A shlemiel is a clumsy person who always stumbles and unwittingly finds his way into mishaps. It is Yiddish slang that is meant to be a play on the word shlimazel, another Yiddish aphorism. Shlimazel is a compound of two Hebrew words, shelo-mazel, without luck. A luckless person who always stumbles. Shlemiel is a play on shlimazel. It connotes a person with even less luck than the shlimazel.
Yiddish speakers will tell you that the shlimazel is the fellow who spills his soup, and the shlemiel is the poor fellow on whom he spilled it. Luckless and clumsy as the shilmazel might be, the shlemiel is much worse. He does nothing wrong and still manages to get into trouble. He is an even worse predicament than the shlimazel who at least walks away clean. The shlemiel ends up with stained clothes.
Yiddish is filled with such idioms. For example, the klutz is the fellow who comes along and slips in the spilled soup. The shnuk is the fellow who shows up after it happened and asks what happened. The yenta is the person who runs all over town to tell everyone what happened.
The list is endless, but I want to focus on the shlemiel. Everyone else seems to be the architect of their own condition, but the poor shlemiel is guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The poor fellow has rotten luck. So why do we call him shlemiel? Most people will tell you that it is our way of showing that he has even less luck than the shlimazel, but there is more to the story.
A Noble Prince
The fact is that shlemiel is a biblical character. Moreover, he was a very special and holy person. When our ancestors were in the desert, Shelumiel son of Tzurishadai was the prince of the tribe of Shimon. All tribal princes were chosen for their noble character, scholarship, and piety. Shelumiel wasn’t clumsy in the least. He was a very impressive person as his name attests.
Shelumiel is a compound of Shalom E-l, peace of G-d. He was always at peace. No matter what happened, he never lost his equanimity. He was very different from the proverbial shlemiel.
Tzurisha-dai, his father’s name, means G-d is my rock. This tells us that Shelumiel’s equanimity was born of G-d being his rock. He never relied on himself. In every situation, he relied on G-d. He knew that if he would find a solution, it would be G-d who would have found it through him. If he would triumph over his enemy, it would be G-d who would triumph through him.
When G-d is our rock, there is no reason to fear. We are unflappable; always stable, balanced, and at peace. We are always solution-oriented, and nothing throws off. No challenge is too great to overcome, no trauma is too painful to survive, and no betrayal is too extreme to forgive. With G-d, anything is possible.
All this raises a simple question. What did Shelumiel the prince do to earn the sobriquet shlemiel? He seems to have been the very opposite of a fickle, luckless, and clumsy shlemiel.
The Moabite Princess
The answer to our question takes us back to a biblical episode. After Balak, the king of Moab, hired Bilam to curse the Jews and Bilam failed, he conspired with Moab to undo the Jews. He advised them that the strength of the Jews derives from their fidelity to G-d. If you can turn them against G-d, it would dissipate their strength and leave them vulnerable.
In this vein, he advised them to send their beautiful maidens to seduce the Jewish men. The Moabite maidens were drafted into service and were fairly successful. At least twenty-four thousand Jewish men succumbed to their wiles and betrayed their wives with the Moabite temptresses.
Tzur, one of the five powerful princes of Moab, had a beautiful daughter by the name of Kazbi. She was of noble lineage, beautiful visage, and was bedecked like a princess. In addition, she was a sorceress. Tzur knew that the greatest catch among the Jews would be Moshe. He was so bound to G-d that he would never be tempted by a simple harlot. Tzur drafted his beautiful sorceress Kazbi to seduce Moshe.
She made her way regally across the Jewish camp and drew a lot of attention, but haughtily ignored everyone as she made her way to Moshe. Moshe, as expected, didn’t spare her a glance. Disappointed, she returned home, and on her way, she passed Shlumiel’s tent. Through a pious man in his own right, Shlumiel was no match for Kazbi’s allure. He caught site of her and was smitten.
He invited her in, and knowing that he was a tribal prince, she consented. At least she would return home with second prize.
In for a penny, in for a million dollars. Shlumiel was not content to consort with Kazbi in the privacy of his tent. Once he fell for her charms, he plummeted to the very bottom. He dragged her to Moshe’s tent and challenged Moshe. If I can’t sleep with this Moabite woman, he taunted, who permitted you to marry Tziporah, your Midianite wife?
The many Jewish men who had succumbed to the wiles of the Moabite harlots saw Shlumiel as their hero. They gathered around him and there was a near revolution. Pinchas, Moshe’s nephew, acted swiftly to put down the rebellion by smiting both Shlumiel and Kazbi.
Not many people know that the tribal prince with whom Kazbi consorted was Shlumiel. The Torah introduces him as Zimri, which comes from the cognate zomer—to cut away. Shlumiel cut away from the Torah and nearly uprooted the entire nation along with him. But it was the same person. He was called Shlumiel when he was pious and unflappable, and Zimri when he succumbed to Kazbi and led a rebellion.
We now know how Shlumiel earned the sobriquet Shlemiel. Remember that the shlemiel is the fellow who walks along minding his own business and falls victim to a spill that he did not initiate. This is precisely what occurred to Shlumiel. He was sitting in his tent minding his own business oblivious to the seductions ongoing outside.
The Moabites never laid a trap for him because he was small potatoes compared to Moshe. By rights, Kazbi should have swept right past his tent with nary a glance. But Shlumiel was snared in a trap that was not laid for him. Kazbi had her sights fixed on Moshe, and Shlumiel got soiled.
Jewish tradition does not often create aphorisms in vain. There is almost always a rhyme and reason. In this case, the person whose clothes are soiled from a spill that has no relation to him suffers the precise fate of Shlumiel the prince. Hence, he is called a shlemiel. Yes, it is a play on the word shlimazel, but it is also rooted in the biblical character Shlumiel.
The moral of the story is clear. Maimonides tells us that we are affected by our environment. We must never assume that we are impervious to the influences of our environment and must always strive to live among friends who exert a positive influence on us. In turn, we must also endeavor to be a positive influence on others.
The moral is, if you don’t have a kosher environment, create one.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.