Shekhem First!

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley









By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





In the space of three chapters (31-33) covering two parashiyot, Yaakov Avinu goes from one triumph to another, facing down challenges and adversaries, as he successfully returns to the Land of Israel after an absence of several decades.  He has made peace with Lavan, securing his wealth while maintaining at intact family.  He defeated the “man-angel”, receiving a Divine blessing.  His string of successes climaxes with the reunion with Esav.  Whether the peaceful encounter occurred through his efforts, or through Esav’s magnanimous willingness to abandon his twenty-year old grudge is unclear.  It required several attempts to persuade Esav until Yaakov’s elder brother was willing to accept the gifts his brother sent him.  In the end, however, Esav heads towards the tranquil hills of Seir to found a new nation, leaving Yaakov to settle in the land of Canaan with his family.  He first builds a house in Sukkot[1]. While Rashi suggests that this was due to the inclement weather conditions of the harsh winter, we note that this is the first time that the Torah mentions that a member of the Avot, who were tent dwellers, built a permanent structure.  Clearly, after years of exile, Yaakov strives for permanence. 


He doesn’t stay in Sukkot long, however.  After a while, Yaakov moves to Shekhem.  According to the Ramban states that Sukkot was too close to Se’ir for Yaakov’s comfort. 


Though the Rashbam attempts to argue that the name of the city was “Shalem”, under the dominion of a general/leader named Shekhem, most commentators understand Shekhem to be the name of the city as well.  Instead, the Torah is pointedly telling us that after his travails, injured and limping after his encounter with the “man-angel” and noticeably lesser in flocks after Esav accepted his gifts, Yaakov was able to come to Shekhem whole and/or in peace.  He purchases a plot outside the city walls from the children of Hamor.  According to the Kli Yakar, the rationale behind the purchase was to enable him to build an altar as a permanent marker, just as in future times David Ha-melekh would buy the plot from Arona the Yebusi on which the Beit Ha-Mikdash would be built.  The last time a member of the family bought land, Avraham was desperate to acquire any property where he could bury Sarah.  Now, the purpose symbolizes the establishment and continuation of life in Israel, not its end.  Though the horrific rape of his daughter and the resulting massacre of the local inhabitants will soon shatter Yaakov’s confidence by his sons, he apparently has reached here the end of his journey, and has begun the settlement of the land of Israel by the Jewish people. 




Commenting on Yaakov’s purchase of the plot of land outside of Shekhem, the Ramban states that the reason for the transaction was to help Yaakov strengthen his claim and hold on the land.  However, he adds, the action was an allusion to Avraham’s first entry into the land of Canaan many years before, when the first Jew also arrive at Shekhem before any another location. In Parshat Lech Lecha the Ramban writes:


“And Avram passed into the land, as far as the place of Shekhem” (12:6) – Rashi writes, ‘ He entered into the land, as far as the place of Shekhem, in order to pray for the sons of Yaakov when they would ‘come from the field, saddened [having just heard of the defilement of their sister] (34:7). 

This is a sound interpretation.  I would add that [since] Avraham [symbolically] took possession of that place, even before Hashem had given him the land, there was an allusion to him that his children would conquer that place first, before acquiring [the Land of Israel], and [even] before the ‘iniquity of the inhabitants of the land was complete’ [15:16 – when Hashem informed Avraham that he could not be given ownership and title of Canaan immediately, as the Canaanites had not yet sinned enough to justify expulsion]  to justify expelling them from there.  This is also why [it states later] ‘and the Canaanite was them in the land’.  After the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘gave’ [Avraham] the land through his statement [‘to your offspring I will give this land’ 12:7], he then traveled from there and set up his tent between Beit-El and Ai, for that was the place that Yehoshua conquered first.


To summarize the Ramban, we note that he is using the principle that “the events of the forefathers’ lives are signs for the descendants” (ma’aseh avot siman le-banim)[2] to suggest that the actions of Shimon and Levi in conquering Shekhem were foreshadowed by Avraham’s choosing to settle in Shekhem first.  We see here an application of the principle of “dual causality” – though on the surface it appears that the brothers act out of malice and revenge, they are in the larger picture fulfilling the Divine plan[3].  The brothers will conquer Shekhem before Hashem actually gives in to them.  After having received it, their first real conquests would be the city of Ai in the book of Yehoshua[4].




The city of Shekhem plays an interesting role in the reconquest of the Land of Israel by the time of Yehoshua.  It is not there.  The name of the king of Shekhem is absent when the book of Yehoshua lists the kings conquered by the Jewish people during the seven years of battle when entering the land.  Even more striking - while the first place that the Jewish people traveled to was the mountains of Gerizim and Eival  to perform the rededication of the covenant, with its curses and blessings, as described in Devarim 27 and in Yehoshua 8, we do not read of any opposition from the local inhabitants, even though this ceremony occurs on the mountains that overlook the city of Shekhem.  If there were anytime to attack the people, wouldn’t it have been here?  No city had a more hostile history with Yaakov’s descendants than Shekhem. Additionally, with many ancient Egyptian records alluding to the continued foreign presence of the city despite the Israelite conquest, many modern scholars suggest that the Canaanites maintained a stronghold on the city during the Israelite resettlement[5].  In the book of Shoftim, Shekhem becomes the focal point of Avimelekh ben Gideon’s ultimately futile attempt to rule as Israel’s first king.  His base of support comes from the city populace, implying that close ties existed between the renegade ruler and the locals.  Later verses in the chapter allude to the fact that a pagan temple to “Ba’al Berit” exists in the city’s center (v. 4), and that many of the inhabitant still identify themselves as descendents of Hamor, “father of Shekhem the Hivite” (v. 28).  The commentary to Da’at Mikra, in its introduction to Chapter 9 of Shoftim, suggests that like their brothers the Giveonites, the people of Shekhem surrendered immediately to the invaders, and hence were able to maintain a semi-distinct identity despite being surrounded by Jewish settlements.  Rav Yoel bin Nun has offered a different approach[6].  After the massacre of the inhabitants by Shimon and Levi, the brothers took steps to ensure that the environs remained under the family’s control.  Since they had to travel to Beit El and ultimately to Chevron with their father, they left behind several hundred of their supporters and members of their household.  Though we tend to assume that our forefathers traveled lightly, the Torah states several times that this was not true.  Avraham was able to amass from among his household, “the souls that he had acquired in Haran”, a fighting force of 318 men.  All of the forefathers had groups of shepherds managing their flocks (see 13:4-6 where Avraham’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds dispute, and the dispute between Yitzchak’s shepherds and Avimelekh’s men in chapter 26).  For this reason, suggests Rav bin Nun, the brothers and later Yosef were able to travel towards Shekhem freely without fear.  Possibly, he conjectures, the descendants of these people remained in Shekhem, forming the nucleus of the population.  Therefore, just as the brothers felt no apprehension traveling to the city, so too could their descendants mingle freely with the local natives.  In the book of Shoftim, therefore, it is no coincidence that the first attempt to establish a monarchy (only verses after Gideon so dramatically declared that kingship belongs to Hashem! 8:23) is tainted, coming from a city that is essentially foreign to Jewish culture and ideals.  Correctly Rashi states in next week’s parasha – Shekhem is a city destined for bad tidings.  With God’s help, with the arrival soon of Mashiach Tzidkeinu, it will take its place among the pantheons of cities that are a source of goodness, peace, and brotherly love. 

[1] Many of the commentators (Rashi et. al.) interpret that Sukkot is not a place name, but rather that Yaakov built booths.  The Ohr Ha-Chayim suggests that the name of the place came from Yaakov’s original erecting booths for his cattle there.

[2] See also his commentary to Bereishit 12:10,11; 14:1,7, 18; 15:9-12; 16:9; 28:12; 29:2, the introduction to Parashat Vayishlach, where he explains Yaakov’s approach to Esav as reflective of how the Jew should behave within a non-Jewish society; 33:15-18: 36:43;47:28, and the introduction of his commentary to Shemot. 

[3] A classic example of the principle of “dual causality”, the interaction between human free will and the Divine plan for humanity, occurs at the end of Sefer Bereishit.  What caused the Children of Israel to descend to Egypt – the hatred between the brothers, or the Divine decree of exile as outlined in Ch. 15 during the Berit Bein Ha-betarim?

[4] Rav Chavel suggests that although Yericho was conquered before Ai, it is not considered the first conquest of the Jewish people, as it fell through miraculous, not natural means (i.e. – battle).

[5] Da’at Mikra, commentary to Sefer Shoftim, edited by Yehuda Elitzur, p. 102.

[6] Heard verbally from Rav bin Nun.