A Glaring Omission
The omission of Shevet Shimon from the Shevatim blessed in parshat VeZot HaBracha screams for an explanation. Rashi (to Devarim 33:7) and Ibn Ezra (to pasuk 6) explain that Shimon did not receive an explicit bracha due to this tribe’s large participation in the ugly Baal Peor incident (Bamidbar, perek 25). Some argue that Moshe Rabbeinu went as far as disbanding Shevet Shimon. Let us trace Shevet Shimon’s path throughout Tanach to determine if this tribe was formally dissolved.
Shimon in Sefer Bereishit
Shimon’s behavior in sefer Bereishit was less than sterling. He led—together with Levi—the controversial slaying of the adult males of Shechem (Bereishit, perek 34). Rashi (to Bereishit 42:24) quotes the midrash that it was Shimon who cast Yosef in the pit and was the one who began the downward spiral by degrading Yosef and announcing: “Hinei ba’al hachalomot hazeh bah—behold the dreamer is approaching.” Therefore, Rashi explains, Yosef jailed Shimon. In addition, Yosef feared Shimon would partner with Levi to respond violently to Yosef’s initial aggressive stance towards his brothers.
Not surprisingly, Yaakov Avinu, on his deathbed (Bereishit 49:5-7), subjects Shimon and Levi to considerable criticism. Consequently, Yaakov proclaims that these Shevatim will be scattered amongst Bnei Yisrael.
Shevet Levi in Sefer Shemot
Interestingly, Shevet Levi emerges as our people’s spiritual elite in Sefer Shemot. Rashi (to Shemot 5:2) cites from the midrash that Shevet Levi was not enslaved in Mitzrayim. Furthermore, the three great leaders of our nation, Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, were Leviyim. Finally, Shevet Levi stood steadfastly loyal to Hashem and His Torah during and after the Cheit HaEigel. Rashi (to Shemot 32:26) goes as far as to say that the entire Shevet Levi was free of sin.
Shevet Shimon in Sefer Bamidbar
Shevet Shimon’s numbers dropped precipitously in sefer Bamidbar. In the first count (Bamidbar 1:23), Shevet Shimon was one of the largest Shevatim, with a population of 59,300 men between the ages of 20 and 60. In dramatic contrast—nearly 40 years later—in the second census of sefer Bamidbar (26:14), Shimon numbered only 22,200 men between 20 and 60. How do we explain the loss of 37,100 members of this tribe?
Ibn Ezra attributes the loss to the heavy participation of Shevet Shimon in the Baal Peor incident. It was a leader of a Shevet Shimon family, who Pinchas killed for consorting with a Midianite woman. However, Ramban (to Devarim 33:6) notes that only 24,000 people died at Baal Peor and that several Shevatim’s numbers were slightly reduced from the first to the second.
Therefore, we suggest that Shevet Shimon’s great losses were due to Baal Peor and other horrific events of sefer Bamidbar, such as the ma’apilim (Bamidbar, perek 14), Kivrot HaTa’ava or perhaps, the Korach rebellion.
However, one explains the great drop in Shimon’s population; all indications point to Shevet Shimon’s spiritual deterioration in sefer Bamidbar. We must explain why Shevet Levi rose to prominence after Yaakov Avinu’s passing, but Shevet Shimon spiritually declined.
Levi and Shimon’s Reactions To Yaakov Avinu’s Mussar
Sefer Mishlei (9:8) teaches, “Do not reprove a letz (clown; a not serious individual) lest he hate you; criticize a wise person, and he will love you.” There are two ways to react to constructive criticism—embrace it or scorn it. The wise individual grasps it, but the foolish person rejects it with a vengeance!
The Rambam (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:3) writes that Yaakov Avinu appointed Shevet Levi as our spiritual leader in Mitzrayim. Rambam’s assertion is a bit difficult to fathom in light of Yaakov Avinu’s harsh words to Levi on his deathbed. By contrast, Rashi (to Devarim 10:8) writes that Hashem designated Shevet Levi as our spiritual leader only after their sterling performance during and after the Cheit HaEigel.
I humbly suggest an alternative in light of Rashi and sefer Mishlei 9:8. I surmise that upon hearing Yaakov Avinu’s deathbed mussar, Levi gathered his family and delivered the following message.
We have not lived up to our potential in the past. Our failures have culminated in the curse of being scattered amongst Bnei Yisrael. However, from now on, we are going to turn things around. We will transform from the lowest of the Shevatim to the greatest of the Shevatim. We will transform Yaakov Avinu’s curse into a blessing!
Shevet Levi heeded their founding father’s rousing admonition. As a result, Shevet Levi emerges as the spiritual leader of Am Yisrael. Instead of having a share in Eretz Yisrael, Hashem is their nachalah (portion/share) (Devarim 10:8-9)! Shevet Levi met their founding father’s goal to transform Yaakov Avinu’s curse into a blessing. Shevet Levi is scattered amongst Bnei Yisrael not as a punishment but as a mission to reach our entire nation and teach them Torah. The primary mission of Shevet Levi, as Moshe Rabbeinu states (Devarim 33:10), is “Yoru mishpatecha l’Yaakov,” to serve as spiritual role models and teach Torah to Am Yisrael.
In sharp contrast, Shimon and his descendants never experienced such an awakening. Instead, they tragically submitted to Yaakov Avinu’s curse—instead of embracing its inherent challenge. As a result, they sadly felt destined to fail and realized their self-imposed expectation of doom.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s New Plan
I suggest that Moshe Rabbeinu, on his deathbed, presented a new plan for Shevet Shimon. By including Shimon’s bracha within that of Shevet Yehuda, Moshe Rabbeinu (a Levi who understands the idea of changing the narrative) writes a new script for Shevet Shimon. Moshe Rabbeinu saw how Shevet Yehuda prospered from his family, being neighbors to Shevet Yehuda (see Rashi to Bemidbar 3:38). Moshe Rabbeinu now wanted Shevet Yehuda to, in turn, positively impact on Shevet Shimon. Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu subsumed Shevet Shimon under the auspices and tutelage of Shevet Yehuda.
Therefore in Sefer Yehoshua (19:1), Shevet Shimon’s nachalah was included within Yehuda’s portion in Eretz Yisrael. In this way, Yaakov Avinu’s curse was transformed into a bracha. As a result, Shimon’s tribe would be scattered amongst Yehuda; but living within Shevet Yehuda would elevate Shimon and set him on a better course.
Moshe Rabbeinu succeeded in changing Shevet Shimon’s narrative. Since they were included in Shevet Yehuda, Shevet Shimon survives until today—along with the Jewish people, the Yehudim, primarily composed of Shevet Yehuda. Shevet Levi also exists until this day, since they were scattered amongst the tribes, including Yehuda. In addition, during the spiritual deterioration of the northern kingdom, Shevet Levi migrated to Yehuda, the southern kingdom (Divrei HaYamim II, 11:13-17). They, thereby, escaped the northern tribes’ exile and subsequent assimilation.
Shevet Shimon Not Disbanded
Those who claim that Shevet Yehuda was disbanded are in error. Even after Baal Peor, Shevet Shimon was retained as a Nasi for the new generation entering Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 34:20). Shevet Shimon was present as a Shevet at the Har Gerizim and Har Eival (Devarim 27:12; also post-Baal Peor). Rashi to Sukkah 26b (s.v. Sehlo He’emid) assumes that Shevet Shimon is also included in the Gemara’s statement that from each Shevet emerged one of the leaders of sefer Shofetim.
Shevet Shimon continued functioning as an entity of a Shevet, even after Baal Peor. However, to set this shaky Shevet on a better course, Moshe Rabbeinu placed them under the leadership, influence and location of Shevet Yehuda.
Eventually, Shevet Shimon will return to its original stature as a fully independent Shevet. In Yechezkel’s vision of a rebuilt Yerushalayim (Yechezkel, perek 48), he enumerates Jerusalem’s 12 gates—one for each tribe. Pasuk 33 lists Shevet Shimon—proudly represented with honors—as one of the 12 gates and the other 11 Shevatim.
Shimon’s being subsumed under Shevet Yehuda was only temporary as the Ramban (to Devarim 33:6) states, “V’lo yimache Shevet miYisrael—no Shevet is eliminated from Am Yisrael!”
Conclusion—A Kelalah Transformed Into a Bracha
Interestingly, Yaakov Avinu’s cursing Shimon and Levi was a blessing for both tribes. Had they received a nachalah in Eretz Yisrael like the other Shevatim, they likely would have been included in the disastrous exile of the northern tribes to oblivion. But, instead, due to the leadership of Levi and Moshe Rabbeinu, Shevet Shimon and Shevet Levi remain part of Am Yisrael until this very day.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.