Who was Shimshon, really?


The laws pertaining to the Nazirite are found in this week’s parasha: “A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of the L-rd, he shall abstain from new wine and aged wine; he shall not drink [even] vinegar made from new wine or aged wine, nor shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, and he shall eat neither fresh grapes nor dried ones” (Bamidbar 6:1-3).

Our Sages often chose a haftarah (reading from the Prophets) with an underlying theme that parallels a subject found in its associated Torah portion. Our haftarah follows this approach, and focuses upon the miraculous events preceding the birth of the most famous nazir of all time, Shimshon:

“There was one man from Tzarah, from the family of Dan, whose name was Manoach; his wife was barren and had not borne. An angel of the L-rd appeared to the woman and said, ‘Behold now, you are barren, and have not borne; and you shall conceive and bear a son. Consequently, beware now, and do not drink wine or strong drink, and do not eat any unclean thing. Because you shall conceive, and bear a son; and a razor shall not come upon his head, for a nazir to G-d shall the lad be from the womb; and he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines’” (Shoftim 13:2-5).

A number of verses later, the haftarah concludes with the birth of Shimshon and explicit statements that Hashem both blessed and rested His Divine spirit upon him: “The woman bore a son and called his name Shimshon; and the lad grew, and the L-rd blessed him. And the spirit of the L-rd began to come to him at times in the camp of Dan” (Shoftim 13:24-25).

Based upon his colorful nature and the all-too-famous incident with Delilah, Shimshon emerges as one of the most misunderstood figures in Tanach. We are indeed fortunate that our Sages address these misperceptions and reveal his authentic persona.

The Torah teaches us that two of the twelve tribes received the appellation “gur aryeh,” lion cub. Yaakov Avinu bestowed this title on Yehuda and his descendants, whereas Moshe Rabbeinu did so regarding the tribe of Dan.

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (Parashat Vayechi VII) explains “gur aryeh” as Yaakov’s blessing that Yehuda acquire “the strength of a lion and the chutzpah of a cub.” Little wonder, then, that in his commentary on this verse (Bereishit 49:9), Rashi notes that Yaakov’s use of gur aryeh prophetically refers to Yehuda’s most famous descendant, King David, who embodied both lion-like strength and great boldness.

Seven pesukim later we find Yaakov saying, “Dan will avenge his people, like one, the tribes of Israel.” Here Rashi, basing himself on a variety of passages found throughout Rabbinic literature, states: “All Israel will be like one with him, and he will avenge them all. [Yaakov] uttered this prophecy concerning Shimshon. We can explain, ‘like one, the tribes of Israel,’ as: like the special one of the tribes, namely David, who came from Yehuda.”

Rashi’s gloss underscores the Sages’ of the relationship between the tribes of Yehuda and Dan, as epitomized by their most famous descendants, King David and Shimshon. This idea is given powerful voice in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, Parashat Vayechi 14: “Yaakov Avinu saw him [Shimshon in a prophetic vision] and thought he was the Messiah.”

Clearly, Shimshon’s potential was nearly unlimited.

In my estimation, Shimshon’s status as one of the most outstanding Judges and protectors of the Jewish people is given its most powerful expression in Rabbi Yochanan’s words in Talmud Bavli, Sotah 10a: 

“Rabbi Yochanan said: Shimshon judged the Jewish people just like their Father-in-Heaven … Shimshon was named after the name of the Holy One blessed be He. As the text states: ‘For a sun [shemesh] and a shield is the L-rd G-d; the L-rd will give grace and glory; He will not withhold good from those who go with sincerity’” (Tehillim 84:12).

Rabbi Yochanan compares Shimshon to the Almighty in two respects, as an honest and forthright judge and as a true shomer Yisrael — guardian and defender of the Jewish people. In his view, this was the real Shimshon, even though he grievously erred with Delilah, among others.

I believe another aspect of Shimshon’s greatness is found in his willingness to do teshuvah, just as David HaMelech did in the wake of his involvement with Batsheva. Shimshon rose to this level when he beseeched Hashem for the strength to destroy his idolatrous Philistine captors. 

“And the [Philistines] saw him and praised their god, because they said, ‘Our god has delivered into our hands our enemy and the destroyer of our land, and who has slain many of us!’ And Shimshon called to the L-rd and said, ‘O G-d, remember me and strengthen me now, only this once, that I may be avenged the vengeance for one of my two eyes from the Philistines.’ And Shimshon grasped the two pillars upon which the house rested, and leaned upon them, one with his right hand and the other with his left, and said, ‘Let my soul die with the Philistines!’ He bent them with (his) might, and the house fell upon all the people in it. He killed in his death more than he had killed in his lifetime” (Shoftim 16:24,28-30).


When Hashem granted him this power, Shimshon was able to be mekadesh shem Shamayim b’rabim — sanctify Hashem’s name before the entire world.