Nothing is so simple in Torah, and so those passages that seem insignificant are generally anything but. In Parashat Vayigash we experience the reuniting of Yaakov and Yosef after their being separated for over twenty years. Between Yaakov’s departure to and arrival in Mitzrayim where he and Yosef are reunited, the Torah gives us a full genealogy of Yaakov’s children and grandchildren. Among those names is one, in particular, which stands out:
The children of Shimon: Yemu’el, and Yamin, and Ohad, and Yakhin, and Tzohar; and Sha’ul son of the Kanaanite woman (Genesis 46:10)
Not only is that last name set apart by the pattern of cantillation, it is unique in all of the 66 names mentioned in that it explicitly references the nationality of Sha’ul’s mother! So let’s investigate further…
We always start with Rashi, who says based upon a Midrash that the Kanaanite woman is Dinah, Shimon’s sister! That once Dinah became married to a Kanaanite man (through rape), she refused to leave Shekhem unless Shimon married her and fathered a child with her. Understandably, this incest is quite difficult for most commentators to accept.
Ibn Ezra presents a more practical suggestion: “since the wives of the tribes were Arami, Mitzri, Edomi, or Midiani, it singles him out because Shimon did not follow in that custom and he married a Kanaanite woman.”
Radak presents an interesting solution to how it is that Shimon came to break the command of his great-grandfather, Avraham, that “Shimon married his first wife and had the other children with her, but Sha’ul he had with a different Kanaanite woman…”
So these represent a midrashic and practical solution, but let’s dig a little deeper…
In Targum Yonatan we find something quite surprising – not as surprising as incest, but surprising nonetheless. The rendering in Aramaic translates to:
The sons of Shimon: Yemu’el, and Yamin, and Ohad, and Yakhin, and Tzohar; and Sha’ul, who is Zimri who did the work of the Kanaanites at Shittim.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, let me remind you:
Yisrael dwelled at Shittim; and the people began to whore with the daughters of Moav. They called out to the people to sacrifice to their gods; and the people ate and prostrated to their gods. Yisrael was tied itself to Ba’al Pe’or; and Hashem’s anger flared at Yisrael. Hashem said to Moshe: take all of the heads of the people and impale them for Hashem opposite the sun; so Hashem’s flaring anger will turn back from Yisrael. Moshe said to the judges of Yisrael: Each must kill the people who tied themselves to Ba’al Pe’or!” And behold, a man from the Children of Yisrael came and brought near to his brothers the Midianite woman, for Moshe’s eyes, and for the eyes of the entire congregation of the Children of Yisrael, and they were crying at the opening of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 25:1-6)
Because the language is a little vague, let’s explicitly name what is happening here – these two people, this Israelite man and this Midianite woman, are copulating publicly in front of the Tent of Meeting. At that point, Pinhas, Aharon’s son, takes his spear and impales them while they are engaged in their public act. A few verses later, the Torah says:
The name of the man of Yisrael who was smote, who smote the Midianite woman, was Zimri ben Sal’u, chief of the house of the father of the Shimoni. (Numbers 25:14)
This one simple verse gives us a fair amount to unpack, but we’ll just focus on the identifying factors. First, going back to the passage quoted above, it tells us that “a man from the Children of Yisrael,” and this would not be significant were it not for the fact that the term employed in every other instance in that passage is simply “Yisrael.” Then, in verse 14 it states that this person Zimri was the “chief of the house of the father of Shimoni.” This is a big clue, because at the beginning of the Book of Numbers we get a list of all of the chiefs of family clans, but this name Zimri appears only in this once single instance!
At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we read:
Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting; on the first month of the secon year of their going out from the land of Mitzrayim, saying. Lift the head of the entire congregation of the Children of Yisrael by their family, by the house of their father; counting names, each male per capita. From twenty years and upward, all who come out for the army of Yisrael, count them for their army, you and Aharon. And with you a man for each tribe; a man who is head of their father’s house. These are the names of the men who will stand with you: For Reuven, Elitzur ben Sh’dei’ur. For Shimon, Shlumi’el ben Tzuri’shaddai. (Numbers 1:1-6)
And each time the chief of the tribe of Shimon is mentioned throughout the Torah, it is always Shlumi’el ben Tzuri’shaddai; so who is this Zimri? The Talmud provides an answer.
In the midst of a discussion on the incident referenced above involving Zimri, we learn:
Rabbi Yohanan said: He has five names – Zimri, Ben Salu, Sha’ul, Ben Ha’Kenaanit, and Shlumi’el ben Tzuri’shaddai. “Zimri” because he made himself like a scrambled (muzeret) egg; “Ben Salu” because he elicited (hi’sli) transgressions on his family; “Sha’ul” because he lent (hi’shil) himself to transgression; “Ben Ha’Kenaanit” because he did the deed of Kenaan; so what is his name? Shlumi’el ben Tzuri’shaddai is his name.
So why, then, would the verse in our Torah portion refer to him as Sha’ul ben Ha’Kenaanit instead of his actual name?
To maintain the honor he had before he engaged in the act, but to not ignore that his actions tarnished his name. Because as we learn in Ecclesiastes: “tov shem mi’shemen tov – a good name is better than good oil.”