Shelomith Daughter of Dibri: the Cry of the Downtrodden

Parashat Emor presents the purification laws that oblige the high priest, and lists the holidays and their related precepts. The case of the Blasphemer is presented towards the end of the Parasha, and while the name of the Blasphemer is not mentioned, his mother is named: Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.

And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. And the son of the Israelitish woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.

The story of the Blasphemer tells about two men: a man of Israel and the son of an Israelite woman whose father is Egyptian. The two argue, and during their altercation, the son of the Israelite woman uses the Holly name and curses. The Blasphemer is brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to death by stoning. A severe punishment that is proclaimed as law: “And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemeth the Name, shall be put to death.”

Who is Shelomith Daughter of Dibri?

Midrash Tanchuma suggests that Shelomit was the wife of the Hebrew who was saved by Moses. The Blasphemer’s Egyptian father is the Egyptian taskmaster killed by Moses:

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2, 11-12).

And he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew. Who was this Egyptian? He was the father of the blasphemer… He was the offspring of the rape of Shelomith, an Israelite woman, by an Egyptian. The Egyptian was beating the Hebrew who was the husband of Shelomith the daughter of Dibri. Why was he beating him? This overseer was in charge of one hundred and twenty men, whom he would dispatch to their labors every morning, at the time of the crowing of the cock. Since he was wont to send them to their respective tasks, he would enter their homes. He noticed that Shelomith the daughter of Dibri was perfectly beautiful, without blemish, and he was anxious to possess her. (So one morning,) at the time of the crowing of the cock, after he (the Egyptian) had sent the Hebrew from his home, he had intercourse with the Hebrew’s wife, who thought that it was her husband who was still with her. Her husband returned (from his tasks) and observed the Egyptian leaving the house. He asked her: “Did he perhaps touch you?” “Yes, he did,” she replied, “but I thought it was you.” When the taskmaster learned that the man was angered by what had occurred, he forced him to work harder and would beat him.

Moses perceived through the Holy Spirit what the Egyptian had done to the man’s wife and that now he was beating her husband as well, and he said to him: “Is it not enough that you violated his wife, must you then smite him also?” … And he smote the Egyptian. With what did he smite him? he invoked the Divine Name and slew him… (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 9).

This mythic like story describes an abusive rape followed by murder, yet instead of expressing empathy towards Shelomit, Rashi blames her for the terrible development of events, suggesting that her name Dibri (Hebrew: words, talking) suggests that she was talkative and spoke to everyman therefore catching the eye and arousing the lust of the Egyptian taskmaster.

What was the Fight About?

Shelomith’s son wanted to receive a portion of a land and be accepted by the tribe. However, since lands were allocated according to the male line, Shelomit’s son was reminded of his Egyptian father and refused. The fight was over a sense of injustice coupled with protest over the social rejection.

Anger and frustration lead Shelomit’s son into rage to the degree that he lost his proper judgement, and did not think before speaking. But why would he use the Holy name and curse?

Rabbi Isaac Karo suggests that it is a common practice to bring up negative past events while quarreling. The Man of Israel reminded Shelomit’s son that Moses killed his Egyptian father by invoking the Divine name. Blinded by his anger and public humiliation, Shelomit’s son answers back with neither thought nor caution, than let’s see if I can kill you in the same way!

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) interprets Shelomit’s talkative nature in a positive way. The crowd was grievously appalled by the act of blasphemy to the degree that they were ready to stone her son to death, lynching him then and there. Shelomit protected her son against the furious crowd, demanding a trial. Though the trial failed to save her son’s life, it allowed his protest to be heard.

The Blasphemer as a Rebel

We could see the Blasphemer as a defiler who deserves to be stoned to death. This interpretation stresses the dichotomy between the holy and the secular, the Children of Israel and the gentiles. Perhaps the Sages could not condone a situation in which a Hebrew woman falls in love and has a relationship with an Egyptian, so they came up with a mythic explanation, focusing the story on blasphemy rather than social injustice.

Let us try and re-imagine Shelomit as a woman who loved an Egyptian man and bore him a son. But when her people leave Egypt, she chooses to go to the desert and follow an invisible God who decrees “Love thy neighbor.” Her name, Shelomit, holds the root for Shalom (Hebrew: peace). Yet while she hoped for freedom and peace, she ends up with loss and a the cry of the downtrodden.

The Blasphemer (1800) by William Blake

In his painting “The Blasphemer” (1800) William Blake paints Shelomit’s son at the center of the stoning scene. He is bound and naked, painted according to the artistic tradition of the great mythic heroes, the likes of Prometheus who rebelled against the gods.

Heresy in Greek suggests choosing, and blasphemy could be interpreted as an affront to authority. In this context you could see Shelomit’s son’s harsh deed as an act of protest and rebellion against injustice. Blake’s Blasphemer is not a victim, but rather an individual who challenges authority, demanding to be heard. He is angry, he is violent, and he is severely punished. Yet, his enigmatic story and his mother’s name remain in Leviticus as an invitation to hear the cry of the downtrodden, consider the harsh punishments we bestow upon whoso dares to challenge what is sacred in our eyes.

Feature Photo: The Blasphemer (1800), William Blake. Tate Museum.

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