of the four groups of three tribes each. He also sees the stones on the breastplate as being arranged for the tribes not in the order above (by mother, then by age) but according to the camps. Thus his commentary on the following verses:
 

- Numbers 2:3: "...[the camp of Judah's] tekes (lit. "troop", here clearly "flag") had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, odem, pitedah, bareket. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Judah- Issachar- Zebulun" and the verse (Numbers 10:35) "Arise, Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate You flee before You!" And there was a picture of a young lion (Genesis 49:9, "Judah is a young lion...") on it..."
 

- Numbers 2:10: "...[the camp of Reuben's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, nofekh-sapir-yahalom. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Reuben- Simeon-Gad" and the verse (Deuteronomy 6:4) "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." And there was a picture of a young deer (or ram) ("rams" symbolizing Israel; originally to have been a calf, but changed because of the sin of the golden calf) on it..."
 

- Numbers 2:18: "...[the camp of Ephraim's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, leshem-shivo-achlamah. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Ephraim-Menasseh-Benjamin" and the verse (Numbers 10:34) "And the cloud of the Lord was above them during the day when they traveled from the camp." And there was a picture of a young boy (Jeremiah 31:19, "Ephraim is my dear son...") on it..."
 

- Numbers 2:25: "...[the camp of Dan's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, tarshish-shoham-yashpeh. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Dan- Naftali-Asher" and the verse (Numbers 10:36) "Return, Lord, the myriads of thousands of Israel!" And there was a picture of a snake (Genesis 49: 17, "Dan shall be [as] a snake…”) on it..."

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