Can any Defense be Offered for the Actions of Shimon and Levi?

  • Rav Zeev Weitman
Dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky z"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev.  May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
In memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
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By Debbi and David Sable
In loving memory of my parents
Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z"l
- Benzion Lowinger
In memory of Amos Dubrawsky (Amos ben Chagai HaLevi and Nechama Pearl) zt"l -
brother, son and friend. May his neshama have an aliyah.


In his Laws of Kings, the Rambam defends the actions of Shimon and Levi, ruling that the men of Shekhem were all deserving of death by the sword because they violated the commandment to institute legal procedures, which is one of the seven Noahide laws. According to the Rambam, this law requires that the people of a city bring those who violate the other six laws to justice. Since the people of Shekhem did not censure or prosecute Shekhem son of Chamor for his actions, they themselves were held guilty.


Which of the Noahide laws did Shekhem violate? There seems to have been no issue of adultery or other sexual immorality in this case, since Dina was unmarried. The Rambam therefore concludes that the prohibition involved was theft. He may be referring to the act of rape, since Shekhem took Dina by force – "He took her and lay with her and raped her." Alternatively, the Rambam could be referring to the effective kidnapping of Dina following the rape, since Shekhem takes Dina to his home without the consent of her father and brothers. This becomes apparent later on; after Shimon and Levi kill the men of Shekhem, along with Shekhem himself and his father, Chamor, they take Dina from the house of Shekhem and bring her back home.


The Ramban questions the Rambam's assertion that the men of Shekhem were deserving of death. If this were correct, he argues, why would Yaakov reproach them for their response? He should have praised them! In his initial rebuke, Yaakov emphasizes his fear that he is now open to attack by the inhabitants of the land and makes no mention of what they have actually done:


"You have brought trouble upon me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land – the Canaani and the Perizi; since I am few in number, they will gather against me and slay me, and I and my household shall be destroyed." (Bereishit 34:30)


But many years later Yaakov berates Shimon and Levi again, going so far as to curse them just before his death:


"Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. Let my soul not join their counsel, nor let my honor join their assembly, for in their anger they slew a man, and of their own will they lamed an ox. Curse is their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel. I shall divide them amongst Yaakov and scatter them in Israel." (Bereishit 49:5-7)


This proves that Yaakov denounced their act in principle, without any connection to the fact that what they have done may invite the wrath of the local population. As the Ramban writes:


I do not believe that this [the Rambam’s view] is correct, for if this were so, Yaakov should first have been the first to merit [causing] their deaths. If he feared them [the people of the land], why would he be angry at his sons and curse their anger on more than one occasion and punish them by dividing and scattering them? Had they not merited to perform a mitzva and to trust in God, such that He delivered them?


In terms of the halakha, the Ramban disagrees with the Rambam on two counts. First, in his view, the fact that the inhabitants of Shekhem did not prosecute Shekhem for his actions does not make them deserving of death on the basis of the Noahide law mandating legal process. Second, even if they had been deserving of death – even according to the Ramban's view, it is reasonable to assume that they did violate some of the Noahide laws, since they were pagans and hence worshipped idols and, as Canaanites, most likely also transgressed the basic tenets of sexual morality – this nevertheless did not mean that Yaakov and his sons should kill them.


According to the Ramban's view, the main reason that Yaakov curses Shimon and Levi is not because they slew the inhabitants of the city, but rather because they did so after the men of Shekhem had circumcised themselves and agreed to accept the conditions set down by Yaakov's sons. In Yaakov's eyes, what Shimon and Levi did in Shekhem was "cruelty" (chamas), in that they tricked them. They had told them – in Yaakov's presence – "We shall dwell among you and we shall be a single people," and the people of Shekhem had accepted their conditions, but Shimon and Levi lied and did not keep their promise. This was especially grave since it was possible that the intentions of the people of Shekhem were sincere. They may truly have intended to serve God, such that Shimon and Levi slaughtered innocent people who had done them no harm.


According to the Ramban, Shimon and Levi defend themselves by insisting that there was no genuine repentance on the part of the people of Shekhem.[1] All that they did was merely for the purpose of finding favor in the eyes of their chief. Hence, Shimon and Levi do not perceive the vengeful killing of the men of Shekhem as entailing any question of harming innocent people, since the entire population was evil and sinful.


The Or Ha-Chayim likewise defends the actions of Shimon and Levi. In response to the question, "Why did they kill those who had not sinned?", he offers two explanations:


1.            The original plan of Shimon and Levi had been to kill only Shekhem himself, but all the men of the city stood ready to defend and protect him, and they therefore killed them too, in accordance with the law of the pursuer (rodef).


This explanation seems forced in relation to the plain meaning of the text, especially in light of the verse:


The sons of Yaakov came upon the slain and they plundered the [people of the] city for having defiled their sister. (34:27)


This would suggest that their revenge consisted of massacring the entire city. Furthermore, had their original intention been to kill only Shekhem and not to harm the people of the city, why did they plunder the city, taking everything, including "their little ones and their wives… and everything that was in the home"?


2.            The people of the city had helped Shekhem kidnap Dina, and for this the Noahide laws prescribe death. The Or Ha-Chayim deduces this from a precise analysis of the verse quoted above, which appears to hold the entire city responsible for Shekhem's act: "…and they plundered the [people of the] city for having defiled their sister."


The Or Ha-Chayim is consistent in justifying the actions of Shimon and Levi. To his view, when Yaakov rebukes them, he does not oppose their actions in principle, but rather expresses his concern that their actions may invite a great catastrophe in the form of the revenge of the inhabitants of the land. As for Yaakov's harsh words to Shimon and Levi prior to his death, the Or Ha-Chayim understands this as referring not to the episode of Shekhem, but rather to the sale of Yosef.


Immediately after the deed, Yaakov fears that given their situation, wherein the surrounding peoples are in a stronger position, it was a mistake to act as Shimon and Levi had, since this might endanger the entire family. However, when no attack transpires – as the Torah testifies, "They journeyed, and the fear of God was upon the cities around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Yaakov" – Yaakov understands that his sons had apparently merited Divine aid in their actions and that God apparently supported them. Thus, apparently, they are vindicated.


Nechama Leibowitz disagrees with this reasoning and argues that in many instances in the Torah, we find that success, or lack of retribution, is not necessarily any indication of truth and justice. A false prophet may perform wonders, and we see time after time that there are wicked people who prosper; this is no proof that what they do is good and proper in the eyes of God. She concludes by noting that "success" or "prosperity" is not one of the many Names of God that testify to His traits and attributes.


Chanan Porat, of blessed memory, in his book Me'at Min Ha-Or, explains the action taken by Shimon and Levi as the adoption of a policy of deterrence, with a view to preventing similar situations in the future. At the same time, he explains Yaakov's dissent: although he would have supported a pinpoint operation aimed at those who were directly guilty, he was vehemently opposed to the collective punishment of innocent people. To Yaakov's view, such punishment is immoral, even if its aim is to deter criminals. Chanan Porat maintains that Yaakov's words in Parashat Vayechi unquestionably refer to the episode of Shekhem. Any view that justifies the actions of Shimon and Levi must somehow address Yaakov's harsh condemnation.


In an appendix to the article about Shimon and Levi, in which he responds to the criticism which it generated, Chanan goes on to explain that there is room for collective punishment, but only when the population offers support and cover for those who carry out the crime, thereby becoming full partners in it. In that case, imposing collective punishment is no longer a matter of harm to innocent people. Likewise, innocent people may be harmed when the intention is to strike only the criminals themselves, but owing to their placement amongst or in close proximity to innocent people, or owing to the difficulty of targeting them alone, the result is that some innocent people are also harmed. Acting under these circumstances too, he explains, is permitted, since this is the reality of any war.


R. Elchanan Samet[2] discusses articles by Professor Sternberg and Professor Nissan Ararat, each of whom subjects the story of Dina to a very detailed and meticulous literary analysis. They, too, locate certain points that reflect positively on Shimon and Levi, although they disagree on the central question of how the text evaluates the conflict between Yaakov and his sons. Sternberg concludes that the text is harshly critical of Yaakov, while Ararat maintains that the text supports his position vis-à-vis his sons.


According to Sternberg, echoing the view of the Or Ha-Chayim, Shimon and Levi had no possibility of rescuing Dina, a captive held in Shekhem's house, except by killing Shekhem and the rest of the men of the city. To his view, the fact that Chamor and Shekhem offer no apology, nor make any mention of the rape, is insulting and offensive, as is their offer to pay an extensive dowry and gifts with a view to tempting Yaakov's family to hand over Dina to Shekhem in return for material benefits.


Sternberg's principal contribution is his view that all the verses at the end of the parasha describing the plunder refer not to Shimon and Levi, but rather the rest of the brothers. This casts Shimon and Levi in a more positive light, as having intended only to rescue Dina from Shekhem's house and as having no interest in plunder and spoils once they had achieved their aim. The text, to his view, contrasts the idealistic actions of Shimon and Levi with the materialistic frenzy of the rest of the brothers.


Sternberg argues further that the fact that the text gives Shimon and Levi the last word in the argument with Yaakov – "Shall he deal with our sister as with a harlot?!" – indicates that the Torah takes their side. He reads the text as testifying to the principled stance of Shimon and Levi, who care only about saving their sister and maintaining their family honor. Yaakov denounces their actions out of fear of a response on the part of his neighbors, but the brothers care more about their family honor than about the possible reaction of those around them.


Sternberg also notes that this concluding verse is ambiguous; it does not state to whom Shimon and Levi address their words. Although the plain text suggests that they are referring to their actions in Shekhem and defending them, it is possible that these words are exchanged between Shimon and Levi themselves, in private, as they smart against Yaakov's rebuke. They may be expressing resentment against their father, whose words seem to suggest that he might have agreed to leave Dina in Shekhem's house.


To this we must add the point mentioned above – the text notes that the fear of God was upon the inhabitants of the surrounding cities. This, too, would seem to show that Shimon and Levi have Divine approbation for their actions.


Although Prof. Sternberg was not the first to draw a distinction between the actions of Shimon and Levi, who killed the men of Shekhem in order to save Dina, and the actions of Yaakov's other sons, who plunder the city out of pure avarice,[3] it should nevertheless be noted that the basis for this distinction is not clear-cut. The text begins with the words:


And it was on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi, Dina's brothers, took each man his sword, and they came upon the city uncontested, and they slew every male. And they killed Chamor and Shekhem, his son, by the sword, and they took Dina from Shekhem's house and they left.


Only afterwards do we read,


The sons of Yaakov came upon the slain, and they plundered the [people of the] city for defiling their sister. They took their sheep, their oxen, their donkeys, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field. And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives they took captive, and plundered all that was in the house.


We might therefore conclude that "the sons of Yaakov" who come upon the slain are not Shimon and Levi, who are mentioned previously and whose actions conclude with the extraction of Dina from Shekhem's house. However, since Shimon and Levi are themselves specifically called "two of the sons of Yaakov," and they are further described as "Dina's brothers," it would be quite reasonable to conclude that the verse that speaks of Yaakov's sons who avenge their sister's honor refers to the same "sons of Yaakov," "Dina's brothers," who were mentioned previously – Shimon and Levi.


R. Samet notes another point which, to his view, might shed some positive light on the actions of Shimon and Levi. To his view, the text is not describing the massacre of an entire city, which would be unacceptable even in light of the circumstances and the justified aims of Shimon and Levi. Rather, the place in question is a small village that is home to the clan of Chamor. R. Samet adopts Rashbam's interpretation of the verse, "Yaakov came to Shalem, a city of Shekhem," meaning that Yaakov came to the place that was called Shalem, which was a city of Shekhem. Taking a slightly different view, R. Samet suggests that this was not "Shalem, the city of Shekhem", but rather “Shalem, which was in the region of the city of Shekhem.” To his view, this was a small village in the district of Shekhem, housing a clan that consisted of a few households. He writes:


There is a huge difference between the massacre of hundreds or thousands of people who inhabit a large city, having nothing to do with the crime or the perpetrator, and a blood vendetta between two clans, one of which has perpetrated a despicable crime against the other – and it turns out that the entire clan knew about it.


Even if we accept the assumption that the annihilation of a small village clan numbering a few households may cast the actions of Shimon and Levi in a more positive light, I am not certain that this view is supported by the text for several reasons:


First, the verse mentions "the gate of their city," and it is difficult to imagine that a small, relatively new village would have a wall and a gate.


Second, if this was a single clan, all belonging to the same family, then seemingly Shekhem and Chamor would not have to invest such extensive effort in convincing their neighbors to accept the terms set by Yaakov's family.


Third, it does not seem reasonable that the ruler of any territory and his son, honored above anyone else in the family, would live in a small village and not in a large and important city.


Fourth, although the text does not mention the number of men killed, the style of the narrative certainly conveys the impression of a massacre, rather than the killing of a few individuals. The image of mass killing and a huge plunder is supported by the repetition and the great level of detail in the narrative:


And Chamor and his son, Shekhem, came to the gate of their city, and they spoke with the men of their city… And they listened… all who went out of the gate of his city, and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city… And they slew all the males… and they plundered the city… They took their sheep and their oxen and their donkeys, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field; and all their wealth, and their little ones, and their wives they took captive, and plundered all that was in the house.


Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Shalem is a small village located close to Shekhem. Shalem is mentioned in Sefer Bereishit as the city of Malki-Tzedek, who brings out bread and wine to Avraham on his return from his battle against the four kings, when he delivers Lot from his captivity and gives Malki-Tzedek a tithe of everything. This “Shalem” is identified by the great majority of the commentators as Jerusalem. If the place referred to in our parasha is Shalem and not Shekhem, why is there no mention that this is the same Shalem with which we are already familiar? And if it is indeed the same Shalem, then it is certainly not a small village. This would lead to the conclusion that Shalem is not a place within the district of Shekhem, but rather the city of Shekhem, as Rashbam explains the verse.[4]


Even if we do not accept the premise that the city in our parasha is a small village, R. Samet offers a more reasonable justification for the actions of Shimon and Levi in the spirit of the explanations offered thus far by the various commentators. The main problem facing Yaakov's family is that Dina, who has been raped, is being held in Shekhem's house. Shekhem and his father are making an offer which Yaakov and his family cannot accept. Seemingly, this presents an insoluble predicament. The brothers invent a brilliant solution in the form of an agreement that comes with an exceptionally difficult condition – one which the men of Shekhem are most unlikely to agree to, but which at the same time makes sense, such that its non-acceptance will provide legitimate grounds to demand that Dina be handed back, and perhaps even cause this to happen.


The situation becomes more complicated when Shekhem and Chamor not only agree to the condition, but succeed in persuading all the men of the city to undergo circumcision. Now Yaakov and his family have two possible courses of action, each problematic in its own way. One is to fulfill their part of the agreement and to permit Shekhem to marry Dina; the other is to rescue Dina from Shekhem's house. In order to avoid the attack that will inevitably result from their failure to honor the agreement, they will have to kill all the men of the city.


Shimon and Levi choose the second option, and as R. Samet explains it, in view of the situation, what they did was not morally wrong. Even Yaakov, who rebukes them, is not troubled by an act that was not moral, but rather by one that has put his entire family in danger. In R. Samet's view, then, there is a chain of events that brought about a tragedy – and this chain is triggered by Shekhem's crime. Therefore, what happens in the end is actually a Divine punishment for that crime.


I find it difficult to accept this explanation for several reasons.


First, it is not clear why, to R. Samet's view, Shimon and Levi had to kill all the men of the city. Why could they not enter Shekhem's house and take Dina – at most killing Shekhem, who perpetrated the crime – and then exploit the physical weakness of the men of Shekhem following their circumcisions to escape, as the Ramban suggests? The argument that the men of the city would certainly launch an attack if they were not killed seems altogether unfounded. There can be no doubt that the killing of all the men of the city placed Yaakov’s family in far greater and more immediate danger, since all the local population would now stand against them, as Yaakov indeed conveys in his rebuke. Had the brothers killed only Shekhem, taken Dina, and escaped, it would have been much easier to defend their actions.


Second, it seems equally unfounded to argue that the original intention of Yaakov's sons in suggesting circumcision to Shekhem and Chamor was that the condition would not be accepted. It seems much simpler to posit that for Shekhem and Chamor, it was important that the marriage to Dina take place in accordance with accepted custom – which, at that time, meant that it could not take place without the agreement of the families. If Yaakov and his sons were to refuse, then Dina would be returned to them; without her agreement there could be no marriage – and it is marriage, not rape, that Shekhem and Chamor are seeking.


In general, it seems clear that the plan of Shimon and Levi from the very outset was to kill all the men of the city; the entire proposal was a trick. And to the objection that the rest of the brothers, as well as Yaakov himself, would not have agreed to this, we might answer that Yaakov and the rest of his sons thought that the idea was simply to cause them pain, "measure for measure," and to kill Shekhem alone for his crime.


Third, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that Yaakov does not view the actions of Shimon and Levi as immoral with his words in Parashat Vayechi. The only way to reconcile this would be to accept the forced explanation of the Or Ha-Chayim, who proposes that Yaakov refers there not to the incident of Shekhem, but rather to the sale of Yosef.


Hence, it would seem that despite all of the different efforts to do so, it is difficult to justify the actions of Shimon and Levi.


Radak comments on Yaakov's words to them in our parasha, "You have brought trouble upon me…:"


Yaakov was afraid, as he often was, while his sons were ready to courageously avenge their honor, even with their lives.


In Parashat Vayechi, he understands Yaakov's curse as referring to the incident of Shekhem:


"Instruments of cruelty are their swords” – their swords were instruments of cruelty, because they killed all the men of Shekhem without justification; while Shekhem had committed a crime, in what way were all the others guilty? And they therefore placed me and my household in great danger, [and we would have been harmed] had it not been for God's mercy, that the fear of Him was upon the nations.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  It should be noted that our assumption at this stage follows the view of most of the commentators, who maintain that the city in this episode is Shekhem. However, throughout the episode the text does not refer to the city as "Shekhem;" it notes only that the name of the son of the ruler of the land is Shekhem. According to Rashbam, the city involved is called “Shalem.” He bases this conclusion on the fact that at the beginning of our parasha, at the end of the chapter preceding the one that tells the story of Dina and Shimon and Levi, we find as an introduction: "And Yaakov came to Shalem, the city of Shekhem (va-yavo yaakov shalem ir shekhem) and he purchased the piece of land upon which he had pitched his tent from the children of Chamor, father of Shekhem, for a hundred kesita” (33:18-19). This ambiguous formula is translated by the other commentators to mean, "Yaakov came whole/safely to the city of Shekhem." (33:18-19)

[2] In a VBM shiur on Parashat Vayishlach three years ago, also included in his recently published third series of Iyyunim Be-Parashat Ha-Shavua.

[3] This distinction has sources among traditional commentators; see Midrash Sekhel Tov, Targum Yonatan, Alshikh, Malbim, and others.

[4] In Prof. Ararat's article, the assumption is that the episode takes place in Shalem, and not in Shekhem, but on the basis of several sources, Ararat identifies it with Shilo, which is in the district of Shekhem. If we posit that “Shalem” in our parasha is the city of Malki-Tzedek, from the time of Avraham, then it is difficult to identify it with Jerusalem, since the plain meaning of the text appears to indicate that it was only after the Dina episode that Yaakov, on his return journey from Charan in the north, arrives in Beit E, and thereafter continues to Beit Lechem and to Chevron. On the other hand, the story of Dina appears after the encounter with Esav, who comes from Mount Se'ir, in the south; Yaakov's crossing of the Jordan is also south of where Shekhem lies, closer to the line of Shilo. It is interesting to note that the Midrash Sekhel Tov identifies the place of the encounter between Yaakov and Esav as Beit El. If Yaakov continues slightly southward from there, he is in Shalem.