The eldest of Noah's sons, according to the position and sequence of the names wherever all three are mentioned together; e.g., "and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth" (Gen. v. 32). In the table of nations in Gen. x., however, Shem and his posterity are placed last, probably because the compiler of that record expected to trace his descendants far down into history, while those of the other two sons were confined to early ages. Shem's prominence among the peoples of pre-Christian times may be partially suggested by the ethno-geographical table of Gen. x. For descendants see Semites.
Although Shem is unanimously declared by the Rabbis to have been the youngest son of Noah (comp. Japheth in Rabbinical Literature), yet he is always named first, being the most important of the three brothers. Indeed, he was born circumcised; he was the ancestor of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he was priest and prophet; and he was one of the eight righteous who are mentioned twice in Gen. xi. 10 and who were allotted a portion both in this world and in the world to come (Sanh. 69b; Tan., Yelammedenu, Noaḥ; Midr. ha-Gadol on Gen. ix. 18, xi. 10, ed. Schechter, cols. 142, 186). Shem is styled "the' great one" ("Shem rabba"; Sanh. 108b). According to Gen. R. xxx. 6, it was Shem who offered the sacrifices on the altar after Noah came out of the ark (comp. Gen. viii. 20), as the latter, having been crippled by the lion (see Noah in Rabbinical Literature), was unfit for the priestly office. Noah gave to Shem the priestly garments which he had inherited from Adam (Num. R. iv. 6). Shem is extolled by the Rabbis for his filial devotion in covering his father's nakedness (Gen. ix. 23). Although his brother Japheth assisted in this praiseworthy act, it was Shem who suggested and began it, his brother not arriving on the scene until Shem was already on his way with the garment. Therefore Noah, in blessing these two sons (ib. verse 27), declared, so the Rabbis think, that the Shekinah was to dwell only in the tents of Shem (Yoma 10a; Tan., Noaḥ, 21; Gen. R. xxxvii. 9; comp. Jubilees, vii. 9, where it is said that the garment was Shem's). Shem's reward for this deed is seen in the fact that the Jews, his descendants, cover themselves with the ṭallit and phylacteries, and remained untouched when the Assyrians, who also were descendants of Shem, were destroyed by an angel in the time of Hezekiah (Tan., Yelammedenu, l.c.; Ex. R. xviii. 5).Legends.
The Rabbis identify Shem with Melchizedek, King of Salem, who is termed "a priest of the Most High," and who came to meet Abraham after the latter had defeated the four kings led by Chedorlaomer (Gen. xiv. 18-20). According to this account, Shem, as a priest, came to Jerusalem (with which Salem is identified by the Rabbis), of which city he became king, it being the proper place for the establishment of the cult of
Shem is supposed by the Rabbis to have established a school ("bet ha-midrash") in which the Torah was studied, and among the pupils of which was Jacob. Later, Shem was joined by Eber; and the school was called after both of them. Besides, the school was the seat of a regular bet din which promulgated the laws current in those times. Thus Esau was afraid to kill Jacob, lest he should be condemned by the bet din of Shem and Eber. The bet din of Shem proclaimed the prohibition of and the punishment for adultery; and according to this law Judah condemned Tamar to be burned ('Ab. Zarah 36b; Gen. R. lxiii. 7, lxvii. 8). Shem's bet din was one of the three in which the presence of the Shekinah was manifested (Mak. 23b). At Abraham's death Shem and Eber marched before his bier; and they indicated the place that was suitable for his burial (Gen. R. lxii. 6, according to the emendation of the text in Yalḳ., Gen. 110). At the division of the earth among the three sons of Noah, Shem's lot consisted of twenty-six countries, thirty-three islands, twenty-six out of seventy-two languages, and six out of sixteen scripts. Thus Shem took one script more than either of his two brothers: and this was the Hebrew script, in which the Torah was written. The other five were Egyptian, Libyan, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Guṭazaki (Guzarati ?) (Midr. ha-Gadol on Gen. x. 32, col. 182).
Shem is not an individual, in the sense that one person by that name came forth with his father and brothers from the ark, and had a share in the scene described in Gen. ix. 18-27. Neither does the name in itself suggest geographical or racial entities. It recalls more probably some ethnic deity that had become the "heros eponymus" of his worshipers. As it now occurs, the name has no theophorous character; but it has been suggested that "Shem" must be considered a corruption or abbreviation of a name similar to Shemu'el (see Samuel), the element "Shem" meaning "son" in the combination. This suggestion—though none of the critics seems to have noticed it—receives a strong degree of probability from the blessing spoken over Shem (ib. verse 26). There is no doubt that the pointing of the text is incorrect. Budde proposes to omit the (which Grätz would read "ohole" = "tents"), and then vocalize: "Beruk
These oracles are always the primary elements from which the legend in which they are found embedded is a development. That Japheth also originally had a theophorous form is indicated in the oracle spoken concerning him (Gen. ix. 27; comp. the name ). It is plain that Canaan should not appear in this group. Ham is the brother of Shem; and it was he who committed the unseemly deed. The substitution of Canaan for Ham is secondary. The curse upon him (Canaan) displays the temper of the centuries when
In the table given in Gen. x. 1-xi. 9 Shem is recorded as the father of five sons, among whom are named some that are not Semites. This catalogue, however, is geographical and not ethnic. In this list of Shem's descendants (ib. x.) verses 22 and 23 are assigned to P, verse 24 to R, and verses 25-30 to J. In the last-mentioned passage the tendency to connect Shem and Eber is patent. See Semites.