What was the justification for Shimon and Levi's killing all the males of Shechem in parshas Vayishlach?

I assume some people there were not in a position to prevent what happened or that their protest would not have had any affect and the Talmud in Shabbat 54b says only those who can prevent others from sinning are held responsible for their deeds.

Whoever can prevent members of their household from committing a sin, but does not, is punished for the sins of their household. If they can prevent their fellow citizens from committing sins, but does not, they are punished for the sins of their fellow citizens. If you can prevent the whole world from committing a sin, but does not, they are punished for the sins of the whole world.
- Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 54b

  • 2
    Honestly, I think your question is a very good question, without bringing in the gemara Shabbos. You might want to think about taking it out, because (in my opinion) it makes the question a bit harder to understand, and isn't really integral to the question of the intentions of Shimon and Levi.
    – MTL
    Dec 7 '14 at 5:08

Rabbi Gil Student addresses the Rambam and Ramban's positions. The Ramban has been cited in other answers. An excerpt of the Rambam's position is below

(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 9:14) ...People in general are obligated by the Noachide code to establish courts to maintain justice. Since Shechem was unpunished for his crime, the city residents clearly were failing to enforce law and order, and therefore liable for violating the command to establish courts. According to the Rambam, administering justice is a personal obligation of each citizen.


See the lengthy Ramba"n discussion on Bresihit 34:13 He struggles with various aspects of this question, and why eventually Ya'akov cursed Shim'on and Levi's anger. There are three aspects to what Ramba"n states:

  1. He delves into a discussion of the responsibilities of B'nai Noach to establish a court and try people who violated certain crimes. Ramba"n lists which types of crimes they should judge and which they were exempt from doing. Among the ones that they should try include those of someone unlawfully "raping" a woman.
  2. Shim'on and Levi surmised that everyone in the city was considered evil-doers and, essentially the King's (Shchem's) servants, and thus they were all guilty. The circumcision would mean nothing to them because they just do whatever the King asks of them.
  3. Ya'akov saw this aspect differently, which is why he cursed Shimon & Levi. Ya'akov stated, somewhat along your thinking, for during Shchem's negotiation with Ya'akov, he indicated that the desire was "We will dwell with you and we will be one nation." (See my comment on this, below). Thus, the people might have done Teshuva (repent), and, after all, the people caused no harm to anyone, yet you (Shimon & Levi) killed them!

My comments: Breishit 24:23 says that to "sweeten" the deal to the townspeople, Shchem and Chamor said "All their cattle and possessions - behold they are ours!" - a seeming contradiction to the concept that they will do commerce with Ya'akov's family (as he had told Ya'akov when speaking to him). I.e. - the talk seems to imply "their possessions are already ours; we don't have to negotiate with them, as long as we all agree to be circumcised."

Keep in mind that the people already knew what Chamor had done; no objection to the idea. Everyone agreed and liked the proposal offered to them, and Chamor himself was already circumcised, thus setting the example for others. Granted, he doesn't mention that his main motive was to marry Dinah. But, in addition to the "taking of possesions", Chamor and Shchem also mention that they will exchange daughters with Ya'akov's family. This part was not a lie (he did say that to Ya'akov, directly.) In short, it was not as if the townspeople were completely forced into accepting the proposal. They agreed with it willingly!

  • Dan -- I've replaced some of the links in your answer....mainly because the Ramban you linked to was very difficult to read. ( now reading the Ramban )
    – MTL
    Dec 5 '14 at 15:13
  • 1
    You have switched the names Shechem and Chamor in your post several times - Chamor was the king and Shechem his son was the prince of that place, and it was Shechem who slept with, and who wished to marry, Dinah. Also "Chamor (I assume you mean Shechem) was already circumcised" - from where do you see this?
    – user4523
    Dec 6 '14 at 16:28

Targum Pseudo Jonathan 34:31 says that Simeon and Levi were using the city of Shechem as an example and a warning to any and all who would think of treating the daughters of Jacob in such a way. (This is echoed by the Yerushalmi Targum as well):

And Shimeon and Levi answered, It would not have been fit to be said in the congregations of Israel that the uncircumcised polluted the virgin, and the worshippers of idols debased the daughter of Jakob: but it is fit that it should be said, The uncircumcised were slain on account of the virgin, and the worshippers of idols on account of the daughter of Jakob. Shekem bar Hamor will not (now) deride us with his words; for as a whorish woman and an outcast who hath no avenger would he have made our sister, if we had not done this thing.

(above quote is an excerpt)

  • so they took the law into their own hands, so to speak and treated it like an ir hanidachat? what made them think they had the authority to make such a decision?
    – ray
    Dec 7 '14 at 6:06
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    @ray, what law? What's an ir hanidachat? This is almost 300 years before Sinai. Clearly Jacob felt that what they did wasn't good form, but they assesed the situation and felt that this was worth it. Evidently God agreed, as he prevented surrounding nations from harming Jacob's family, putting jacob's fears to bed
    – Baby Seal
    Dec 7 '14 at 6:28
  • or maybe it was not worth wiping out jacob's family for one sin
    – user813801
    Dec 7 '14 at 16:23
  • dont understand your question. they kept the torah b4 sinai
    – ray
    Dec 7 '14 at 17:47

Here is what stuck with me in this Parasha: ( using Stone edition Chumash)

Ch 34 v: 30 ' ... making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.'

So, Yaakov was fearing the other residents of the land as well as their opinions..as they traversed, but then the men slew the city,
note in Chapter 35 V5

" They set out and there fell a GODLY terror on the cities which were around them, so they did not pursue Yaakov's sons."

It occurs to me that the residents of the cities surrounding them knew and understood Honor of and with the family, as typical of the middle east even to this day. The sons were acting justly, as indicated by their question C34: V31 "... should he treat our sister as a harlot?"

It is my understanding thatg typical birth control in those days was not normal relations, and harlots would have practiced this form in order to remain employed. Treating Dinah like a harlot meant this illicit behavior, and for a virgin to be taken as this and so "Violated", the honor of the family was smeared. I rather think the residents of the surrounding cities understood full well what happened and when they saw the swift and harsh retribution for such an act against Yaakov's Family, these surrounding cities would clearly know and understand that Yaakov was not to be messed with.

A lot of the literature and readings I have done over the last couple years seems to paint the sons in a harsh light, and yet the "Godly" fear instilled in the surrounding cities leads me to believe that they acted righteously in the social constraints of their time.


Below are excerpts from Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and his explanation as to why they reacted as they did. Note that Yaakov objected to this and did not accept their justification of "hora'as shah". See the full explanation in the 5 volume Hirsch Chumash.

Rav Hirsch says on 34:25

Now the blameworthy part begins, which we need in no wise excuse. Had they killed Shechem and Chamor there would be scarcely anything to say against it.

Their one answer in "hakezona" gives their whole motive. The lord would never have allowed himself to act as he did were it not a question of a foreign, friendless forsaken Jew-girl.

They wanted to make themselves so feared that nobody would attempt anything similar.

It is only the means they took and their going much too far in their use of them that was blameworthy.

Also, the fact that the entire city was ready to go along with the pretense of circumcision in order to con the Jews into becoming theirs meant that everyone was ready to be complicit.

Rav Sorotzkin in Oznayim Latorah takes a different viewpoint. He says that rather than an individual crime, which would require a bais din and restrict the punishment to individuals, this was actually a declaration of war. That is the fact that the Shechem, the eponymous prince of the city, kidnapped Dinah, raped her, and then hypocritically "offered" an bride price for her amounted to a declaration of war upon the people of "Yisrael". He notes that part of the response is "such is not done in Yisrael". That is, the term is not being used to reference Yaakov himself, but as a reference to the group as a whole.

Rav Sorotzkin also notes that they discovered (either from their servants or from ruach hakodesh) that the people of Shechem planned to "take their daughters" (whether willing or not), give them "our daughters" (if we feel like fooling them), and make everything of theirs ours. The people of Shechem knew that eventually, the Bani Yisrael would object and have to be killed in order for the full transfer of property to take effect. They were all willing to pretend to "convert" in order to trick the Bnai Yisrael into trusting them and enabling them to defeat the "interlopers". Since the Bnai Yisrael knew this and that the war had already started, they attacked first after having weakened the enemy.

Note the connection between the lack of bargaining here and the lack of bargaining that Lavan did (as Rav Sorotzkin explained there). This means that when someone never intends to keep a bargain, he will immediately agree to whatever is suggested as a price. Since he does not intend to keep it in the first place, he does not care what he is agreeing to.

Rabbi Yakov Haber says that the expected (or likely) scenario would have been that enough of the people would refuse to be circumcized to allow Chamor to "save face" and return Dinah in a "diplomatically correct" manner (while perhaps punishing Shechem in some way). Even if they agreed (as they did), a rescue mission could then have been mounted. It was only Shimon and Levi that went all the way and killed everyone (which is why they were chastised).

When Shimon and Levi seized the opportunity to exact vengeance from the entire city, somethin Yaakov Avinu did not anticipate, he censured them for killing those not directly involved in the attack and kipnapping of Dinah.

By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky

The question is simple: Why ask the people of Shechem to circumcise? If Yaakov's children wanted to attack them, why go through a process of converting them? They should have asked them to fast for three days. That would have made them even weaker. They could have asked them to hand over all their weapons. Why ask them to do an act is so blatantly Jewish?

On September 30, 2000, the word intafada was almost unknown to the average American. And then the riots began. On one of the first days of what has now been over three years of unceasing violence, against innocent Israelis, The New York Times, Associated Press and other major media outlets published a photo of a young man who looked terrified, bloodied and battered. There was an Israeli soldier in the background brandishing a billy-club. The caption in everyone of the papers that carried the photo identified the teen as an innocent Palestinian victim of the riots -- with the clear implication that the Israeli soldier was the one who beat him. The world was in shock and outrage at the sight of the poor teen, blood oozing from his temple crouching beneath the club-wielding Israeli policeman. Letters of protest and sympathy poured in form the genteel readers of the gentile world.

The victim's true identity was soon revealed. Dr. Aaron Grossman wrote the NY Times that the picture of the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian on the Temple Mount was indeed not a Palestinian. The battered boy was actually his son, Tuvia Grossman, a Yeshiva student from Chicago. He, and two of his friends, were pulled from their taxicab by a mob of Palestinian Arabs, and were severely beaten and stabbed. The Israeli soldier wielding the club was actually attempting to protect Tuvia from the vicious mob.

All of a sudden the outrage ceased, the brutal attack was almost ignored and a correction buried somewhere deep amongst "all the news that is fit to print" re-identified Tuvia Grossman as "an American student in Israel." It hardly mentioned that he was an innocent Jew who was nearly lynched by Arabs. This blatant hypocrisy in news coverage incidentally help launch a media watchdog named Honest Reporting.com.

Rav Yonasan Eibeschitz, zt"l, explains that Yaakov's children knew something that was as relevant in Biblical times as it is in today's "New York" times. Yaakov's sons knew the secret of society. Have them circumcised. Make them Jews. Then you can do whatever you want with them and no one will say a word. You can wipe out an entire city -- as long as it is not a gentile city. If Shechem had remained a gentile city had the people not circumcised according the laws of Avraham then Yaakov's children would have been condemned by the entire world. But Yaakov's children knew better. They made sure that the Shechemites, went through a Jewish circumcision. Shechem now was a Jewish city; and when a Jewish city is destroyed, the story becomes as irrelevant as an American student attacked by a Palestinian mob in Yerushalayim! Unfortunately it is that simple and that old.


One suggestion is they killed the adult males because they should have applied the Noahide law of "Justice" on Shechem and did not.

And which of the 7 Noahide laws did Shechem actually break? The immediate gut reaction would be that he broke the law of forbidden relationships but I am not so sure, as the normal "penalty" for raping a minor in Jewish law is being forced to marry her or compensate. I know it seems strange in modern society but that is the Torah law and who are we to argue?

And he did request permission from her father to marry her, so seems to have done the right thing there.

The Noahide law he appears to have broken is that by keeping her hostage, that is kidnap, one of the "theft"-related laws.

This answer is also brought by the Ramban there (34:13):

ורבים ישאלו ואיך עשו בני יעקב הצדיקים המעשה הזה לשפוך דם נקי והרב השיב בספר שופטים (רמב"ם הלכות מלכים פי"ד ה"ט) ואמר שבני נח מצווים על הדינים והוא להושיב דיינין בכל פלך ופלך לדון בשש מצות שלהן ובן נח שעבר על אחת מהן הוא נהרג בסייף ראה אחד שעבר על אחת מהן ולא דנוהו להרגו הרי זה הרואה יהרג בסייף ומפני זה נתחייבו כל בעלי שכם הריגה שהרי שכם גזל והם ראו וידעו ולא דנוהו

Many ask how the righteous sons of Jacob could do this thing, spilling innocent blood. The Rav (Rambam) answered (I wanted to link directly to the Rambam, but Hod's script tells me that there is no chapter 14 in Rambam Melachim) that non-Jews are commanded to keep laws ("Justice"), which is the command to set up judges in every place to make sure that everyone is keeping the other six laws. Any ben Noach who violates any of those rules is killed by the sword, and if any ben Noach sees another who violated the rules and didn't judge him, then he gets killed by the sword (for not keeping the law of "Justice"). This is why all the people of Shechem were killed, because (Prince) Shechem stole, and the whole town saw it and knew about it and did not judge him in court.

The Ramban himself rejects this reason, see there (and Dan's answer) for more of the Ramban's discussion on this topic.

The only law that justifies one to kill without beis-din is Rodef, i.e. the person you kill poses a serious threat. The text actually suggests this to be the case with Hamor's address to the people: "won't all their belongings be ours".. So they posed a clear threat, both physically and morally, and it was permitted to kill them.

  • but why kill the whole population? why not only those who were in a position of influence?
    – ray
    Dec 5 '14 at 9:07
  • They killed the adult males, the ones who were likely to cause an immediate threat.
    – CashCow
    Dec 5 '14 at 9:29
  • Interesting thoughts, +1....though I'm not sure that we can consider the whole city to be "Rodef," just based on "won't all their belongings be ours," because in context that doesn't really sound very threatening.
    – MTL
    Dec 5 '14 at 15:00
  • I was pretty sure I saw your first answer somewhere.....turns out it was the Ramban ;-)
    – MTL
    Dec 5 '14 at 16:00
  • I was going to expand my answer myself to show it was Rambam vs Ramban but it had already been done for me by Motzei Shabbat.
    – CashCow
    Dec 8 '14 at 10:28

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