Yosef haTzadik and Shimon haTzadik—What’s the Connection?

This week we read Miketz, which continues to narrate the rise of Joseph. Of all the Biblical figures, Joseph alone carries the unique title haTzadik, “the righteous one”. We refer to the Patriarchs with the title Avinu, “our father”; to Moses as Rabbeinu, “our teacher”, and to his successors as haNavi, “the prophet”. Joseph stands apart as being Yosef HaTzadik. Certainly, all of the great Biblical figures were righteous, yet only Joseph carries the title.

At the same time, of all the Rabbinic figures, one is typically referred to as HaTzadik, and that would be Shimon HaTzadik, “the last of the Men of the Great Assembly” (Avot 1:2). Shimon might be considered the first or earliest Talmudic sage. The era of Zugot, “pairs” begins with him (and his student, Antigonus of Socho). His generation represented the transition from the era of Prophets to the era of Sages. So, we have two figures called “HaTzadik”, one Biblical and one Rabbinical. We know that in Judaism there are no coincidences. So, what’s the connection?

The Return of Shimon

A 1553 illustration of Simon Thassi

In the past, we explored in depth the true identity of Shimon HaTzadik. We found that the most likely case is that Shimon HaTzadik is one and the same as Shimon ben Matityahu, one of the famous Maccabees. Both were called “Shimon”, both served as kohen gadol, both were scholars associated with a Knesset, and both were presidents of Israel. It is highly unlikely that there were two people with that unique resume living in the same time period—they must be the same person! In fact, the Maccabee Shimon is referred to in the Book of Maccabees as Simon Thassi, “the just” or “the righteous”, ie. HaTzadik! With this in mind, we can properly understand the connection between Yosef HaTzadik and Shimon HaTzadik.

In this week’s parasha, we read how Joseph put his unsuspecting brothers to the test after reuniting with them many years after they abandoned him. Joseph has Shimon imprisoned while the others are sent back to Israel to summon Benjamin as proof of their story. Why did Joseph arrest Shimon specifically, and not one of the other brothers? Why not the elder Reuben? Why not the natural leader Yehudah? The answer is quite simple, since we know Shimon was Joseph’s main antagonist. It was Shimon who led the call to get rid of Joseph many years before, so much so that his proposal was to kill the brother. The Torah presents Shimon’s character as a fiery warrior, ready for battle at a moment’s notice, and capable of decimating many (as he did in Shechem). When Jacob later blessed his children on his deathbed, he had little positive to say of Shimon. Shimon’s soul needed a rectification.

And so, it appears that Shimon ben Ya’akov Avinu returns in Shimon the Maccabee. Once again, he is given an opportunity to be a fiery warrior. He is a fierce fighter that massacres the enemy Greeks at ease. In fact, he is arguably the best of the Maccabee brothers on the battlefield, and goes on to be the only one to survive the war! When looking closer, the parallels are striking. Back in Shechem, Shimon was appalled by the rape of his sister Dinah, and it is this crime that ignites his rage. In Modi’in, the Midrash tells us that the Greeks abducted the sister of the Maccabees, Hannah. Once again, Shimon and his brothers are inspired by this episode to do battle against the evil oppressors. There is a big tikkun here, for in the case of Dinah the brothers were not around and could not protect their sister, whereas in the case of Hannah they were thankfully able to save her. (The earliest source of this Midrash is in one version of Megillat Ta’anit. It also appears in Sheiltot d’Rav Achai Gaon and Midrash Ma’ase Chanukah.)

Repairing Shimon

Back in Shechem, Shimon and Levi had devised a ruse to avenge their sister: convince the Shechemites to circumcise themselves, then strike them down when they are weak. Jacob did not appreciate this subterfuge at all, and would later severely critique Shimon and Levi on his deathbed: “Let my soul not be a part of their ploy…” (Genesis 49:6) In Chanukah came another rectification, for the Greeks specifically banned circumcision, measure for measure. The Maccabees thus had to risk their own lives to ensure the fulfillment of this mitzvah, and to fight to reinstate the freedom to circumcise. Fittingly, Shimon the Maccabee was both a “Shimon”, and a descendant of Levi (being a kohen), and was thus able to rectify his ancient ancestors.

In these ways, we see how Shimon the Maccabee beautifully repaired the life of Shimon ben Ya’akov. The brother of Yosef HaTzadik finally made up for the critical errors of his past life, and thus also earned the title of HaTzadik. In fact, he merited nearly the same success as Yosef before him. While the Maccabees couldn’t throw off the yoke of the Seleucid Greeks completely, Shimon was able to negotiate semi-autonomy, and even got Judea exempt from paying any more taxes to Greece. The Seleucids appointed him governor and strategos, their highest-ranking military title. In other words, he was a mishneh l’melekh, a viceroy like Joseph. (Even the Roman Senate recognized Shimon’s new royal status in 139 BCE.)

We might propose one last tikkun for Shimon. In his first life, Shimon sought to kill a member of his own family. Although the brothers prevented him from going through with it, this was his full intention. It is interesting to note, then, that Shimon the Maccabee, despite his great success and power—being both kohen gadol and nasi, as well as the strategos—met his end by being killed by his very own son-in-law! Shimon’s illustrious life was cut short by a trusted member of his own family who conspired against him (see I Maccabees 16:11-24). With this, the story comes full circle.

Simon Maccabeus, “Simon Thassi”, Shimon haTzadik leaves this world whole, and leaves behind a tremendous legacy, filling a central role in the Jewish chain of transmission, and being so renowned that “Shimon” became the most popular Jewish name for the next several centuries. Countless sages carried the name, from Shimon ben Shetach and Shimon ben Gamaliel, to Shimon ben Zoma and Shimon ben Azzai, not to mention Shimon bar Yochai and the rebel Shimon bar Kochva. We always read parashat Miketz around Chanukah time, further reinforcing the connection between Yosef haTzadik and Shimon haTzadik, and showing us yet again how divinely-designed the Jewish calendar is, with each weekly parasha profoundly intertwined with the events of the corresponding times and holidays.