Ilana Sober Elzufon

Blood brothers

Jan Luyken, Simeon en Levi doden de Sichemieten, Rijksmuseum, CCO 1.0 Dedication

Yaakov’s 12 sons gather around him, eager to hear his final message. The aged patriarch speaks to each brother directly, mostly with words of blessing. But he addresses one pair of brothers together, harshly:

Shimon and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence are their wares. Let me never join their council, nor my honor be of their assembly. For in their anger they killed men, at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is most fierce, and their fury, for it is most cruel. I will divide them up in Yaakov, and scatter them in Israel. (Bereshit 49:5-7)

Yaakov reprimands his sons for cruelty and violence—not least, for their leading role in selling Yosef. Here, though, we’ll focus on the story of Dina (Bereshit 34).

Dina and Shechem

Dina, daughter of Leah and Ya’akov, had set out to meet some of the local girls. Instead, she encountered Shechem, a prince with the same name as his city, who raped her, abducted her, and fell in love with her.

The two families entered marriage negotiations. Yaakov’s sons deviously conditioned the betrothal on all the men of the city undergoing circumcision.

On the third day after the painful procedure, Shimon and Levi entered the city, massacred the men, took the women and children captive, looted and plundered—and rescued Dina.

Yaakov confronted them: “You have brought trouble upon me.” The local Canaanites will retaliate and wipe us out. They responded: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Bereshit 34:30-31)

Although God protected the family from Canaanite retribution, Yaakov never forgets his sons’ reckless and violent zealotry. At the end of his life, he curses their anger.

Moshe’s Blessings

After 40 years in the desert, Moshe bestows his final blessings on the twelve tribes, descended from Yaakov’s sons. Shimon, alone among the tribes, receives no blessing. Levi, on the other hand, merits one of the longest.

How did Shimon and Levi go from being an indistinguishable pair to polar opposites? Sifrei Devarim (Vezot Haberakha 349) offers a fascinating explanation:

And of Levi he said (Devarim 33:8), what was said?

Because Shimon and Levi both drank from one cup, as it is said:

Cursed be their anger, for it is most fierce, and their fury, for it is most cruel. I will divide them up in Ya’akov, and scatter them in Israel. (Bereshit 49:7)

This is an allegory of two people who borrowed from the king. One repaid the king, and went on to lend to the king. And one—not only didn’t he repay, but he went on to borrow again.

Thus Shimon and Levi both borrowed in Shechem, as the matter is said:

Two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, took their swords, entered the unsuspecting town, and killed every single male. (Bereshit 34:25)

Levi repaid what he had borrowed in the desert, as it is said:

So Moshe stood at the gate of the camp and said…”This is what the Lord…says: Let each of you put sword on thigh…The Levites did as Moshe had ordered. (Shemot 32:26-28)

He went on to lend to God in Shittim, as it is said:

Pinḥas son of Elazar son of Aharon the priest has allayed My rage against the Israelites. Because he was passionate on My behalf among you, I did not destroy the Israelites in My own passion. (Bemidbar 25:11)

Shimon, not only didn’t he repay, but he went back and borrowed again, as it is said there:

The name of the slain Israelite man who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, leader of the ancestral House of Shimon. (Bemidbar 25:14)

Therefore it is said, And of Levi he said.


A “king” in the midrash generally represents God. How did Shimon and Levi borrow from God?

Dina’s brothers had every right to rescue her from Shechem. The ruse of mass circumcision was a clever way to accomplish this. With the men of Shechem incapacitated, the brothers could have simply taken Dina, and left. Perhaps with no bloodshed. Perhaps killing only the few men who overcame their painful condition to try to fight.

Yaakov, who understood that deceit was sometimes necessary to preserve the integrity of his family, approved this plan.

But Shimon and Levi didn’t just rescue Dina. They slaughtered all the men and pillaged the town. Why?

Let’s look again at Ya’akov’s words. He curses the brothers’ “anger” and their “fury.” Shimon and Levi were enraged at the young man who defiled their sister, and at the city that stood by and seemingly approved of his actions.

They acted out of white-hot anger. They sought not only to rescue their sister, but to avenge her honor and that of their family. They “borrowed” the execution of vengeance—which should have been left to God.


What does it mean to “repay” the loan?

The Israelites betrayed God with the sin of the Golden Calf. God’s anger was kindled, and God initially sought to annihilate the entire nation, telling Moshe:

So do not try to stop Me when My anger burns against them. I will put an end to them… (Shemot 31:20)

Instead, the tribe of Levi stepped forward to answer Moshe’s call, and channeled God’s anger by killing only those who had sinned:

So Moshe stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Who is for the Lord? Come to me.” All the Levites rallied round him. He said to them, This is what the Lord God of Israel says: “Let each of you put sword on thigh and go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp—slaying brother, neighbor, kinsman.” The Levites did as Moshe had ordered. Some three thousand people fell that day. (Shemot 32:26-28)

In his final blessing to the tribe of Levi, Moshe recalls that awful righteousness:

…who said of his father and mother, ‘I do not regard them,’ ignored his brothers, and did not acknowledge his children—instead keeping Your word, and guarding close Your covenant. (Devarim 33:9)

Levi borrowed from God at Shechem, when in uncontrolled fury he massacred a Canaanite town. His descendants repaid God at Mount Sinai, when they suppressed their natural love for family and friends and carried out God’s terrible punishment against their own people, allaying God’s wrath.

Zimri and Pinḥas

The tumultuous final year in the wilderness was marked by a pivotal encounter between leaders of the tribes of Shimon and Levi:

And the men began to consort with Moabite women, who invited the people to join the sacrifices to their god….and the Lord was filled with fury against Israel….an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman to his friends before the eyes of Moshe and the entire Israelite community….When Pinḥas son of Elazar son of Aharon the priest saw this, he rose from the midst of the community, took a spear in his hand, went after the Israelite man into the tent, and stabbed both of them, the Israelite man and the woman, through the stomach—and the plague among the Israelites ended. Those who had died by the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

The Lord spoke to Moshe: Pinḥas son of Elazar son of Aharon the priest has allayed My rage against the Israelites Because he was passionate on My behalf among you, I did not destroy the Israelites in My own passion….The name of the slain Israelite man who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, leader of the ancestral House of Shimon. (Bemidbar 25:1-14)

Once again, the Israelites betray God with idol worship. A terrible plague breaks out. Pinḥas, of the tribe of Levi, takes it upon himself to channel God’s anger in an act of terrible zealotry. He runs his spear through Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, together with the Midianite princess he had brought into the camp. The plague ends.

Thus the tribe of Levi “lends” to God by taking action to allay Divine wrath. In killing two brazen sinners, Pinḥas saves countless Israelites who would have been consumed by the plague. As at Sinai, Levi’s zealotry on God’s behalf averts the greater catastrophe of direct Divine vengeance.

And the tribe of Shimon “borrows,” again. Instead of allaying God’s wrath, Zimri incites it.

Shimon and Levi

Let’s return to the massacre at Shechem.

On the one hand, Shimon and Levi acted out of unchecked fury and a thirst for vengeance.

On the other hand, they acted with passionate zeal to defend their sister’s honor. In fact, since Yaakov’s family were clearly God’s representatives, any insult to them was an insult to God. Perhaps they sought to defend God’s honor, and not only Dina’s.

Levi’s descendants carried that zeal forward to defend God’s honor and to channel God’s wrath in the most difficult of circumstances.

Zimri, on the other hand, brazenly dishonored God. It seems that Shimon’s descendants carried forward only the passionate impulsivity.

Yaakov cursed his sons’ fierce anger, which led to needless cruelty, and violence. Generations later, Moshe blessed the tribe of Levi for harnessing their zealous nature to serve God, for slaying their brothers in a harrowing but unavoidable expression of God’s wrath.

May God grant us the wisdom to distinguish between our own fury and God’s will, between the anger of Shimon and the zeal of Levi.

“I wait for your salvation, Lord.” (Bereshit 49:18)

All Tanakh translations are from the Koren Tanakh, Magerman Edition, © 2021.

About the Author
Ilana Sober Elzufon is a Yoetzet Halacha in Yerushalayim, and a writer and editor for Nishmat's Yoatzot Halacha websites ( and for Deracheha (
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