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SHEM (Heb. שֵׁם), eldest son of Noah, father of the "Semitic" peoples, including the Hebrew people. The meaning of the name is uncertain. It is possibly to be explained as Hebrew, meaning "fame," "name," "appellation." The Akkadian šumu, which is the same word, means not only name but also "son." As the eldest son, Shem always appears first in the list of Noah's three sons (Gen. 5:32; 9:18; 10:10; et al.). Together with his brothers and their wives, Shem and his wife accompanied Noah into the ark at the time of the Flood (7:7), and was also present with them during the covenant made with God afterward (9:8). As an individual personality, he appears only in Genesis 9:20–27 in the episode of Noah's drunkenness when the sensitive and modest behavior of Shem and his brother *Japheth contrasts sharply with that of *Ham. For this deed Noah blessed Shem and Japheth, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; let *Canaan be a slave to them" (verses 26–27). This passage clearly foreshadows the subjection of the Canaanites and implicitly identifies Shem with the future people of Israel. It is of interest that yhwh is here called the "God of Shem" and is not cited in connection with the other two brothers. In the list of nations in Genesis 10, Shem is the father of five sons who had 21 descendants, making a total of 26 peoples derived from him. Few of these had any known connection with Israelite history and the principle of their grouping cannot be determined with any degree of certainty (10:21–31). The genealogy of Shem appears last in the table of nations because of its great importance, the order being climactic. It serves to connect the list with the birth of Abraham by drawing attention to the fact that Shem was the "ancestor of all the descendants of Eber" (verse 21). The detailed genealogy of Shem through the line of Eber is resumed in chapter 11 (verses 10–26) where it concludes with the birth of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation. Shem is not again referred to in the Bible other than in the Chronicler's repetition of the Genesis genealogies (i Chron. 1:4, 17, 24).

[Nahum M. Sarna]

In the Aggadah

Shem's importance in the aggadah is due entirely to his being Israel's ancestor. Noah's blessing of Shem (Gen. 9:26ff.) is accordingly interpreted as a blessing of Israel. Noah's execration of Canaan condemning him to be a slave to his brothers (ibid.) was used to justify Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan, for "whatever a slave possesses belongs to his master" (Sanh. 91a). Ever since the time of Hyrcanus I's victorious campaigns in Samaria and Idumea (Jos., Ant. 13:254ff.; Wars, 1:62ff.) the apologetic tendency to defend such conquests against the charges that they were aggressive acts made its appearance; and it was for the same reason that Noah was said to have distributed the world between his three sons in such a manner that Shem received the middle of the earth, including in particular the Land of Israel (Sanh. ibid.; Gen. R. 1:2; pdre 24; Mid. Ḥag. to Gen. 9:27; cf. Jubilees 8:10ff.). Although he is listed as the oldest of the three sons of Noah (Gen. 5:32; 6:10; 10:21), Shem is considered by the rabbis to have been the youngest, but yet the wisest, most important, and most righteous (Sanh. 69b; Gen. R. 26:3; 37:7 et al.). Since the primacy of younger brothers is an established motif in biblical historiography, Shem, too, had to be younger in years, but superior in every other respect. Thus, he was born circumcised (arn2, 2, p. 12; Gen. R. 26:3) – a distinction shared with some of the greatest biblical personalities (ibid., Tanḥ. B., Gen. 32; Mid. Ps. 9, 7, ed. Buber, pp. 84f.); and it was he who took the initiative to cover his father's nakedness (cf. Gen. 9:23), for which he was blessed that his (Israelite) descendants should cover themselves with the fringed tallit and that the Divine Presence should rest only in Jerusalem (Yoma 10a; Gen. R. 26:3; 36:6, 8; Tanḥ. B., Gen. 49).

Shem was also privileged to have God's name associated with his (Gen. R. 26:3; cf. Gen. 9:26). He was, moreover, endowed with the gift of prophecy, and for 400 years he prophesied to the nations of the world, but to no avail (ser, 141f.). Finally, he was identified with Melchizedek, king of Salem, who served there as high priest in Abraham's time (cf. Gen. 14:18ff.) but was deprived of this privilege in favor of Abraham because he had blessed Abraham before God (Gen. 14:19ff.; Ned. 32b; Gen. R. 26:3; 43:6; Lev. R. 25:6; Num. R. 4:8; arn op. cit). The real reason, however, was the role played by Melchizedek in Christian literature, where he became a prototype of Jesus (cf. Heb. 5:6f.; 7:15–17; cf. also Ginzberg, Legends, vol. 5, 225f., n. 102). In line with the rabbinic concept of the pre-existence of the Torah and its institutions prior to the revelation at Sinai, Shem's "tents" (Gen. 9:27) were accordingly identified as a bet midrash – an academy with which Eber, Shem's great-grandson, subsequently became associated, and which also served as a bet din (Mak. 23b; Gen. R. 36:8; 85:12; Targ. Ps.-Jon. to Gen. 9:27 and 25:22). It is said that Israel's Patriarchs studied at the academy of Shem and Eber (Targ. Ps. Jon, to Gen. 24:62 and 25:27; Gen. R. 63:10), and that students of the Law will be privileged to study in the world to come at the heavenly academy of Shem, Eber and other heroes of Israel (Song R. 6:2 no. 6; Eccles. R. 5:11 no. 5).

[Moses Aberbach]


A.H. Sayce, Races of the Old Testament (1891), 38–66; L. Rost, in: Festschrift A. Alt (1953), 169–78; S. Simons, in: ots, 10 (1954), 155–84; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (1964), 216–24; A. Reubeni, Ammei Kedem (1970). in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 1 (19422), 161–74, 274, 332; 5 (19476), 181–2, 187, 192ff.; 7 (1946), 434.

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Shem (in the Bible) a son of Noah (Genesis 10:21), traditional ancestor of the Semites.