Yaakov's Parting Words to Shimon and Levi



A Harsh Address

Sefer Bereshit closes with Yaakov's "Last Will and Testament" to his sons.  The tone of most of Yaakov's speech is positive, as he blesses his children with rich land, luscious vines, and victory in battle. When addressing Shimon and Levi, however, Yaakov's words take on a seemingly negative tone:


(ה) שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. (ו) בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. (ז) אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.

(5) “Simeon and Levi are brothers. Their swords are weapons of violence. (6) My soul, do not come into their council. My glory, do not be united to their assembly; for in their anger they killed men. In their self-will they hamstrung cattle. (7) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel. I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Yaakov speaks of violent tempers and murder, says that he wishes to have no part in the brothers' council, and even curses their wrath. Why are Yaakov's last words to Shimon and Levi so harsh? To which actions of the two brothers is he alluding?

Textual Ambiguities

As Yaakov's speech is poetic, many of the terms he uses are not easily defined, leaving the intent and meaning of many of his statements ambiguous.  Almost every phrase of his words to Shimon and Levi raises questions:

  • "שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים" – What does Yaakov mean by addressing Shimon and Levi as brothers? Is this an expression of their similarity, solidarity, or something else entirely?
  • "כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם" – The words "כְּלֵי חָמָס" are usually translated as weapons or tools of violence, with the word "חָמָס" carrying a negative connotation of unjust brutality.  What, though, does "מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם" mean?  Is it related to the word למכור (to sell), the word להכיר (to recognize), or does it stem from a different root?  Either way, how does it affect the meaning of the metaphor?
  • "בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי" – How should the word "תֵּחַד" be translated?  Is it related to "חדוה" (happiness), or to the root "יחד" (to be united or come together)? Regardless, to what secret council and assembly is Yaakov referring?  Are "בְּסֹדָם" and "בִּקְהָלָם" two distinct things, or is Yaakov simply making use of poetic parallelism and expressing the same idea twice in different words?
  • "כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר" – Is Yaakov referring to a specific killing, or to a general tendency towards murder?  What does he mean when he says that Shimon and Levi "hamstrung an ox"?  Why is that worthy of mention?  Might the word "שׁוֹר" have some secondary connotation which would make the action more significant?

Where is the Blessing?

The last verse of Yaakov's testament, "אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז... אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב", raises further questions, as Yaakov appears to be cursing and punishing his sons for their fiery temperament. How is such a curse and the punitive dispersal of Shimon and Levi compatible with the narrator's later statement in verse 28, "וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם," which suggests that each of the brothers was blessed, not cursed?  Furthermore, do these statements express Yaakov's personal desires, or are they a prophetic vision of the future and an expression of Hashem's will?

Sons or Tribes?

A last set of questions relates to Yaakov's blessings as a whole.  Yaakov prefaces his speech by telling his sons that he will speak of events that will befall them "בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים" (lit. "the ends of days").  Does this refer to experiences during Yaakov's sons' own lives, events which will occur to their descendants upon their return to the Land of Israel, or to incidents which will transpire in Messianic times?  As such, is Yaakov addressing his sons as individuals, or as progenitors of future tribes? The answers to these questions will obviously impact how one understands each of Yaakov's blessings, including his address to Shimon and Levi.