The First Shlemiel: What’s In A Name?


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:09 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1
Haphtara: I Kings 18:46-19:21
Havdalah: 9:12 p.m. 

“An Israelite man came and took [for blatant sexual activity] a Midianite woman, in public, in the sight of Moses and all the Israelites. And when Pinchas saw it, he rose up … and took a spear and … thrust both of them through together… So the plague was stayed, [but not before] those that died by the plague were 24,000. … Now the name of the Israelite man that was slain [was] Zimri… [Numbers 25:6-9; 14-15] 

The term “shlemiel,” which is translated as a clumsy bungler, an inept or unlucky person whose endeavors usually fail, has become part of American culture, used freely, often comically, even in the sidewalk ditty famously chanted in the opening to the popular 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” The origins of shlemiel are indeed someone was seen as a failure and inept, but in ways more serious and unfortunate.

Where does shlemiel come from? The first shlemiel was Shlumiel ben-Zurishaddai (son of Zurishaddai) , the prince of the tribe of Shimon [Numbers 1:6]. This tribe was the poorest of all the tribes. As Rashi states in Vayechi, “The poor, the scribes, and the teachers of the young were from Shimon.” As Shlumiel (in Yiddish, the name Shlumiel is colloquially pronounced Shlemiel) was the prince of that tribe, his name became associated with those who were, even in those days, less economically fortunate.

But how did Shlemiel become the shlimazel (someone with invariably bad luck) to become so eternally associated with ineptitude? After all, his tribe wasn’t the only tribe with poor people.

The Midrash states that “Zimri, the prince killed by Pinchas, had three names: Zimri, son of Salu; Shaul, son of the Canaanites; and Shlumiel, son of Zurishaddai. He was called ‘Zimri’ because through excessive relations with the Midianite woman, he became like a spoiled egg.” The consonants of Zimri, when rearranged, spell muzar, or “spoiled.” He was called ‘Son of Salu’ because “his sin sullied and undermined the name of his family. He was called ‘Shaul’ because he lent himself to sin. He was called ‘son of the Canaanites’ because he acted promiscuously like a Canaanite. And what was his name? Shlumiel ben-Zurishaddai was his name” [Bamidbar Rabbah].

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin in his monumental Oznayim LaTorah, points out that Zimri started out completely righteous as Shlumiel ben-Zurishaddai, but as he became morally degenerate over time, sinning with non-Jewish Midianite and Moabite women and inciting others to sin, he became dissatisfied with his name which contained Divine associations: Shlumiel means “God’s Peace,” and Shaddai (Zurishaddai) was, along with “El,” one of the names of God.

Therefore, Shlumiel changed his name and the name of his father to names implying rebellion. ‘Shaul’ (prone to sin), and ‘Son of the Canaanites’ (acting like a Canaanite). Once he changed his name he plunged deeper into sin, and caused others to sin, whereby the Israelites gave this tribal leader yet another name, Zimri ben-Salu.

Rabbi Norman Lamm writes, “We have here in this story [are] the characteristics of the first shlemiel. Maybe he is not completely identical with what we today mean by this pejorative term, but it is close enough. And we discover that the shlemiel is not unintelligent, but what is worse, he is unwise; he is not inept as much as he is sinister.”

Rabbi Lamm calls him “egotistical … someone with courage who was willing to defy Moses himself … and he will let no one and nothing stand in his way.”

In his poem “Jehuda ben-HaLevy,” the German poet Heinrich Heine, assumed that Pinchas meant to kill Zimri and by error killed Shlemiel, establishing him as “Schlemihls [sic] the first, ancestor of all race Schlemihls.” Obviously, he wasn’t aware that the Talmud and Midrash consider Zimri and Shlemiel to be the same person.

The original Shlemiel had everything going for him. He was a respected leader of his tribe, he had a Divine name, and he was a righteous person. He changed both his and his father’s name, to sin with greater impunity. He aided and abetted others to sin, ultimately being responsible for the death of 24,000 people, and in the end was killed, as well. He had taken his good name and sullied it to no gain but to everlasting shame.

For that, he truly is a Shlemiel.

Rabbi Zev Brenner, president and CEO of Talkline Communications Network, and host of its flagship program “Talkline with Zev Brenner.”