A Tribute to the Blasphemer's Mother: Shelomit, Daughter of Divri
Do We Need a Mother’s Day?
My husband and I have a disagreement about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. To him these are silly Hallmark holidays, commercial fabrications made to sell greeting cards. Fine, I say, but anything that can get people to pause for a moment and think about their mothers and fathers in a nice way can’t be all bad. I am a mother. I like the attention and respect. He retorts that people should be respectful and nice to their mothers and fathers every day, in keeping with the Ten Commandments. That may be so, I say. Still, people need special occasions to remind them to do the right thing.
Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23), which describes the various festivals of the Jewish calendar, demonstrates the usefulness of holidays and special observances in reinforcing core values. But Judaism has no specific holiday dedicated to parenthood and the need to respect it, only penalties for failing to do so. Maybe Hallmark has something to offer us, then, in providing us with formal occasions to honorably acknowledge mothers and fathers.
Parshat Emor does, however, include a story in which a mother is given remarkable mention:
ויקרא כד:י וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּנָּצוּ בַּמַּחֲנֶה בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית וְאִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי. יא וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה דָן. יב וַיַּנִּיחֻהוּ בַּמִּשְׁמָר לִפְרֹשׁ לָהֶם עַל פִּי יְהוָה.
Leviticus 24:10 And there came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite man.11 The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan—12 And he was placed in custody, until the decision of YHWH should be made clear to them.
יג וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃ ידהוֹצֵא אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְסָמְכוּ כָל הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה׃ …
13 And YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. …
כג וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיּוֹצִיאוּ אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ אָבֶן וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה׃
23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as YHWH had commanded Moses.
The Name Shelomit bat Divri
This story might seem like an unlikely place from which to cull a Mother’s Day message, to say the least. But it is notable that the protagonist is identified by his mother’s name:
וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי, לְמַטֵּה-דָן.
–Now his mother’s name was Shelomit, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.
Such identifications rarely appear in the Bible. One exception is the case of the matriarch Rebecca, who is referred to as רִבְקָה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם, “Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram.” Even closer to the formulation in the present passage is the one used to identify the kings of Israel and Judah:
______ ושם אמו ______ בת ______ מ
“his mother’s name was ______, daughter of ______, of______.”
For example, King Josiah (יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ) of Judah is introduced as follows:
מלכים ב כב:א בֶּן שְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנָה יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ בְמָלְכוֹ וּשְׁלֹשִׁים וְאַחַת שָׁנָה מָלַךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ יְדִידָה בַת עֲדָיָה מִבָּצְקַת׃
2 Kings 22:1 Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath.
Given the anonymity of the blasphemer himself, why is his mother mentioned with such extraordinary specificity? Is there something of consequence that we may glean from her name, something that brings worthy mention to mothers and women’s speech? The traditional exegetes offer various unflattering interpretations of Shelomit’s name. I’d like to share some of these before presenting my own, somewhat different, take.
Vayikra Rabbah: Shelomit as a Flirt
Vayikra Rabbah Emor 32:5 explains that Shelomit bat Divri is mentioned by name to demonstrate that the apple—in the form of a son ready and willing to curse God—doesn’t fall very far from the tree:
ושם אמו שלומית בת דברי למטה דן, שלומית, דאמר ר’ לוי דהות פטטא בשלמא שלם לך שלם לכון בת דברי אמר ר’ יצחק שהביאה דבר על בנה
And his mother’s name was Shelomit the daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan (Lev 24:11). She was called Shelomit because, as R. Levi said, she was very free with her greetings [to men], saying “Shalom to you,” and “Shalom to you.” Bat Divri, because she brought destruction (dever) on her son.
According to this midrash, the blasphemer’s mother stands out for her excessive friendliness to men. She is called Shelomit because she is indiscriminate in her associations, offering greetings and prating promiscuously with every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
This midrash assumes that the name Bat Divri calls to mind the verb לדבר, “to speak,” which might be taken to indicate that Shelomit is a flirt or gossip. But the interpretation given by R. Levi suggests even worse: she is a destructive force, a plague like דבר, “destruction” or “pestilence,” which was meted out on Egypt—an association that highlights her son’s half-Egyptian lineage.
Rashi: Shelomit as a Strumpet
Rashi (on Leviticus 24:11) takes this midrashic tradition one step further, suggesting that Shelomit’s explicit naming designates her not just as a gossip or flirt but as a strumpet:
ושם אמו שלמית בת דברי – שבחן של ישראל שפרסמה הכתוב לזו, לומר, שהיא לבדה היתה זונה:
And his mother’s name was Shelomit the daughter of Divri: It is to praise Israel that her name was publicized, to say that she, and only she, was a harlot.
In other words, Shelomit is mentioned by name, and not merely called “an Israelite woman,” to distinguish her from the other women of Israel, who do not share her bad character.
How crushing to think that the Torah takes the trouble to mention this mother’s name only to label her a whore!
A Quest for Justice: The Backstory
To begin to rehabilitate Shelomit’s name, let’s take a step back and consider this enigmatic story as a whole.
Sifra: Response to a Legal Dispute
Where is the son in this story going out from, and why does he end up fighting with another man and cursing God? Sifra Emor 14 attempts to fill in these gaps in the narrative with the following backstory:
ויצא בן אשה ישראלית מנין יצא מבית דינו של משה שבא ליטע אהלו בתוך מחנה דן, אמרו לו מה טיבך ליטע בתוך מחנה דן, אמר להן מבנות דן אני אמרו לו הכתוב אומר איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם יחנו בני ישראל, נכנס לבית דינו של משה ויצא מחוייב ועמד וגידף.
And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: Where did he go out from? From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan. They [the other tribesmen] said to him, what right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan? He said: I am descended from the daughters of Dan. They answered that tribal portions followed the flag or house of the father. He appealed before the court of Moses and lost his case, so he rose and reviled God.
According to this interpretation, the son of the Israelite woman, who considers himself part of the tribe of Dan, pitches his tent in the Israelite camp. In doing so, he lands himself in a fight with a pureblood Israelite who disputes his right to a tribal portion, which is a patrilineal rather than a matrilineal legacy. Moses rules against the half-Israelite, who then “goes out” from Moses’ court and, in anger at God and Moses, blasphemes.
The Daughters of Zelophehad
The backstory supplied by the Sifra calls to mind another episode in which the patrilineal system is questioned and the question is resolved through a Mosaic ruling. This episode offers another instance in which women are explicitly named and associated with speech.
במדבר כז:א וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד בֶּן־חֵפֶר בֶּן־גִּלְעָד בֶּן־מָכִיר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹת מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן־יוֹסֵף וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו מַחְלָה נֹעָה וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה…
Numbers 27:1 The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family — son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph — came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah…
ג אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר… וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ. ד לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם־אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן תְּנָה־לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ׃
3 Our father died in the wilderness. … And he has left no sons. 4 Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
ה וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָן לִפְנֵי יְהוָה׃ ווַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃ ז כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת־נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן לָהֶן׃
5 Moses brought their case before YHWH. 6 And YHWH said to Moses, 7 “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.
In this case, the association between the Hebrew word for “daughter” (בת, or, in the plural construct, בנות) and the Hebrew verb for speech (ד.ב.ר.) is wholly positive. כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת , “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just,” or “Zelophehad’s daughters have spoken rightly.” The named daughters affirmatively speak, are heard, and thus, are granted their patrimony. In contrast, the son of Shelomit bat Divri, in the Sifra’s account, goes out from Moses’ court disappointed. His matriarchal connection to Israel does not suffice to bring him his desired portion. And rather than serving as an effective tool of enfranchisement, speech condemns him to death.
Shelomit as a Struggling Single Mother
How is it that in the case of the son of Shelomit bat Divri the effort to speak goes so terribly wrong? Building on the rabbis’ desire for a credible backstory to explain this cryptic, troubling tale, I’d like to offer my own backstory about Shelomit bat Divri and the son she bore with an Egyptian man. The terse narrative of the Bible offers us no details on how this son came to be born and raised within the tribe of Dan. It is because of this lack of context that some of the midrashic authors supply accounts of harlotry. But given the context of Israelite enslavement in Egypt, is it not possible that Shelomit, like so many African American slaves who were raped and impregnated by their masters, might have been abused and used by a slavemaster or overseer, and that is how she came to give birth to the son of an Egyptian man?
According to this reading, Shelomit bat Divri was a struggling ex-slave and single mother, who labored against all odds to raise her son and shield him from the prejudices of the surrounding community. Alas, the son—whom the text presents as a בן, a “son” or “boy,” rather than an איש, a “man,” hinting, perhaps, at his not-yet or barely emergent manhood—went out of his mother’s tent and discovered that the world around him was not what he expected. He saw that he was a second-class citizen in a society of former second-class citizens, that he was not wanted among his would-be brethren. His mother may have attempted to counter and to diffuse his youthful anger when it flared. Befitting her name, Shelomit—from shalom, “peace”—she may have tried on any number of occasions to bring peace and calm and to shore up her son’s bifurcated identity.
But when איש הישראלי, a full-fledged “man of Israel,” told her son he didn’t belong, and when Moses ruled that the son’s status as perpetual outsider was ordained by God, the son succumbed to rage and cursed the God who had banished him from his assumed place among the Israelites. As Bat Divri, a daughter of speech, Shelomit may have endeavored, just like the daughters of Zelophehad, to speak up, defend her son, and demand justice for him. But tragically, she failed in her bid to save him.
An Outsider Like Moses
My effort to rehabilitate the mother of a blaspheming son may read like a blasphemy in its own right. But I would argue that this story ought to be read not as the triumphalist eradication of the sacrilegious alien but as a full-blown tragedy.
I say this bearing in mind another story of a son with a complex background who committed a capital offence and not only was rehabilitated but was even chosen as the leader of his people. I am speaking, of course, of Moses, who was born to an Israelite woman and raised as an Egyptian, and who, like Shelomit bat Divri’s son, “went out” (וַיֵּצֵא) to his brothers (Exodus 2:11) and in so doing, fell into no small amount of trouble. Moses’ early adulthood likewise included a fight between an Egyptian and a Hebrew, in his case an Egyptian taskmaster and a Hebrew slave.
Moses ends up siding with the Hebrew and killing the Egyptian. This action threatens his standing not only in the Egyptian community but also among the Hebrews. The next day, when he goes out again and sees two Hebrews fighting (נִצִּים, the same verb that appears in Leviticus 24:10), the Hebrews do not welcome his intervention.
One of them says, מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט, —“Who appointed you as a man who is chief and ruler over us?” The Hebrew man’s refusal to recognize Moses as a “man” (אִישׁ) highlights Moses’s youth, and his failure to acknowledge Moses as a leader emphasizes his outsider status.
When the word (הַדָּבָר) gets out, Pharaoh seeks to kill Moses, and he flees to Midian. Only when God calls out to him from the burning bush and assures him that his brother Aaron is happily waiting to greet him (Ex. 4:14) does Moses even consider that he has a place among and at the head of his Hebrew brethren.
Moses Recognizes Himself in Shelomit’s Son
Is it possible that if Moses is initially confused as to how to respond to this incident of blasphemy and is thus forced to consult with YHWH, it is because he recognizes in this story of an unnamed half-Egyptian, half-Israelite son his own story of a mixed Hebrew /Egyptian upbringing, of going out and winding up in a fight that goes very wrong? Is it possible that Moses sees the violence of his own past in this half Egyptian, and finds himself caught between a sense of empathy and the need to protect the honor of God?
Blasphemy and Murder
In fact, after God issues his ruling against the son of Shlomit bat Divri, he also enumerates a series of general laws, beginning with a law against blasphemy and followed by a law against murder:
ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְהוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת.
Leviticus 24:15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes God shall bear guilt. 16 And one who also pronounces the name Eternal shall be put to death. The entire community shall stone that person; stranger or citizen—having thus pronounced the Name—shall be put to death.
יז וְאִישׁ כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם מוֹת יוּמָת.
17 And if any man strikes any human being he shall surely be put to death.
The juxtaposition of blasphemy with bloodshed, using the formulation וְאִישׁ כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם, “if any man [ish] strikes any human being [nefesh adam],” calls to mind the description of Moses’s actions in Exodus 2, where he ultimately goes unpunished. Certainly, in mortally striking the Egyptian, Moses took a necessary stand against Egyptian. Still, the echoes of Moses’s earlier deeds reverberate in this episode, calling our attention to the disparity between the fates of Moses and this unnamed son who never gets a second chance.
The Struggle and Tragedy of Shelomit bat Divri and Her Son
In honor of Shabbat Parshat Emor and of Mother’s Day, I want to pay tribute to the strivings and the tragedy of Shlomit bat Divri and her shunned, executed son. I want to memorialize what I imagine as her noble if fruitless quest for peace and for efficacious, maternal speech. It is difficult to be a mother in or at any age, but it seems that this was a mother who was dealt an especially difficult hand. Unlike the stories of Moses and the daughters of Zelophehad, her and her son’s story does not end well. Nevertheless, in what I’d like to consider an act of great literary compassion or compensation, the Torah chooses to remember her by name, after the manner of Rebecca and the queen mothers of Israel and Judah.
May all mothers and fathers find the love and strength to carry out their momentous responsibilities, and may we, the mixed multitude of the people of Israel, find a way to love and embrace the many and varied members of our community.
“My Mother Baked the Whole World for Me,” by Yehuda Amichai
Musing about the sad, violent fate of the son of Shelomit Bat Divri brings to my mind a famous poem by Yehuda Amichai in which a son expresses great love for his mother and great sadness about his uncertain place in the world:
אִמִּי אָפְתָה לִי אֶת כָּל הָעוֹלָם
אֲהוּבָתִי מִלְּאָה אֶת חַלּוֹנִי
וְהַגַּעְגּוּעִים סְגוּרִים בִּי
כְּבוּעוֹת אֲוִיר בְּכִכַּר הַלֶחֶם
מִבַּחוּץ אֲנִי חָלָק וְשָׁקֵט וָחוּם.
הָעוֹלָם אוֹהֵב אוֹתִי
אַךְ שְׂעָרִי עָצוּב כַּגֹּמֶא
בַּבִּצָּה הַמִּתְיַבֶּשֶׁת וְהוֹלֶכֶת-
כָּל הַצִּפֳּרִים הַנְּדִירוֹת וִיפוֹת הַנּוֹצָה
My mother baked the whole world for me
In sweet cakes
My beloved filled my window
With raisins of stars.
And my yearnings are sealed up inside me
Like air bubbles in a loaf of bread.
On the outside I am smooth and quiet and brown.
The world loves me.
But my hair is sad like reeds
In the drying swamp –
All the rare, lovely-feathered birds
Thus far, I have been reading the story of the son of Shelomit bat Divri as a shadowy, darker version of the stories of Moses and the daughters of Zelofhad. Amichai’s poem adds another element to this reading. It explicitly points to the Moses story by way of the rare word גֹּמֶא, “reeds,” which echoes the teivat gomeh, reed basket, in which a yet-unnamed Levite mother placed her infant son to send him floating down the river (Exodus 2:3), eventually into the lap of an Egyptian princess.
But unlike the biblical stories, which give us only actions and clipped dialogue, Amichai’s poem offers a glimpse of inner, emotional words and worlds left unexplored by the biblical text. Read alongside Leviticus 24 (which also mentions baking bread), Amichai’s poem sheds light on the conflicted inner world of a doomed son whose loving mother metaphorically bakes her son the whole world and fills him with expectations of this world loving him entirely. In this display case world of her devising, the son is as smooth, quiet, and brown as a well-baked loaf of bread. But when he goes out of his mother’s kitchen, he encounters another world, not of her baking, in which, sadly, he is singled out and made to feel unwelcome. That lovely-feathered outside world rejects him for his sad, Egyptian, swamp-reed hair and flees from his sight.
Amichai’s poem strikes a tone of quiet melancholy in the face of rejection. In contrast, the story of the son of Shelomit bat Divri tells of a son who cannot stay silent, whose sadness turns to anger and who then says what he feels, hope and life be damned.
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May 10, 2017
March 18, 2020
Professor Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and her M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her B.A. from Stern College (YU). She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.
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