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A Time to Kill

A Time to Kill

Simeon and Levi—Paradigms for a Bar Mitzvah Boy?


A Jewish boy celebrates his bar mitzvah, his Jewish “coming of age,” when he turns thirteen.

What is the biblical source for the age of bar mitzvah?

And it came to pass on the third day, when [the people of Shechem] were in pain [following their circumcision], that two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each man took his sword, and they came upon the city confidently, and killed every male.1

Simeon and Levi are called “men.” Our sages calculate2 that the two were thirteen at the time. Thus it’s clear that at thirteen years old, boys are already considered men.3

While the Torah’s use of the word “man” is necessary in order to inform us the age at which Jewish boys become responsible for mitzvot, the choice of placement is seemingly disturbing.

What are we to answer our children when they ask us about the very first bar mitzvah boys?

In what context do we learn of our children’s moral and religious maturation, accountability and responsibility? From an episode in which two thirteen-year-olds apparently behaved with none. What are we to answer our children when they ask us about the very first bar mitzvah boys?

We know the story; hopefully, we have struggled with it.

Two young men out for revenge.

The target is a Hivite prince named Shechem, and his people. Cunningly, Shechem is offered an alliance on behalf of Jacob’s family, hinged on the circumcision of all Shechemite males. The condition is accepted; the stage is now set for a massacre. Come the third day, the newly circumcised Hivites are at the peak of their pain, and Simeon and Levi renege on their word and spoil the good faith placed in them. The outcome is unrestrained carnage.

Are these the type of people we want our children to emulate? Are these the greatest examples our tradition has to offer our budding teens? Does their behavior in any way reflect the loving religion they belonged to, and the proper response it calls for?

The Crime of Silence

He who allows oppression, shares the crime.—Charles Darwin

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.—Dante Alighieri

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.—Albert Einstein

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.—Mark Twain

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.—Abraham Lincoln

I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.—Elie Wiesel

The evils of government are directly proportional to the tolerance of the people.—Frank Kent

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.—Edward R. Murrow

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.—Howard Zinn

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of the colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.—Robert F. Kennedy

In the Beginning . . .

Have you ever started reading a book from the middle?

Here’s the beginning of our story:

Now Dinah—the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob—went out to see the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he lay with her, and he violated her . . . Jacob’s sons arrived from the field when they heard; the men were distressed.4

Imagine a person coming home from work to find out that his sister was abducted and violated, her young life destroyed, forever scarred.

Words could not describe the grief, the anguish, the humiliation . . .

Worse, if at all possible, in Dinah’s instance she had been kidnapped in broad daylight! An entire population was complicit. Many Hivites had aided and abetted;5 the others stood by and watched. Some from street corners, others from behind drawn window shades; either way, they had all kept their silence.

Shechem was a man of nobility, the prince of an empire. News traveled fast, and before long, Dinah’s continued abduction and violation was the talk of that region and beyond.

Still no response, still no justice, still only thunderous silence.

The world looked on quietly.

Teen Models

The moral truths expressed by the notable personalities quoted above were first conceived and acted upon by Simeon and Levi.

We must dream of—not dread—raising children with moral courage and the preparedness to sacrifice

Simeon and Levi are the perfect paradigm, and Shechem the perfect setting, to teach us about religious and moral responsibility.

The word responsibility has been said to be made of two: response-ability. This description couldn’t better portray Jacob’s teenage boys, young men who exercised their ability to respond in full.

They saw a horrendous wrong being perpetrated, they were disturbed to the core of their souls, and they took action—despite the mortal risk involved.

Thus, it is apropos that that age of bar mitzvah be derived from Simeon and Levi’s selfless stand.

We must dream of—not dread—raising children with moral courage and the preparedness to sacrifice.6

Stepping Up to the Plate

Using some poetic license, I would like to present my version of the Shechem episode, along with the thoughts, feelings and conversations that were behind it.7

“Did you see hear the news?” Simeon’s voice trembled.

“What is it now?” Levi asked.

“They’re holding Dinah captive, and now Shechem, may he die a hundred deaths, wants to marry her. They say they won’t let her go until we’ve come to an ‘agreement.’”

Levi’s heart stopped. Numb from shock, he stood rooted to his spot. Only as the information began to register did he begin to shake with rage. He had never felt this angry before.

“The absolute nerve of that rotten lowlife! First he violates her, and then he wants her love!”

“We must act now!” said Simeon urgently.

Having somewhat regained his composure, Levi, usually the calmer of the two, said, “Look, let’s think about this for a second before we do anything rash. What about going to the authorities for help?”

Simeon stopped him short. “Shechem is the authority.”

“But there must be some sort of law in this land!”

“Shechem is the law.”8

Simeon stopped him short. “Shechem is the authority . . .”

“But what about the neighboring nations? Won’t they intervene on our behalf?” Levi pressed on. “How could they possibly let this go? There must be some type of international law.”

“Stop being so naive,” Simeon impatiently responded. “No one could care less about us, end of story. Besides . . .”

Simeon drifted off mid-sentence; Judah was bolting toward them. He was stammering uncontrollably. They shuddered at the sight. Judah was normally the most articulate of the brothers, always calm and collected: a real leader.

When he was calm enough to be coherent, he gave them the morbid update. “A rumor has been spread by the palace that Dinah is a common harlot who willingly serviced the prince.”9

Simeon’s face went ashen. “There’s no chance in the world we’ll get any help now. Worse, if that rumor gets around, and we do take action, we’ll be labeled the aggressors,10 and be accused of libeling Shechem in order to start a war. If that happens, the surrounding nations will surely join Shechem to fight us!”

Levi, forever optimistic, said, “What about Shechem’s government? There must be someone there who’s sympathetic to us, and if not, certainly there are those who would be willing to accept money in exchange for their help.”

Judah had thought of that already. “All political avenues—both direct and indirect—are sealed tight. In fact, many of the officials were themselves personally involved in the kidnapping, and those who were not have sworn to back Shechem to the death.11 I’m afraid we’re in this alone.

“Just so you know, we have strong reason to believe that Shechem kidnapped Dinah in the hope that we would fight back and get killed in action, so that he could add our family fortune to his personal treasury.”12

This was too much for Simeon. He jumped up and yelled, “Enough is enough! We’re left with no choice but to fight the Hivites. That’s the only way we’ll ever see Dinah alive again. Who even knows how they’re treating her as we speak . . .”

Judah, back to his coolheaded self, interjected with some logic. “Although it seems that war is our only option, it’s not really an alternative. We’ll be killed before we could count to ten . . . I’m going to talk to the others. There must be another way out of this.” With that, he hurried off.

When the two were again alone, Simeon grabbed hold of Levi’s shoulders, “Join me in combat. We can do it together. If not, I fight myself!”

Moved by Simeon’s sacrifice, he replied, “I would, but it’s suicidal and therefore pointless. Of what use are we to Dinah if dead?”

His eyes smoldering, Simeon exclaimed, “Enough with the calculations! I’d rather die trying to save Dinah than live knowing that I did nothing to help rescue her from those animals.

“I’d rather die trying to save Dinah than live knowing that I did nothing to help her . . .”

“Listen carefully. If you think this was a random act of terror, you are dead wrong. Shechem did what he did only because he knows we are Hebrews,13 and that we have a lot of enemies who want us dead. He thinks that Jewish blood is cheap. And judging by the “overwhelming” reaction he received, his sentiment is confirmed. No one is ready to stand by us in our time of need. If we don’t act now, there will be no end to the attacks on our people. If we don’t put an end to these crimes of hate—yes, of hate—then our future generations will continuously be hounded by those who realize that they can get away with spilling our blood . . .”

Levi understood that Simeon’s assessment was on target. “I’m in,” he passionately exclaimed. “Even if it means sacrificing my life. There comes a time when we must stop thinking about ourselves and do for others, whatever the price. Who knows what difference our act of standing up to evil will have on the entire world! Let’s work out a plan . . .”

What’s in It for Me?

Today’s youth are often defined as passive and indifferent. Passion and zeal are for fanatics, and words like universal awareness, responsibility and accountability often ring hollow. The peace symbol, if at all recognized by our children, belongs to a different era. Self-sacrifice has been replaced by self-worship. Even atheists are dwindling, outnumbered by those who simply don’t care.

Instead there’s the I-Pod, I-Tunes, I-Phone and MySpace.

Forgive me if I have understated my case.

The time has come to reclaim our youth.

Youth is the engine of the world. Responsibility and sacrifice is what fuels that engine

If we want our children to rejoice instead of mourn their heritage, we must ignite in them a spark. If we want their hearts to beat with faith in G‑d and a love for mankind, we must impart Simeon’s fire, and stoke it until we see it mirrored in the eyes of our children.

If we want our children to care and share, to look beyond themselves and into another, we must bring them up in the image of the first bar mitzvah boys.

Youth is the engine of the world. Responsibility and sacrifice is what fuels that engine.

Few are called upon to stand up to mighty empires; but regardless of one’s calling, ignoring it is just not an option.


Genesis Rabbah 80:10.


See Rashi to Nazir 29b.


Genesis 34:1–2, 7.


See commentary of Ohr Hachaim.


For an elaborate explanation regarding Jacob’s view and the meaning of his admonishment of his sons, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp. 150ff. It is absolutely clear, based on numerous textual and midrashic inferences, that Jacob—and G‑d!—agreed that the act was justified. Jacob took issue only with the manner in which their actions were done.


Though I rely on a measure of conjecture in putting together the pieces, the details of the following narrative are firmly based on the biblical text and commentaries.


Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 9:14) is of the opinion that according to the universal Seven Noahide Laws, Shechem and his nation were guilty of a capital crime for not fulfilling the seventh law of the Noahide Code: establishing courts of law and a justice system.


See Ma’asei Hashem. This might be inferred from the words of Simeon and Levi themselves, when they responded to their father’s rebuke by saying, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” Meaning, should we have allowed the rumor Shechem spread, that Dinah is a harlot, to go unanswered?


See Sefer HaYashar, that the war Simeon and Levi fought was done in self-defense.


See Ohr Hachaim.


See Midrash Lekach Tov and Sforno, among others. This is implied in Shechem’s words to the Hivites when he tried to convince them to circumcise themselves as per the condition of Simeon and Levi: “Their flocks and their possessions and all of their cattle will be ours.”


See commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and of Abarbanel (the latter himself a victim of anti-Semitism, having been expelled from Spain in 1492).

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Mandy Detroit September 5, 2017

One source say that she was 15. Reply

Anonymous Washingtom DC December 24, 2015

I hope Rabbi Kalmenson can reflect on what he wrote and change his mind. I certainly do not want our children to emulate the thoughts the Rabbi ascribed to them, or more generally their actions as a result of their anger. The Rabbi puts words into Simeon and Levi mouths that are pure demagoguery, the types that have been used in history and, unfortunately, the present to stir up hatred and wars among people. Most of the Commentaries that I have seen point out that the actions of the two brothers were wrong for many reasons. Reply

Nicole TX, usa December 6, 2014

teenager time I see almost all of the media today aimed directly at teens, and like said in the article - self worship. they show all of these teens in a very brainwashing way that if they do not have all the evil twisted ,fake ,materialistic, lazy, egotistical, cold ways - that they are nothing. that is the reason why I don't use facebook anymore, i don' t watch what teens my age would watch, and i don't look for answers and guidance in those twisted & vain worldly things- i seek & pray guidance from our eternal glorious G-d.
taking part in those things is not only a big waste of time, but sucks out the health of our soul and gives no good nourishment that our souls dearly need. Reply

Chasha Jerusalem November 25, 2012

Now, in Germany, they are about to do a final vote on whether to allow ritual [religious] circumcision. How apt for the Parsha to discuss it. We have to live with the times.
Shimon and Levi were only 14 and 13 years old, respectively.
As to Dina's age, one opinion says she was 8 years old and one month. Another opinion claims she was 6. Reply

CH. europe November 25, 2012

Please send it to the Israeli goverment they need to study this ! And we see it also in WWII what can happen when people don't stand for justice. And it was only 70 years ago! Nice lesson and so true as is the whole Torah. Reply

annaniyah mickens orlando, florida December 9, 2011

dinah if the brothers were about 13, how old was dinah? according the the scriptures she was born last. Reply

Ron Faulk Leesburg, Fl. December 8, 2011

A Time to Kill Circumcision is the sign of covenant between G-d and man. If those not in covenant with G-d are also circumcised, doesn't that weaken the covenant by assimilation? How fitting for Chanukah! Reply

HappyMinyan Ma''ale Adumim, Israel December 8, 2011

Not being didactic Perhaps Torah is not being didactic. There is the time to kill and a time to bemoan that it had to be done, that we are moved to take life, that we are compelled to do what we wish we did not have to. Reply

Yaakov Nahum Ben-Avraham Vancouver, Canada December 7, 2011

A Time to Kill How can a pair of 13 year old kids kill all (every last one of) the inhabitants of Shechem by themselves unaided??

p.s. There was only one Goliath for David. Reply

Phillip Zezulak Bloomingdale, IL December 17, 2010

Simeon and Levi were wrong Simeon and Levi acted against Jacob's wishes, his moral code, and his G-d. Jacob rebukes them. "Shim'on and Levi are brothers, related by weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let my honor not be connected with their people; for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they maimed cattle. Cursed be their anger, for it has been fierce; their fury, for it has been cruel..." This is not praise for moral courage, but condemnation. Isn't maiming cattle a violation of later Kosher laws? The boys were acting like psychopaths and dad was ashamed. Jacob was a holy man who had two unholy children. Moses doesn't even mention Simeon in his blessing. Because, he is evil. Levi must have repented and G-d must have forgivin him. But even Moses was still affected with anger issues. This sin was passed down, sadly. The lesson is, no one should ever give into cruel anger, especially not anyone in the service of G-d. Reply

Florence Medford November 17, 2010

A Time To Kill "Methinks thou dost protest too much." Reply

Anonymous oak park, mi November 17, 2010

bar mitzvah boys How could Shimon and Levi BOTH be 13? Reply

Orit Bethesda., MD December 29, 2009

Moral Acts Is Simeon and Levi's conspiracy to sell their brother Joseph into slavery out of jealousy and for their own profit also justified and a practice we should encourage our sons to continue? After all, it is said to have been in G-d's plan and so perhaps hurting others is justified when the ends serve our purposes.(like gaining land for our people)? Reply

Laura St. Louis, MO December 5, 2009

Dinah Wasn't Dinah the youngest? How old would she have been if her older brothers were 13 and 14? Reply

Miriam Blizinsky Brooklyn, N.Y. December 4, 2009

PARSHA MENDY! How nice. Reply

Anonymous December 4, 2009

perhaps I got one angle about Jacob that i like regarding the slaughter undertaken by Shimon and Levi. i was told that Jacob knew what they were going to do. They based this on the holiness and devkut (closeness to G-d ) of Jacob. He too knew what his righteous boys had to do, and the boys knew that G-d knew the plan too. Some commentators thought that killing the Shechmites was like killing Jews because they had been circumcised, and thus pained Jacob. My source figured that Jacob would have known if they were jews before the whole incident, again, devkut. Circumcision did not make them Jews. Jacob was likewise not so worried about more armies that they would have to combat. Again, devkut. my best guess is that it bothered Jacob because it was so unnecessary for Shechem to bring it down on his people.
Still open to other possibilities outside of those in the Gutnick Edition of Chumash. Reply

Yosef Moker Shabbos Chapel Hill, NC December 3, 2009

Wonderful way of explaining the parsha Thank you. I like the part between Shimon and Levi. It helps a lot Reply

Anonymous wc December 3, 2009

bar mitzvah age I agree with the source for Bar Mitzvah age 13. At the same time i disagree with the invective aimed at our youth, our children. Many friends decry the ways of their children. And our parents had the same disapproval when we were young. It's called the generation gap. The great Rabbis, Sages and parents of times past generally see the next generation as inferior. You dislike iPhone ? Why did you leave out cell phone ? The children you describe are going to cure cancer, cure Alzheimers, pay off trillions in debt we've created, clean up the environment we have polluted, pay tax dollars for our welfare in old age, etc. You laud Shimon and Levi. No problem for me. But why was jacob livid with his two sons ? Not only was Jacob ticked at the time, he kept kvetching about it to his deathbed !
Setting my opinions aside, the commentaries i read about this episode are all over the map. First time I have encountered something akin to embarrassment. May not be the last i suppose. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman November 30, 2009

Re: Same age Shimon was not yet fourteen and Levi had just turned thirteen. Reply

Yair Schatz Amherst, MA November 30, 2009

Appropriate response I agree that we should let our passion burn and pursue justice, that Shechem deserved punishment. I also think that the actions of Shimon and Levi outweigh the evil committed by their victims. I learned that one error in Palestinian rocket fire is that they respond to economic hardship with violence. The two are not comparable. I think that this article should also include the end of the story, since it has the beginning and middle, when Jacob reprimands his sons after seeing their horrific and disproportionate actions. I truly believe in justice, but we must remember in punishments that, at maximum, an eye for an eye... On the other hand, good deeds should be responded to in the manner of Shimon and Levi, by repaying a hundredfold with good actions.
May perfect peace ensue on Earth and may the work of our hands bring the coming of Moshiach. Reply

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