> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

The DIfference Between Shimon and Levi

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Portion begins with the account of Pinchas’ act of zealotry of killing Zimri and Kozbi. It is noteworthy that Pinchas came from the tribe of Levi and Zimri was from the Tribe of Shimon as this is the not the first time in the Torah that the two interacted. In Vayishlach, Shimon and Levi wiped out the whole city of Shechem because the Prince, also named Shechem, violated their sister Dina. At that point, the Torah describes Shimon and Levi as ‘brothers’, indicating that they acted together in the same way. In Vayechi, Yaakov also calls them brothers1, but criticizes them for their zealotry, curses their joint anger and states that they must be separated. Their fates do not again meet until the incident of Baal Peor, where they are on opposite sides – Zimri sins with the Midianite Princess, Kozbi, and Pinchas kills them both. In addition, Chazal tell us that the Tribe of Shimon were also involved in the sin2 and protested after the killing of Zimri, but God praised it as a justified action done leshem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). It is also evident from the numbers of the Tribes after this incident, that the main sinners in Baal Peor were from the Tribe of Shimon as their numbers dwindled significantly after Baal Peor, indicating that many of them died in the plague, which was a punishment for the sins of Baal Peor.

The obvious question is how did the paths of Shimon and Levi divert so drastically, after their shared origins3? The key to answering this is based on the Netsiv’s explanation of the episode in Shechem4. He asserts that even though the two brothers acted together in wiping out Shechem for their role in the incident with Dina, nevertheless, they had very different motivations. Shimon’s primary consideration was repulsion of what Shechem had done to Dina as a member of Yaakov’s family, and how it had brought shame upon the family. In contrast, Levi was motivated by the outrage that Shechem had committed in defiling the holiness of the Jewish nation which at that time, only comprised of Yaakov’s wives, children and grandchildren, yet he already saw them as a nation. Thus, Shimon was driven by family loyalty, whereas Levi was driven by loyalty to God and by extension to the holiness of His Chosen people.

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky demonstrates these two motives in the Torah’s description of the brother’s reaction to Shechem’s crime: “And the sons of Yaakov returned from the field, when they heard, the men were distressed and they seethed with anger, because [Shechem] had committed an outrage against Yisrael, to lay with the daughter of Yaakov, and such a thing is not done5.” Rav Milevsky explains that whenever the Torah refers to Yaakov as Yisrael, it is relating to his higher essence as a father of the Jewish people, thus, the expression, ‘an outrage against Yisrael’ expresses anger at the spiritual desecration of the holiness of the Jewish nation, In contrast, the use of the regular name, Yaakov, refers to him as an individual, thus the phrase, ‘to lay with the daughter of Yaakov’ alludes to disgust at the shame that had been brought on Yaakov’s family by this despicable act. Rabbi Milevsky explains, building on the Netsiv’s explanation, that Shimon was more concerned that Shechem lay with ‘the daughter of Yaakov’ whereas Levy was more focused on the ‘outrage against Yisrael.’

The Netsiv gives an example to prove the tribe of Levi’s overriding loyalty to God with their actions during the sin of the Golden Calf, where the tribe of Levi answered Moshe’s call to kill the sinners, even though some of them were members of their own families. In contrast, Rabbi Milevsky points out Shimon’s preponderant devotion to family loyalty over God’s honor, by the tribe of Shimon’s staunch defence of Zimri despite his heinous sin, and their criticism of Pinchas after his righteous act of zealotry.

We can now understand how the paths of Shimon and Levi could diverse so drastically despite their seemingly identical initial behavior. Despite the fact that their actions were identical, their intentions were very disparate, and resulted in contrasting reactions to a situation where honor to God conflicted with family loyalty. The Tribe of Levi emulated their ancestor, Levi, by putting God’s honor above everything else, while the Tribe of Shimon followed the example of their ancestor, Shimon, by putting family honor before God’s honor.

A specific lesson that can be derived from this idea is that although it is very important to respect one’s family, and especially one’s parents, this does not come at the expense of one’s relationship with God. This is most clearly borne out by the halacha that although one must generally listen to their parents’ requests, this does not apply, if the request contradicts the Torah.

A more general lesson that we learn from the Netsiv the importance of the intention behind a person’s actions – Shimon and Levi did identical actions, but their root motivations were so different that they led to drastically divergent behavior on the part of their descendants. The Ran6 makes this point with regard to Mitzva observance: He writes that it is conceivable that two people do the exact same action, and one of them will gain far more reward than the other. The only difference between the two is their intention when they performed the action. In the context of the examples of Shimon and Levi, this idea plays out with regard to the reasons that we perform Mitzvot – it can be for common sense reasons, such as what drove Shimon, or for the sake of God. As their example proves, the difference will have a massive impact on how we live our lives.


  1. Bereishis, 49:5.
  2. Rashi, Bereishis, 49:6.
  3. See the Dvar Torah, ‘True zealousness’ where the approach of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, is discussed. In the above Dvar Torah, the approach of the Netsiv will be used, with additional explanation from Rav Uziel Milevsky, zt”l, former Chief Rabbi of Mexico.
  4. Heemek Dvar, Bereishis, 34:25, 49:8.
  5. Bereishis, 34:7.
  6. Drashos HaRan, HaDrush Hashishi, cited in ‘Kaasher Tzivah HaShem’ , written by Rav Avraham Garfinkel, shlit’a, p.12.


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