One Missing Brother

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






One Missing Brother

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley




In his final words to the people, Moshe imparts his version of the blessings upon the twelve tribes of Israel.  These blessings, no doubt, speak of the future roles to be played out by each of the individual tribes.  Yet, Moshe is not the first in the Torah to bless the twelve tribes imbibing them with some future message.  On his deathbed, Yaakov also blessed his children (Bereishit 49:1-28).  One of the issues that the classical commentators dealt with was the notable differences and shifts in emphasis when comparing Yaakov's blessings to Moshe’s.  For example, in Bereishit 49:5-7, Yaakov scolds his son Levi – together with Shimon – for their involvement in the massacre of Shekhem.   Yaakov expresses his strong disapproval of their actions by declaring that not only would the two tribes not receive a designated share of the Land of Israel, but that they would be dispersed amongst the entire nation.[i]   In our parasha, however, we immediately detect a complete reversal in both tone and content in Moshe's blessings.  Instead of anger, he designates the tribe for a sacred mission of promulgating the Word of God among the Jewish people.  The curse of dispersion he transformed into a blessing.  While Levi will not receive a particular parcel of land in Israel, they will be found throughout the country in their new and exalted role as educators of the masses – “They shall teach Yaakov Your ordinances, and Israel Your law” (Devarim 33:10). 




However, one brother who did not fare well under Yaakov found that Moshe dealt with him in an even stricter fashion.  Shimon, Levi’s comrade in arms and sentenced by his father not to receive an inheritance in the land, is pointedly excluded by Moshe in the list of blessings.  That Shimon should suffer such a fate is not surprising, as he has a long history of being the least favored of all the tribes/sons.  After the kidnapping and rape of Dina, it was Shimon, together with Levi, who initiated the massacre of the entire town of Shekhem (Bereishit 34).  Many commentators, by a process of elimination, identify him as the one who threw Yosef into the pit and even proposed murdering him (Bereishit 37:20); this view seemingly confirmed by Yosef’s later singling out of Shimon to be kept as hostage the first time the brothers returned to Canaan (Bereishit 42:24).  This attitude is confirmed by the harsh blessing he receives from his father, and reinforced here in the glaring lack of blessing from Moshe.    


However, Rashi suggests, Shimon is nevertheless included by implication, within the rubric of the blessing of Yehuda:


 And this is for Yehuda, and he said: “Hear, O Lord, the voice of Yehuda…” Another thing.  “Hear Hashem, the voice of Yehuda.” Here it alludes to the blessing for Shimon within the blessing of Yehuda (Sifrei).  And even when they divided the Land of Israel, Shimon received [a portion] within the lot of Yehuda, as is said, “And from the territory of the sons of Yehuda, there was an inheritance for the Shimonites” (Yehoshua 19:9).  And why was he not given a blessing in his own right? Because he [Moshe] had a grudge against him because of what he did in Shittim.  Thus is it written in Aggadat Tehillim (Midrash Shohar Tov 90.3).  (Rashi’s commentary to Devarim 33:7)


At Shittim the Jewish people were led astray by the seductions of the Moabite and Midianite women.  In this story, the central figure is the “Israelite man” who publicly cohabitates with a Midianite woman in broad daylight, “in the eyes of Moshe and in the eyes of the entire congregation” (Bamidbar 25:6).  This man is later identified as Zimri ben Salu, a prince and head of a household in Shimon.   Only their summary execution by Pinchas prevented the plague, the symbol of divine wrath, from destroying the entire congregation. 


Why should the entire tribe of Shimon be punished for the actions of a single individual?  The Ibn Ezra answers: “Because those who served the idol [Ba’al Pe’or] were from Shimon, as evidenced by the numbers.” In the census of the tribes in Pinchas, taken after the plague that struck the people due to their actions at Shittim, we find a relatively small number for the tribe of Shimon – 22,200 (Bamidbar 26:14) – which stands out both when compared with the other tribes, and when compared with their number at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar – 59,300.  According to the Ibn Ezra, this testifies to the fact that the great majority of the 24,000 who died in the plague that followed the sin of Ba’al Pe’or were from the tribe of Shimon.


Ramban rejects this argument, maintaining that the sin of Ba’al Pe’or should not be attributed specifically to the tribe of Shimon:


“In my opinion their number is not a proof, for there would still be more than thirteen thousand missing aside from those who died in the plague.  Some other tribes also lost people [if we compare the figures of the two censes]: the tribe of Gad lost five thousand, while the tribe of Efraim lost eight thousand.  Moreover, since the text says (Bamidbar 25:3), ‘Israel joined itself to Ba’al Pe’or,’ and also (ibid. verse 4), ‘Take all the heads of the people,’ it would seem that the idolaters were represented in all the tribes, and all the judges had to judge them.  Likewise it says (ibid., verse 11), ‘I did not destroy Bnei Yisrael in My jealousy…’ – heaven forefend that Moshe would refrain from blessing Shimon, and that a tribe of Israel would be wiped out, for all those who joined themselves to Ba’al Pe’or were already gone – as it is written (ibid.  4:3), ‘For every person who had gone after Ba’al Pe’or – the Lord your God destroyed him from your midst.’ Of all of those remaining it is written (ibid., verse 4), ‘And you who cleave to the Lord your God – you are all alive today.’ Why, then, should he not bless them?”


Therefore Ramban proposes an essentially technical reason as to why no mention is made of the tribe of Shimon:


“What appears correct to me is that the text counts only twelve tribes of Israel, as it is written in the blessing of Yaakov (Bereishit 49:28), ‘All of these are the tribes of Israel, twelve.’ Yaakov explicitly counted his twelve children, counting Yosef as a single tribe, while Moshe chose to count Yosef as two tribes, as it is written (verse 17), ‘They are the tens of thousands of Efraim and they are the thousands of Menashe,’ and therefore left out Shimon, FOR HIS TRIBE WAS NOT A LARGE ONE, AND THE BLESSING THAT YAAKOV HAD GIVEN THEM WAS NOT A GREAT ONE; rather, he divided them amongst [the tribes of] Yaakov and scattered them amongst Israel.  Hence here too they were blessed by way of the blessings to the other tribes, amongst which they found themselves.”


In other words, Moshe wished to maintain the tradition of giving twelve blessings, as the tribes are always listed as some configuration of the number twelve.  Normally, Efraim and Menashe are combined as "Yosef" their father, who did not have his own tribe.  As they are landless, usually Levi is deleted; however this time Moshe wished to bless Levi, due to the overriding importance of their task of transmitting Torah values to the nation.  Therefore, he omitted Shimon, as their population was small. 




The late medieval Spanish commentator Don Issac Abrabanel answers the question as to why Shimon is not listed by Moshe by providing an overall perspective to our parasha.  Comparing the blessings that Moshe gives the people in this parasha with the blessings that Yaakov uttered on his deathbed, he arrives at the following conclusion.  At first glance, we would find it difficult to classify all twelve of Yaakov’s "blessings" according to any coherent organizing principle.  Some of the brothers receive blessings while others are chastised; some hear future prophecies while others don’t; and some contain allusions to their future inheritance in the Land of Israel while others are told nothing at all.  However, the Abarbanel claims that there is one unifying theme that runs through all of the blessings.  He claims that Yaakov realized that there was one issue that would have to be settled by the various tribes in the future, and that is the question of leadership.  Aware that the tribes would form a national entity, and would ultimately be charged with the duty of selecting a king, he sought to forestall any possible civil war by deciding the issue before his death.  As such, Yaakov used his blessings to delineate why each brother did or did not possess the necessary characteristics to lead the Jewish people.  Each brother’s strengths and flaws are listed, and ultimately, only Yehuda emerges fit to assume the throne.


The situation in our parasha, however, is different.  As Yaakov already settled the issue of who would ultimately lead the nation, Moshe Rabbeinu has to deal with the pressing issue of their upcoming entry into the land of Israel - where each tribe would settle and the way in which the Land would be conquered.  Therefore, though they were disqualified for the kingship, Reuven is spoken to first, as they were the ones who would lead the battles in the conquest of Canaan (see Bamidbar 32:17).  After Reuven, Moshe turns to Yehuda, who would eventually assume the role of primacy in war (see Sefer Shoftim 1:2).  Binyamin follow Yehuda, as their portion in the land was to be adjacent to that of Yehuda (the two tribes shared dominion of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and its surroundings).  Levi comes next, as they had no real portion, but were centered at the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and Yosef follows, as his two tribes are next in line geographically speaking.  The remaining tribes are then blessed in a pattern that more or less follows their inheritance in the Land.


This approach of Abarbanel solves our question - why did Moshe not include Shimon?  As Ramban claims, Shimon is omitted here since Shimon's portion in the land was eventually swallowed up by Yehuda, and therefore they do not merit any individual mention in Moshe’s final statements.  However, Abarbanel claims that there is at least a reference to Shimon hidden in the blessing to Yehuda.  Moshe states "shema Hashem kol Yehuda," a hint to the naming of Shimon back in Bereishit - "ki shama Hashem et koli." Since Shimon was to be absorbed by Yehuda, claims Abarbanel, his blessing is absorbed as well.

[i] I have heard from Rav Yoel Bin Nun (one of today’s leading luminaries in Tanakh study) that in fact, based on the names of Shimon that appear in Divrei Ha-yamim Aleph, throughout Biblical history we can locate hints to the tribe of Shimon in different geographic locations of the land in conformity with Yaakov's curse.