Books: Tribal Lands — The Twelve Tribes of Israel in Their Ancestral Territories

Tamar Weissman explains the connection between each tribe and the tract of land it was apportioned in the Bible.

Tamar Weissman (photo credit: ANDREA BROWNSTEIN)
Tamar Weissman
(photo credit: ANDREA BROWNSTEIN)
Jewish tradition is full of sources claiming a metaphysical connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel.
The Babylonian Talmud (at the end of the tractate of Ketubot) somewhat hyperbolically equates living outside Israel to idol worship. Nahmanides, in a kabbalistic exegesis that seeks to explain this perturbing talmudic declaration, states that in every land but Israel, God’s eminence is not felt directly but rather is delegated to the various angels of the nations of the world.
Living in, say, the US or Argentina, therefore, is in a sense tantamount to idol worship – because one is in the hands of a mediating angel.
In the second essay of his Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi describes a “holy triangle” of symbiotic connection between the Jewish people, the Torah and the Land of Israel. And of course, there are the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the many contemporary rabbis influenced by him.
In her book Tribal Lands: The Twelve Tribes of Israel in Their Ancestral Territories, Tamar Weissman develops this concept further. Not only do the Jewish people as a whole have a special connection to the Land of Israel, argues Weissman, but each of the Twelve Tribes that make up the Jewish people has its own connection to the specific tract of land it received as part of the process of conquest and settlement.
She also contends that each tribe has a unique character and that this character is, in some sense, reflected in the geography of its specific plot of land.
“Jewish tradition takes for granted that tribal character is rooted in the patriarch,” asserts Weissman in the introduction to her work. “Each tribe does have an identifiable personality, with dominant, definitive traits… No character portrait can ignore the complexities inherent in the human personality, but each tribe can be typified by one essential trait.”
Not only do the different tribes that make up the Jewish people have their own unique traits, reflected, strengthened and emphasized in the blessings bestowed upon them by Jacob in the Book of Genesis and by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, but “allusions within the blessings to their specific land allotments implied a unity of destiny, character, and nahala [land inheritance].”
Pragmatism, in other words, was not the sole guiding principle in the providential process of allotting to each of the tribes its portion in the Land of Israel. It was not just that the largest tribes received the largest tracts of land and the smallest received smaller slabs; if allotment of the land were all about practicality and functionality, asks Weissman, “Why would God Himself need to have been involved?”
Tribal Lands is a religiously inspired book. Weissman’s thesis is based on God’s unique relationship with the Jewish people, and the Jews’ Godly ordained link to the Land of Israel. But even for the less religiously inclined, the book provides a unique paradigm for thinking about the relationship between Bible and Land that draws from a diverse array of sources. The latest findings in archeology are deployed along with classical Jewish sources; a quote from George Eliot is used to make a point about kingship and the Tribe of Judah, while family therapists Ronald W.
Richardson and Lois A. Richardson are cited to help us understand Reuben’s predicament as the firstborn.
After sketching a personality makeup for each of the tribes, Weissman goes on to tie that personality to the specific tract of land allotted to the tribe. Then Weissman plots a tour of each of the tribe’s respective territories, complete with a detailed itinerary. Even tours of Gad, Reuben and parts of Manasseh’s territories, which are located outside present-day Israel, are included with tips on the best way to travel to Jordan.
By combining an analysis of the personal traits of each of the tribes with a description of the geography and a tour of the land, Weissman provides a mnemonic device for familiarizing oneself with, and retaining knowledge of, the different tribes and their lands. In this sense, it is a very didactic book.
Tribal Lands could not have been written a generation ago, perhaps even a decade ago. In part, this is because only relatively recently did Israeli archeologists gain access to many of the places written about in the book.
More substantively, however, what Weissman does in her book requires a rare combination of religious faith, scholarship and tour-guide experience. How many Jewish women of the previous generation brought all of this together? Weissman was educated at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Near Eastern Studies department before coming to Israel, where she continued her studies at Bar-Ilan University. All along, she spent time in traditional Torah study halls for women, which hardly existed a few decades ago.
The uniqueness of Tribal Lands is in successfully weaving together many diverse sources to form a coherent whole. It is a book of exegesis, and also a book of archeology. It is at once a work with psychological and literary insights into the Bible, and a work that invites you to leave the comfort of your home and explore the Land of Israel.