Decoding The Tribes of Israel: A Modern-Day Gift Guide
Decoding The Tribes of Israel: A Modern-Day Gift Guide
When we soft launched our first collection of thirteen Tallit and Tefillin Bags and Challah Covers a few months ago, the first question many people asked was “how do I choose a design? they’re all so gorgeous!” A legitimate question! How does one choose from thirteen beautiful and very different designs?
For us, there are (at least) three different ways to think about this question. The first is the most obvious, as it is the literal correlation between the design name and the recipient’s name; Do you have a son named Benjamin? A boyfriend named Dan? The Benjamin and Dan designs could probably work really well for those that share the name. After all, according to Jewish mysticism, one’s name (Hebrew name, specifically) is a reflection of their essence. It is said that when a Jewish soul comes into the world, their name is echoed in heaven and their mazel (luck) is determined and closely connected to the date, location and circumstances of their birth.
The second, and simpler way to choose, is based on what you (the gift giver or recipient) are most drawn to, design wise. Does he/she love lions? wolves? snakes? We’ve iterated on those! Are they drawn to intricate embellishments or do they prefer sleek and understated design? We have that too.
But, the third, (and perhaps our favorite!) litmus test for selecting the right design is based on the deeper reasoning behind each of the unique elements which is rooted in biblical research of the Tribes of Israel (Jacob’s alter ego), their unique personalities, qualities, stories and the blessing Jacob bestowed upon them before his death. It is through this research that we took a small kernel of inspiration and a bit of creative license to iterate on colors, textures, and embroidery techniques that felt syntonic with the essence of each biblical character that we tried to bring to life.
We often speak about the fact that as mothers, we relate to each of our own children differently based on their placement within our respective families, their unique needs, talents and personalities, and most importantly where we are emotionally within our own lives, as moms, during the different stages of their growth and development. As such, we are uniquely different mothers to each of our children, just as they are uniquely different children to us. As we simultaneously birthed this collection and explored the lives of Jacob’s children, we learned that this sentiment is an age-old truth. Jacob related to each of his children uniquely based on which of his four wives they came from, his own age and experiences, and thousands of other factors.
Jacob’s thirteen children, in birth order were, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naftali, Dinah, Gad, Asher, Issachar Zebulon, Joseph and Benjamin. We are enamored by their stories and by the flawed and very human characters. We see them struggle with family dynamics and interpersonal tension that may feel familiar from our own lives.
Here is a deeper dive into some of our thought process and inspiration. We hope you love learning about it as much as we loved creating it; it was a true labor (pun intended) of love.
Reuben (The First)
Reuben literally translates to “I see a son.” As the firstborn child of Leah, he represents the awe and wonderment associated with being the first, as his name suggests. The point of view associated with Reuben that we chose to highlight in our design carries with it a strong duality; the appearance of a delicate flower with significant strength being the veil. We read the famous story of the mandrake flower Reuben picked and gave to his mother Leah. Leah proceeded to barter this flower with Rachel in exchange for one more night with Jacob, whose attention Leah felt she could never fully captivate as his heart always pined for her younger sister.
We uncover several layers of oldest/youngest dynamics within two generations of siblings in this story. The mandrake transformed both Leah, the older sister, and Reuben, her eldest son, into power brokers. They utilized this aphrodisiac that promotes fertility to strike a deal which ultimately resulted in Rachel’s fertility and the subsequent birth of Joseph. This seemingly benign transaction sent the family dynamics and the course of Jewish history into a tailspin. A wild chain of events all originated with one delicate flower- a representation of abundance and power, both of which are highly characteristic of firsts; first love, first kiss, firstborn- all of life’s natural highs- no aphrodisiac necessary.
Simeon (The Protector)
Simeon possessed the fiery spirit that enabled him to be the protector and the gatekeeper of the brothers. While these admirable qualities are necessary for the survival of any cohort of diverse opinions and personalities, it can also manifest as aggression and violence when not kept in check. We see both edges of this sword in the different stories where Simeon appears. The first and most well-known is his ability to convince his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him- a form of fierce protection that was the precursor to Joseph attaining a leadership role in Egypt and saving his family from famine.
The second display of Simeon as protector, isn’t as flattering or noble, perhaps because when it came to Dinah- the only sister- he couldn’t reign his anger in. When Shechem “disrespected” Dinah and proceeded to make a treaty with Simeon, he couldn’t uphold his end of the bargain. His wrath got the best of him and he killed the people of Shechem in a fit of warlike rage- Django Unchained style.
We tried to showcase this duality in our design by using both raised barring, to evoke the gates, and laser burned leather in the shape of flame peaks, to evoke the fiery spirit that lives within Simeon.
Levi (The Spirit Guide)
Levi is the tribe of Priests and Levites (Kohen and Levi). This tribe lives in pursuit of a higher calling, in service of the rest of the nation and with an eye towards spirituality over materialism.
Though the Levites (literally meaning conjoined or attached) try to attach themselves to a life of spirituality and service, their actual job within the Mishkan and later The Beit Hamikdash required of them to wear ornate and decadent clothing adorned with “techelet” (a beautiful blue thread) and other intricate and very specific garments. The Kohen Gadol or “Grand Priest” wore the signature gemstone breastplate or“choshen” - the ultimate bling - which contained the Urim and Tumim - an intuitive guide that would light up - through which the High Priest used to answer questions or reveal God’s will.
We used the breastplate and its beautiful gemstones as the springboard for this design. We loved that each of these twelve precious stones corresponded to a different tribe/brother and Levi, the glue that binds them all together, reminding them of a higher power, and their purpose in this world.
Judah (The Leader)
The tribe of Judah is associated with leadership and redemption as it is the tribe of kings as well as the direct lineage of Mashiach. No tribe received more praise or blessing from Jacob than Judah. This feels appropriate given the meaning of Judah- to give praise. Judah himself was a leader among the brothers- so too were his descendants; the first to cross the split sea upon leaving Egypt, the first to march through the wilderness and conquer Eretz Canaan where their lot was fittingly the first to be received.
In his blessing and prophecy for the future, Jacob cleverly depicted Judah as a lion- the leader of the animal kingdom and one of the most complex creatures in the wilderness. In this design, we chose an elegant crown on the front to signify the kingdom of Judah, and on the back, like the lion that sneaks up on you, we created a stunning geometric lion with blazing crystal eyes that let you know he’s the true king.
Dan (The Judge)
Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first of Rachel’s handmaid, Bilha. Rachel takes the liberty of naming Dan in order to assert her maternal authority. Although she couldn’t have a child of her own, the name Dan was meant to express gratitude to God for judging her favorably and giving her a son to raise.
As we’ve seen previously, the definition of Dan’s name becomes his essence, and judgment ends up being the central theme in Dan’s own life as his lot becomes the lineage of Israel’s judges. In Jacob’s blessing to Dan, his ability to judge is characterized by the mysterious serpent; an ode to fertility, rebirth, transformation and a creative life force.
Naftali (The Free Spirit)
In every family there is always a free spirit, someone loose, free, and effortlessly beautiful. This was Naftali – blessed by Jacob as the “doe set free that bears beautiful fawns” which has also been interpreted to mean uttering beautiful words. Naftali represents a great desire within each of us; the quest to run free, break generational cycles of trauma and think independently about our path in life.
Dinah (The Optimist)
Though we don’t know much about Dinah, other than the single story of violence against her by her lover Shechem. Though his behavior was wrong, Dinah accepts his apology, Dinah’s brothers revoke her agency and take matters into their own hands, further adding to her pain, and destroying all of the people of Shechem in a vengeful fit of rage and impulse.
We wanted to use the opportunity of this less known character to take creative freedom. What can we learn from Dinah? What could have helped her navigate the disappointing scenario she found herself in? A sister? A friend? Divine protection? Feminine energy, softness, and divine protection are attributes that are essential for one’s emotional well-being. We wanted to flip the script on a story of rape, lost love, poor communication and desecration and highlight the positive. As with all biblical stories, God’s hand protects and also guides; we believe that from Dinah came Asnat, Joseph’s wife, and the future mother of the blessed brothers Ephraim and Menashe. As an antidote to the dysfunction of Dinah’s own brothers, we invoke Ephraim and Menashe in the benediction of our children till this day as model siblings- a rarity in the book of Genesis!
Gad (The Warrior)
Gad, which means luck, possesses yet another duality; yearning for justice but sometimes achieving it only by calling upon the warrior spirit deep within, which seeks retribution and sometimes even revenge. We chose to depict this dichotomy by using armor-like elements, such as silver studs, and chainmail styled metallic thread on an ethereal white fabric, evoking the complexity of Gad; justice seeker and warrior alike.
Asher (The Blessed)
Asher was the sibling who was most concerned with the general good, wanting more than anything the reconciliation of his brothers. Perhaps that is why the tribe of Asher, represented by the olive tree, was renowned for its wisdom, beauty and a parcel of land so fertile that it was able to provide olive oil for all of Israel.
Asher which literally translates to prosperity and happiness, also represents the dimension of blessing beyond what is normative. So too, the olive tree, and its derivative, olive oil symbolizes reconciliation, healing, beauty, strength, light and knowledge.
Issachar (The Scholar)
Let’s rewind back to the story of Reuben and the mandrake flower, which Leah bartered for one night with Jacob from her sister, Rachel. The aphrodisiac was responsible for the conception of Issachar on that night which according to 16th century Torah commentary, was the night of Shavuot. This is the night that Torah scholarship was born, as Issachar is known for his fascination with studying the stars and the ways of the world. Fittingly, Shavuot is when The People of Israel would receive and accept The Torah at Har Sinai- the centerpiece for Jewish scholarship and intellectual pursuit. Issachar which translates to “there is reward,” reflects the transaction between the two sisters, and his legacy of scholarship, is our collective reward.
Zebulon (The Industrialist)
Zebulon was a merchant and industrialist who lived by the ports and capitalized on his proximity to the open seas. He was the businessman among the brothers and the yin to Issachar’s (the scholars) yang. It was Zebulon’s savvy and success that enabled Issachar to spend his days studying, not dissimilar to the way Jewish philanthropists enable Yeshivas and Kolels to be built and Torah study to be encouraged today. One cannot exist without the other.
We chose a sailor’s rope and a cluster of fish for this design. On the surface, they are obvious depictions of the sea, but on a deeper, mystical level we know that fish represent abundance and good fortune as they are shielded from the eyes of humans and from any evil thoughts or wishes. Just as fish live in the sea, Jewish people live and breathe Torah, which is often compared to water, a full circle analogy for the beloved Zebulon.
Joseph (The Dreamer)
The most well-known of the brothers, Joseph, represents our ability to manifest greatness and dream big dreams. Joseph’s story is a remarkable one; from day one, he was the object of Joseph’s deep affection as the firstborn of his beloved Rachel, and as a result, the object of his brother’s jealousy and hatred. Joseph climbed from the depths of the pit that the brothers threw him into, to the highest ranking official in Egypt- an invaluable advisor to Pharoah. Joseph teaches us about true empathy, love and forgiveness as he saves his brothers from famine and displays kindness and generosity, despite their heinous acts towards him in his earlier life.
Joseph’s generosity is matched only by his striking physical beauty. Whether donning his signature multicolored coat, sitting in a jail cell interpreting dreams or rubbing elbows at the highest ranks of Egyptian society, every story shares the theme of people flocking to Joseph, surrounding him, and admiring his physical beauty and charming personality with awe and admiration. What way to better represent those characteristics visually than through the Peacock, a stunning showstopper, but also a great protector of other animals.
Benjamin (The Up-Cycler)
As the youngest of Jacob’s sons, Benjamin is initially named “Benoni” or “son of my pain” as his birth was the direct result of Rachel’s death. After Jacob mourned his wife and gained some perspective, he began to view Benjamin as his love child and changed his name to “Benyamin” or “son of my right hand.” We see Benjamin’s favored stature taking shape as Jacob’s beloved when Joseph uses him as a pawn in the reunion with his brothers and father.
As the youngest, Benjamin received the smallest lot of the brothers, but his blessing from Jacob is one of abundance; “Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” The wolf is known for his big eyes; preying on more than he can actually consume, leaving excess in his wake. So too, Benjamin is the ultimate consumer, and up-cycler, with capitalism as his central objective- taking in more than his personal needs and looking to make deals and partnerships as a strategy for the excess.
And so, coming back to the original question in this post; which design should one choose? Did any of these stories resonate? Perhaps, that is the one for you!