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Shelumiel — The First Schlemiel?

In the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, a leafy residential lane bears the name Yitzhak Crémieux Street. If that name sounds only half-familiar, perhaps the name Adolphe Crémieux rings a louder bell? A prominent Jewish political figure in 19th-century France, Crémieux combined a long career in elective office with service to the Jewish community, including a term as president of the Central Jewish Consistory. He no doubt bore his name proudly, but when it came time to reassign street names in Israel’s new capital in the post-Holocaust years, Crémieux’s first name was tastefully replaced by his Hebrew name. Sometimes even a personal name takes on a certain taint, and gradually — or suddenly — falls out of use.

In an Israeli argot now somewhat dated, a “Yoram” is a rich, nerdy Ashkenazic kid. Never mind that the most famous Israeli carrying a form of that name, entertainer Yehoram Gaon, is a broad-shouldered, deep-voiced man from a prominent Sephardic family; the name became polluted as if it carried a cultural contagion and dropped out of sight around 1970.

So it is with one of the 12 chieftains of the tribes of Israel named in our portion this week, Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai of the tribe of Shim‘on (Numbers 1:6). His cognomen seems to underlie the Yiddish term for a chronically hapless loser, “schlemiel.” What his parents had in mind we may venture to translate as “God is my well being” or (with New York University scholar Baruch Levine) “El is my ally.” But what their son wound up with is a name that no one would saddle a child with today.

It is not only speakers of Yiddish who know the term in its mocking, pejorative sense. So do readers of 19th-century German author Adalbert von Chamisso, who gave an unlucky character the name Peter Schlemihls under the influence of the Yiddish, or of ETA Hoffmann, who employed the term in a story used by Offenbach in his opera “The Tales of Hoffmann.” North Americans too know the term and the comic figure it depicts so well that they became the subject of a book by literary historian Ruth Wisse, “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero” (University of Chicago Press, 1971). In contemporary Hebrew, to do something in Shelumielesque fashion means so inept as to be destined hopelessly to fail.

How the term schlemiel entered Yiddish as an insult is the subject of some speculation. One suggestion relates to the arcane permutations of the Hebrew calendar. On Hanukkah a different section of Numbers 7 is recited daily, recounting the gifts of the tribal chieftains who each brought a daily offering at the dedication of the Tabernacle (mishkan). On the first day of Hanukkah, the first chieftain’s name appears at the beginning, on the second day the second chieftain’s name, and so on. (On the eighth day, the gifts of chieftains 8-12 are read.)

The exception is the Sabbath during Hanukkah, when the Torah portion is that of the regular weekly cycle and the added maftir reading from a second scroll is the Hanukkah reading beginning with the daily chieftain. Only one day of Hanukkah’s eight never falls on a Sabbath: the fifth day. And which chieftain therefore never stars on the Sabbath, when the synagogue is far better attended than on a midwinter weekday morning? Why, Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai, of course. Who else?

One can only marvel: A mind honed on talmudic discourse, combing piles of data for a pattern, connects a negligible detail of the synagogue lectionary cycle with the puzzling biblical etymology of a Yiddish term. But can that be its true origin?

Another stab at a solution plays on a talmudic midrash (Sanhedrin 82b) identifying Shelumiel with Zimri, another prominent member of the tribe of Shim’on. Zimri had a sordid public affair with Cozbi, a Midianite princess, for which he was done in at sword point by Aaron’s grandson Phinehas (Numbers 25). Zimri was not the only one engaged in such an illicit relationship, some wags have suggested. He was just the one who was unlucky enough to get caught and made an example of. An inventive suggestion, but probably not what Rabbi Yohanan had in mind when he suggested that those two characters are one.

A 19th-century Austrian Jewish scholar and writer, Marcus Weissmann-Chajes, suggested a third explanation in his charmingly named collection, “Osem Bosem” (“Treasury of Perfume”). Genesis Rabbah records that “most poor people were of the tribe of Shim’on,” and Shelumiel was its chieftain. That alone makes his name the eponym for a guy down on his luck.

With no convincing explanation, we can only wonder: Did Shelumiel really morph into schlemiel, and why? And whose name will be the next to be shunned?

Rabbi Peretz Rodman teaches at Hebrew College Online and at the Rothberg International School of The Hebrew University. He is on the staff of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar-Ilan University.

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