Name Meanings of the Twelve Tribes

There are two reasons why Leah gave Reuven the name Reuven.  First of all, like the Torah says, "Hashem has seen my humiliation."

The second reason was prophetic. Reuven can also be read as "Reu Bain", which means "See between".  Leah said, "See the difference between my son and the son of my mother in law." She was referring to Esau who wanted to kill Yaakov for taking the birthright. Reuven was different for when Yosef was given the birthright in some regards, Reuven was not even jealous. (Berachoth 7b)

Shimon comes from the root "Shema - Hear". Leah said, "G-d heard my prayers." The Targum Yonathon also explains that she said, "May G-d also hear the prayers of my descendants in Egypt."

Levi was called so because Leah said, "Now may husband will become attached (Lava) to me."

The Targum Yonathon explains that Leah knew that Yaakov would have four wives and twelve sons. That means three per wife. Now that she had three children, she said, "Now that I have completed my portion, I hope that the Divine Presence will accompany him."

Rashi says about Levi, that the reason why the Torah says, "He named him" and not "She named him" is because Hashem sent the angel Gavriel to name him. This was because Levi was to be the priestly tribe.

Yehudah comes from the root "to thank". She thanked Hashem for giving her more than her share of children and for having theroyal line descend from him.

Dan was called so because Rachel said, "Hashem has judged (Dan) me and heard my voice." A further reason is because a descendant of his, Samson would also be judged by Hashem in the future and handed over to the Philistines. (Targum Yonathon)

Furthermore the descendants of Dan were judges.

Naftali was called so because Rachel said, "I have been twisted through G-d's roundabout ways (Naftulei)."

Another explanation given by Targum Yonathon is that it is an expression of prayer. Rachel said, "I have suffered greatly and pleaded before Hashem to give me a son. Finally I had this son."

Gad means success. Targum Yonathon explains that Leah saw that Gad would be successful in being the first tribe to gain a portion in the Land of Israel (Bamidbar 32:33).

Asher means good fortune. Targum Yonathon explains that they would be fortunate as the best fruit would grow in Asher's portion of Israel.

Yafeh Toar explains that they were fortunate as they had fortified cities and security where they lived. Their portion of the Land of Israel would be the best. Also their women would
become the wives of Kohanim (priests) and kings.

Yissachar comes from the word "reward", for Leah said, "Hashem has given me my reward for I gave my maidservant to my husband."

Targum Yonathon says that Yissachar's descendants were great Torah scholars and his name alludes to the great reward which was in store for them.

Zevulun means home, for now that Leah had half the tribes she reasoned that her husband would make his permanent home with her.

The Targum Yonathon explains that she said, "Hashem has given me a good portion. His descendants will also get a good portion in the Land of Israel.

Yosef means two things. "Gathering in", since Hashem gathered in Rachel's humiliation, and "Add on", for Rachel requested that she bear another son.

The Targum Yonathon says that Rachel also foresaw that one of Yosef's descendants - Yehoshua would remove the humiliation of the Jews by circumcising them.

The Midrash says that by called the next son "another son", Rachel alluded that in some ways he would be superior to Yosef. This second son, Binyamin, and his descendants did not have to go into exile like the other tribes who went (with the exception of also Yehudah) into exile early, to the other side of the Sambatyon river.

Binyomin was called so because he was the only son born inside Israel which is to the south of Padan Aram, where he was coming from. Binyomin comes from two words - Ben Yamin, meaning "Son of the South". (Rashi)

The tribes each had their own flags. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) brings down all the symbols. The background colors were the same as the colors of the tribe's stone on the

Reuven: Flowers called "dudoim" in Hebrew (mandrakes), on a red background.

This was so because of the verse in Bereishis 30:14, "And Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field..."

Shimon: The city of Shechem, on a green background.

It was in the city of Shechem that Shimon showed his strength and self sacrifice and showed how intent he was towards the interests of morality.

Levi: The breastplate, on a white, black and red background.

Because of the breastplate that the Kohen Gadol wore.

Yehudah: A lion on a sky-blue background.

Yehudah was the leader and the king, like a lion.

Yissachar: A sun and a moon on a blue-black background.

This was because his descendants were great Torah scholars and astronomers, which was necessary for the calendar.

Zevulun: A ship on a white background.

Zevulun was a merchant who lived on the coast.

Dan: A snake on a sapphire background.

This alludes to the verse (49:17) "Dan shall be a serpent on the way." Dan, when he went into battle, always did it from behind, in surprise attacks - like the serpent which is cunning and
bites the horse from behind.

Gad: A battalion of soldiers on a gray background.

As the verse (49:19) says, "Gad, a troop will be called from him."  Gad lived on the borders and were the ones who had to defend the country. They had a mighty army.

Naftali: A doe on a pale red background.

As the verse (49:21) says, "Naftali is a doe let loose." Does, when taking to a different country would find their way back home. These used to be used to carry messages back to their own countries. Naftali was also the bearer of good news and an excellent diplomat.

Asher: An olive tree on background the color of flaming olive oil.

This hinted to the richness of Asher's fruit producing land.

Menashe (son of Joseph): The giant animal called in Hebrew the Re'em on a black background.

This alludes to the Judge Gideon who came from this tribe.

Ephraim (son of Joseph): An ox on a black background.

This alludes to the verse (Devarim 33:17), "His firstling ox". This verse refers to Joshua. "Firstling" is taken to mean rank and power.

Binyamin: A wolf on a background of a mixture of all the other colors.

This refers to the verse (49:27), "Binyomin is a wolf that tears apart."

This alludes to King Shaul who tore apart the Moabites and Edom. It also refers to the descendants of Binyomin at the story of the concubine in Givaah, as the verse says there (Judges 21:21) "and every man will catch a wife."

All these characteristics characterized the whole tribe - including all future generations.

The Sifsei Cohen explains the significance of the stones on the breastplate.

Reuven was on a ruby (Odem). This stone has a special property that if it is ground into powder and eaten by a barren woman, it will allow her to give birth. This is similar to the mandrakes that Reuven brought his mother, which have similar properties. In order to recall this merit, Reuven is inscribed on a ruby. (It was through these mandrakes that Yissachar was born.)

Shimon was on a Pitdah (in Hebrew). This stone has a special property that if a woman wears it and wishes to conduct an immoral act, the stone will shatter. Shimon had a descendant
called Zimri, who led many Israelites into immorality with the women of Moab (Bamidbar 25). One might think that this was in the genes and it started from Shimon himself. Therefore he had this stone, which denotes chastity to show that he was free of this immorality. In fact Shimon went with self-sacrifice into Shechem to save his sister from immorality.

Levi was on a Barekes (crystal). This stone has a quality that it can increase a person's intelligence and enlighten him in Torah. It was therefore given to Levi, since they were the ones who enlightened others with Torah, as it says (Devarim 33:10), "They shall teach Your laws to Yaacov and Your Torah to Yisrael."

Yehuda was on a Nofech (carbuncle). The property of this stone is that if worn when going out to war it helps one defeat one's enemies. This is appropriate for Yehuda who was the king and led the battles.

Yissachar's stone was a Sapir (sapphire).  This stone protects the sanctity of the eyes and rest of the body. It also brings peace. Yissachar were the Torah scholars. Torah also brings
holiness to the body and. Torah scholars also pursue peace. Similarly the ten commandments were written on Sapphire.

Zevulun was on a Yahalom (pearl). This stone brings success in business - appropriate for Zevulun.

The pearl is also round. This teaches that the world is a cycle. One may be rich one day and poor the next. Therefore if one has money, one should make sure to use it for good causes. Just like Zevulun who used a lot of his money to support Yissachar who was learning Torah.

Dan was on a Leshem (topaz). Inside this stone there is an image of an upside down face of a man. Dan was a man of military ability. When pursuing an enemy, especially if he's on a horse, one keeps one's face turned upwards.

Another reason is because judges came from Dan. The stone was to teach that just like the face there is reversed, so too a judge must turn his face away from litigants whom he recognizes and not give them any favours.

Naftali was inscribed on a Shevo (turquoise). This stone helps a rider to ride successfully. This stone tells us of the piety of Naftali, for when he went to do a mitzvah he would do so on foot and not rely on an animal.

Gad was on an Achlamah. This stone gives courage in war. Gad lived on the border and went courageously into battle.

Asher was on a Tarshish. This is a stone the color of pure oil. Asher would plant olive trees to use its oil for the Beis HaMikdash.

Yoseph was on a Shoham (onyx or emerald). This stone causes the bearer to be liked by everyone around him. This teaches us that Yosef was liked by everybody who met him, and desired by the women in Egypt. Nevertheless, he never turned after them.

Binyamin was on a Yashpeh (jasper). This stone stops bleeding. This teaches us that although Binyamin knew that the brothers had sold Yosef, he sealed his lips and did not say a word to Yaakov. He thus prevented the shedding of his brother's blood.

-Rabbi Moshe Steinhaus