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Notes from Newcastle Day Limmud 2007

Reuben's Sin: Did he or didn't he?

Rabbi Dovid Lewis

[Unfortunately in the excitement of giving my talk, I lost my handouts for two of the talks I attended, so some of the below is without Hebrew.]

There are seventy faces to the Torah; seventy ways of interpreting every word. It's not the answer in the end that's important, it's the journey getting there.


Genesis 35:22 בראשית לה כב
It came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it <intra-sentence paragraph break> Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. ויהי בשכן ישראל בארץ ההוא וילך ראובן וישכב את בלהה פילגש אביו וישמע ישראל      פ     ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר׃

"It came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land" This was just after Rachel has died in childbirth and Benjamin has been born.

Several things jump out at us here. What has Reuben done? He's not been kicked out of the house, and the next verse—"The sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun"—tells us he's still considered the firstborn. If he's done something wrong, why has he not been punished? And if he hasn't, what does it mean that he slept with Bilhah?


Onkelos, an early interpretation of the text, from the early second century CE, in Aramaic:

Rabbi Yehudah [twelfth century] sees Onkelos as translating וישכב את בלהה and not עם as it was in some of the chumashim of his time, i.e. specifying that Reuven did not sleep with Bilha but rather only next to her. וְהַוָה כַּד שְׁרָא יְשׂרָאֵל בְּאַרְעָה הַהִיא וַאַזַל רְאוּבֵן וּשׁכִיב ית [עִם] בִּלְהָה לְחֵינָתָא דְאַבוּהִי וּשׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַווֹ בְנֵי יַעַקֹב תְּרֵי עַסַר׃

This interpretation is based on the incredulity that one of the patriarchs could possibly be naughty! So he tries to smooth it away. What's interesting is that if you look at the current texts of Onkelos, some texts have that he slept with her, and some that he slept next to her. Who knows what the original text read! We can't emend the text of the Bible, but perhaps someone has emended the text of Onkelos's interpretation of the text.

Do we have a different moral standard to G-d? The Biblical text Targum Jonathan, a little earlier than Onkelos, reads as follows: Jonathan likes to embellish the text slightly to give us a better understanding of what's going on.

And it was when Israel was dwelling in that land, and Reuven went and rearranged/disarrayed the bed of Bilha, his father's concubine... and it was considered as if he had (literally) slept with her. וַהֲוָה כַּד שְׁרָא יִשְרָאֵל בְּאַרְעָא הַהוּא וַאֲזַל רְאוּבֵן וּבִלְבֵּל יַת מַצְעָא דְבִלְהָה פְּלַקְתֵּיהּ דְאָבוֹי דַהֲוָה מְסַדְרָא כָּל קָבֵיל מַצְעָא דְלֵאָה אִמֵי וְאִתְחַשֵׁיב עִילוֹי כְּאִלוּ שִׁימֵשׁ עִמָהּ

This totally removes the word "lie with" from the text. But since the Biblical text does actually say this, Jonathan has to accommodate this, as the above does.

"...and Israel heard." And was worried. Abraham had Ishmael. Isaac had Esau. Was he going to have a son who slept with his wife? But a voice came down from heaven and said "Do not worry; he is your son as much as any other." Hence the next verse: Reuven was still the firstborn. וּשְׁמַע יִשְרָאֵל וּבְאִישׁ לֵיהּ וְאָמַר וַוי דִלְמָא נָפַק מִינִי פִּיסוּלָא הֵיכְמָא דְנָפַק מִן אַבְרָהָם יִשְׁמָעֵאל וּמִן אַבָּא נְפַק עֵשָו מְתִיבָא רוּחָא דְקוּדְשָׁא וְכֵן אָמַר לֵיהּ לָא תִדְחַל דְכֻלְהוֹן צַדִיקִין וְלֵית בְּהוֹן פִּיסוּלָא דְמִבָּתַר דְאִתְיְלִיד בִּנְיָמִין הֲווֹ בְּנֵי יַעֲקב תְּרֵיסַ׃

This seems to be taking us further and further away from the plain meaning of the text. Why did these interpreters do this?


Megilla 25b:
The story of Reuven is read but not translated. מעשה ראובן נקרא ולא מתרגם

In Alexandria they didn't even read in Hebrew; they only read in translation. In other places they read the translation.

The story of Lot sleeping with his two daughters is translated. The story of Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law Tamar is translated. But yet the story of Reuven sleeping with Bilhah is not! Why is this the case? Because it's not just naughty, it's bad; it's immoral.

Shabbat 55b
Anyone who says that Reuben sinned is in error, as it is said, "it came to pass the twelve sons of Jacob." This teaches that all of their voices were as one. But [?how should I explain] "And he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine". This teaches that he disarrayed the bed of his father, and [?the text treats it] as if he lay with her. כל האומר ראובן חטא אינו אלא טועה שנאמר ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר מלמד שכולן שקולים כאחת׃ אלא מה אני מקיים וישכב את בלהה פילגש אביו מלמד שבלבל מצעו של אביו ומעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו שכב עמה׃
[Bad translation by me.]
Shabbat 55b שבת נה ב
That Tzaddik [Reuven] was saved from that sin. His intention was to avenge his mother’s honour—so he merely rearranged the beds. [The Talmud actually states that ‘He thereupon rose and disturbed Leah’s bed [by moving Jacob’s bed to her tent]’.]

There's only one sin which is called "that sin."

After Jacob's beloved Rachel died, the obvious place for Jacob to move his bed to was that of Leah. But Jacob moved it to Bilhah's. Reuven took umbrage at this, at his mother being honoured less than his mother's sister's handmaid.

If you're tempted to simply skip over the verse, the Book of Chronicles states it more overtly:

1 Chronicles 5:1-5:2 דברי א ה א־דברי א ה ב
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but forasmuch as he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright. For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright was Joseph's.) ובני ראובן בכור ישראל כי הוא הבכור ובחללו יצועי אביו נתנה בכרתו לבני יוסף בן ישראל ולא להתיחש לבכרה׃         כי יהודה גבר באחיו ולנגיד ממנו והבכרה ליוסף׃

The Mediaeval Commentators


‘And He Slept’ Because he disarrayed his [father’s] bed, Scripture considers it as if he slept [with Bilha]. Why did he rearrange and desecrate the beds?

For when Rachel died, Yaakov took his [marital] bed (which resided permanently in Rachel’s tent—and not in the other tents) and placed it in the tent of Bilha. Therefore Reuven came to avenge the honour of his mother, stating: ‘if my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, shall the maidservant of my mother’s sister be a rival to her’. He therefore disarrayed [Bilha’s bed].

You'd have thought there's no two ways you can translate וישכב? Not according to Rashi. Where Onkelos says "it was considered", Rashi says "Scripture considers it." Because a righteous man is judged to a higher standard: the difference between what's good or bad is as narrow as the breadth of a human hair. (Cf. Moses being banned from entering the land because he struck the rock.)

But even so:

And the sons of Jacob were 12. This teaches us that they were all equal, and all righteous, for Reuven did not sin.

Rashbam (an eleventh-century grandson of Rashi):

And Jacob heard. This is written to help us understand Jacob’s death-bed blessing [and rebuke] to Reuven. [Gen. 49:4]

Whatever Reuben did did not go unnoticed: Reuben does not get a blessing on Jacob's death-bed. But why did he go unpunished until then? The commentators are stuck between a rock and a hard place; whichever way they choose they're going to have to...

Ibn Ezra (12th century):

And Reuven went. As our Rabbis taught—‘but a clever man conceals his shame’ [Prov. 12:16].

He went because he was wrong! Ibn Ezra sees there was something wrong here, but doesn't say what.

Nachmanides (13th century):

And Israel heard. Scripture is relating [Jacob’s] humility. For although he heard of his son’s defilement, he did not expel him from his house nor exclude him in the number of his sons nor did he exclude him from his inheritance, but in fact he counted him with his sons to the extent of counting him as number one.

According to the פשט it is possible that Reuven confounded Bilha’s bed [by lying with her] from a fear that she should not bear any more children to Jacob, for he was the firstborn and feared for his double birthright inheritance. Therefore in ‘measure for measure’ punishment the birthright was taken away from him. And this is the meaning of And the sons of Jacob were 12, that Jacob did not go to Bilha and no more sons were born.

Nachmanides does not vindicate Reuben. He reads Scripture black and white, with no grey area in the middle. Reuven’s sin—physically cohabiting with Bilha—was for personal & monetary gain. Jacob has gone to Bilha because she reminds him of her mistress, the recently deceased Rachel. This makes Reuben's sin even worse! Nachmanides says if there's any problem to be resolved, you go to Scripture, not to the Aramaic targumim.

If the second part of the verse is literal, then the beginning of the verse has got to be literal too.

Rachel was dead, Leah was past childbearing age, and Nachmanides assumes Zilpa likewise. Hence he slept with his stepmother from having any more children.

Why would Reuben think there would be more children? We know there was a (midrashic) prophecy there would be twelve sons. We're already up to that number: eight by Leah, two each by each of the handmaidens, and two by Rachel. But Reuben has another prophecy; he knows a bit too much for his good. He knows that Ephraim and Menashe will be considered to be tribes of their own right. He knows there will be two more children coming from Rachel. But Rachel's died, so surely these children must come from her handmaid. Therefore he sleeps with Bilha to stop this happening. But it still happens: Reuben loses his birthright, and the two children from Rachel are born in the next generation instead, to Joseph.

So according to the Talmud, Reuven hasn't sinned, but let's not translate the verse in case anyone thinks he was a naughty boy. Rashi says he didn't sleep with her, but deliberately gave the impression he had; or even just moved his father's bed to his mother's bed. According to Nachmanides, Scripture was literal, and Reuven slept with his stepmother; because of this Jacob does not sleep with Bilhah again, and Reuven loses his birthright.

The consequences

So, what are the consequences? In Scripture, it seems at that time as if he gets away scot-free. But, on Jacob's deathbed, he brings the issue back up:

Genesis 49:4 בראשית מט ד
Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch. פחז כמים אל תותר כי עלית משכבי אביך אז חללת יצועי עלה׃

Even if the only thing Reuven did was move the bed, he still did something he shouldn't have:

פחז is a hapax legomenon in Torah (though it does turn up three more times in Scripture). Every time it's brought, it has sexual connotations. Because of his behaviour, Reuven loses everything: he doesn't get the double birthright, because that goes to Judah; he doesn't get the kingship, because that goes to Benjamin, and he doesn't get the priesthood, because that goes to Levi.

Onkelos is lenient:

Because you followed your nose like water although you did not benefit, the extra portion you will not take, because you removed your father's sleeping abode, therefore you defiled my couch. My son you have removed yourself! עַל דַּאֲזַלְתְּ לָקֳבֵיל אַפָּךְ הָא כְּמַיָּא בְּרַם לָא אַהְנֵיתָא חוּלָק יַתִּיר לָא תִּסַּב, אֲרֵי סְלֵיקְתָּא בֵּית מִשְׁכְּבֵי אֲבוּךְ; בְּכֵין אַחֵילְתָּא, לְשִׁיוָיִי בְּרִי סַלֵּיקְתָּא׃

The word פחז gives problems in the midrash. The people mentioned in it are contemporaneous with the rabbis of the Talmud. The same names are there in the Talmud, but their way of reading it is different; they say it should be פָּחַזְתָּ rather than פַּחַז, so they make it into an acronym:

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 98:

From your impetuousness you sinned and committed adultery

Rabbi Yehoshua said: You threw off the yoke of Heaven, you profaned my couch for your evil inclination overpowered you.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: You trampled on the law [of the Kohen], you became liable with your birthright and became a stranger unfit for your inheritance.

You prayed, you entreated and your prayer shone forth

Rabbi Eliezer haModai explained: You feared to sin and trembled before the Almighty, therefore [even the thought of] sin was removed from your head.

רבי אליעזר ור' יהושע רבי אליעזר אמר: פחז"ת, חטא"ת, זני"ת׃ רבי יהושע אמר: פרק"ת עול, חלל"ת יצועי, ז"ע יצרך עליך׃

רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אמר: פסע"ת על דת, חבת"ה בבכורתך, ז"ר נעשית למתנותיך׃ אמרו: עד עכשיו אנו צריכין למודעי! בא ר' אליעזר המודעי ופירש, זע"ת, חרד"ת, פר"ח חטא מעל ראשך׃

Reuven sinning there is in direct contradistinction to Joseph, who resisted temptation with Potiphar's wife.

Rabbi Gamliel exonerates Reuven. Though possibly he only prayed after he sins. R. Eliezer haModai exonerates him completely?

So did Reuven actually sin? Who knows? But R. Lewis's heart tells him: He doesn't want to see Reuven sin.

If he actually did it doesn't seem right that a patriarch should do that. Secondly he doesn't get away scot-free, as even though he keeps the title of the birthright, he loses all the privileges that go with it.

So how to cope with the fact a patriarch sinned so badly? Our patriarchs in Judaism are not role-models; they are fallible people. Nevertheless, we can still learn from their behaviour. The Talmud says Reuven was the first person to do תשובה, to undergo repentance. And hence we can learn a lesson about repenting for one's sins from him.

Date: 2007-11-19 10:35 pm (UTC)

Date: 2007-11-21 09:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Interesting! I have never thought about that. But actually Ya'akov did give him a curse when he was lying on his bed to die. He gave to many of his sons. The curse might be for something else he had done. I actually thought more about deceiving Ya'akov that he believed his son Yosef was dead.


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