> Vayishlach


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

While Parshat Vayetzei told us about Jacob's marriage and fatherhood, Parshat Vayishlach unveils some of the problems which Jacob experiences with his family, beginning with the long-anticipated showdown with his brother Esau. This is followed by the rape of Dina, in which Jacob's anxiety and the difficulties he experiences are detailed. Ultimately, the contemplated fratricide of Joseph becomes the defining action within the family.

In this week's Torah portion there is a short episode which seems to be stated in clear terms, nonetheless the exegesis has been debated throughout the centuries.

And it came to pass, when Israel lived in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Israel heard it.

The sons of Jacob were twelve. (Genesis 35:22)

The verse has two difficulties -- one in content, the other in form.

How can we understand the tryst between a son of Jacob and one of his wives?

How can we understand the tryst between a son of Jacob and one of his wives? This type of behavior is looked upon askance, considered taboo in almost every society. How could Reuben have crossed this incestual boundary?

The second question is not as striking, but disturbing nonetheless: After telling us of this deed, why does the Torah begin a new paragraph in mid-verse?

The Talmud is quick to answer one question while effectively solving the second:

Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Jonathan's name: "Whoever says that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, Now the sons of Jacob were twelve, teaching that they were all equal." (Shabbat 55b)


* * *



It seems fairly simple to state that the assumption that Reuben sinned is erroneous, but the text itself seems to state as much in black and white. The Talmud continues:

"Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine? This teaches that he transposed his father's couch, and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her." It was taught, Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said: "That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand. Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, 'Cursed be he that lies with his father's wife,' yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine? He resented his mother's humiliation. Said he, 'If my mother's sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother's sister be a rival to my mother?' [Thereupon] he arose and transposed her couch. Others say, He transposed two couches, one of the Shechinah and the other of his father. Thus it is written, 'Then you defiled my couch on which [the Shechinah] went up.'" (Shabbat 55b)

According to this passage Reuben acted in an inappropriate manner, but he was not guilty of the heinous crime of taking his father's wife, merely involving himself unjustifiably in his father's personal affairs, is considered tantamount to actually have violated her.

Reuben's motivation was his mother's honor.

His motivation, as understood by Rav Shimon, was his mother's honor. It was one thing for his mother to have been displaced for Rachel, but quite a different matter to be displaced by her servant. Deep inside, everyone including Leah, and her son Reuben knew that Jacob loved Rachel more than anyone else. But once Rachel was in the grave, Jacob should assume his rightful place in the tent of Leah. For some reason Jacob disagreed, and with Rachel's demise he moved his bed to the tent of Bilah. Reuben set out to right this wrong, and earned eternal infamy for involving himself in "matters of the bedroom" which were not his business.


* * *



Despite this exoneration, the text does seem somewhat unequivocal. Additionally, Jacob comments on this episode on his death bed in most unflattering terms.

"Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father's bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch." (Genesis 49:3-4)

Reuben's failure is attributed to this action, he is labeled "unstable," and his status as Jacob's primary heir was forfeited due to this indiscretion.

The birthright should have been yours, priesthood yours, and royalty yours. Now that you have sinned, however, the birthright has been given to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and royalty to Judah. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 98:4)

The Midrash goes further and spells out the sin, telling us that the plain reading of the text is indeed correct.

Rabbi Eliezer interpreted: "Pahazta ('thou didst hasten', Hatatha (thou hast sinned); Zanitha (thou didst commit adultery)."

Rabbi Joshua interpreted: "Parakta (thou didst throw off the yoke), Hilalta (thou didst defile my bed) and Za (thy passion did stir within thee)."

Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob interpreted: "Pasa'ta (thou didst trample upon the law), Habta (thou didst forfeit thy birthright); Zar (a stranger didst thou become to thy gifts)." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 98:4)


* * *



There is another passage in the Talmud which points to a sin as having occurred:

The incident of Reuben is read but not translated. On one occasion Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel went to Kabul, and the reader of the congregation read, "And it came to pass when Israel abode," and he said to the translator, "Translate only the latter part of the verse," and the Sages commended his action. The second account of the Calf is read but not translated. What is the second account of the Calf? From And Moses said up to and Moses saw. (Megilah 25b)

The purpose of the Targum was to explain to the masses the meaning of the text, but here we find a type of censorship -- the act of Reuben should not be explained. The question is why not? All types of indiscretions are mentioned and taught in the text. The "fall" of Judah, taught in next week's Torah portion does not seem qualitatively superior, yet it is taught in the Torah, taking up an entire chapter, and we don't find later Midrashic hesitations.

It is also interesting to note that the Midrash on our verse does not comment on the episode of Reuben, ostensibly adhering to the ethic of not delving into this episode. Perhaps this would be included in the Mishnaic prohibition of discussing sexual matters, Sitri Arayot.1 Only later does the Midrash delve into the act of Reuben.

The Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, thereby accusing Reuben of this outrage.

There is a second possibility as to the reluctance of using the Targum, it could be that this opinion in the Talmud, disagrees with the Targum. The Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, thereby accusing Reuben of this outrage. The Targum2 states as per the Talmud that Reuben had moved his father's bed. Perhaps as we had seen in the outset, whoever says that Reuben has sinned is mistaken, therefore utilizing a "mistaken" text would be inappropriate.3

However perhaps even this text which says that one who says that Reuben sinned is mistaken, does not mean to say that he did not sin, rather talking about the sin is a mistake.4

Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Jonathan's name: "Whoever says that Reuben sinned is merely making an error." (Shabbat 55b)


* * *



The Zohar, which maintains that Reuben did not sleep with Bilaha, does introduce a different motivation for his actions:

Similarly, in the case of Reuben, we should not dream of taking literally the words and he lay with Bilhah. What he did was to prevent her from performing her conjugal duty to his father, and this was the object of his disarranging his father's couch. And, moreover, he did it in the presence of the Shechina; for the Shechina is always present whenever marital intercourse is performed as a religious duty. And whoever obstructs such a performance causes the Shechina to depart from the world.5

It is written, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. That is to say, they were all included in the number, and their merit was in no way abated.

Rabbi Eleazar asked: "Why do we find in this verse first the name Israel and then the name Jacob? The reason may be given as follows. Reuben said to himself: 'My father was intended to raise twelve tribes and no more, yet now he is about to beget more children. Does he then wish to disqualify us and replace us with others?' So straightway he disarranged the couch and prevented the intended intercourse, thereby slighting, as it were, the honour of the Shechina that hovered over that couch.

Hence it is written first and Israel heard, since it was by that name that he was exalted among the twelve hidden ones which are the twelve pure rivers of balsam, and then and the sons of Jacob were twelve, alluding to the twelve tribes by whom the Shechina was adorned and whom the Torah again enumerated (176b) as before, implying that they were all of them holy, all of them considered by the Shechina worthy to behold the sanctity of their Master; for had Reuben really committed the act mentioned, he would not have been included in the number. For all that, he was punished by being deprived of the birthright and by its transference to Joseph, as we read: And the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel, for he was the first-born, but forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph.(1 Chronicles 6). We see from this how all that God does is planned with profound wisdom, and every act of a man leaves its imprint and is preserved before the Almighty. For on the night when Jacob went in to Leah, all his thoughts were centred upon Rachel, and from that intercourse, and from the first germ, and under that intention Leah conceived; and we have affirmed that had not Jacob been unaware of the deception, Reuben would not have entered into the number.6 It is for that reason that he did not receive a name of special significance, but was simply called Reuben (reu ben "behold a son"). But for all that, the intended effect was produced, and the birthright reverted to the eldest son of Rachel, as originally purposed. Thus everything came right in the end, for all the works of the Almighty are based on truth and right." (Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 176a)

There are a number of issues of note in this passage, first, Reuben's motivation is revealed -- he is concerned about the twelve tribes. Knowing the story of the Rachel/Leah switch, perhaps he feels inadequate. He realizes that he should not have been the first born and perhaps he even suspects that he should not be enumerated within the twelve sons of Jacob at all. Ironically, due to this preemptive action he lost his birthright.

The second point of note, is that according to the Zohar, the second half of the verse is understood that out of concern that there be only twelve sons Reuben acted. Reuben's concern with the number of children in the family could also be related to the fact that, as first born, he would receive a double portion, again ironically lost and given to Joseph instead.


* * *



This is not the first instance where we see Reuben involved in an action which may relate to the number of children in the family.

And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, "Give me, I beg you, of your son's mandrakes." (Genesis 30:14)

These mandrakes were said to have procreative abilities, therefore the barren Rachel was so keen to procure them, and was even willing to exchange her conjugal rights with her sister. Again, we find Reuben involved in activities, which would impact the number of children which the family would number.7

There is one more issue which may allow us to have deeper understanding of Reuben's actions. As noted above, the text tells us:

And it came to pass, when Israel lived in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Israel heard it.

The sons of Jacob were twelve. (Genesis 35:22)

The text clearly says that Reuben was with his father's concubine, on the other hand we were already told that Jacob had taken her as a wife.

And she said, "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in to her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." And she gave him Bilhah her maidservant to wife; and Jacob went in to her. (Genesis 30:3-4)

What was the relationship, was she a wife or a concubine?


* * *



Evidently, Reuben saw her as merely his father's concubine. This may shed light on his actions. In Jewish law, a king is permitted to take a concubine. Perhaps this was Reuben's way of staking his claim on the kingship. If this woman who was his father's concubine was now taken by him (Reuben), it would indicate his usurping of his father's power and stature.

As a result, the punishment which Reuben suffered was threefold -- he lost the birthright, the priesthood and the kingship -- as we saw above.

The tragedy of Reuben, reverberates throughout these Torah portions, leading to the end of the Book of Genesis. Instead of being a spiritual leader, his position is auxiliary -- he lost the leadership that he was apparently seeking and he lost the double portion he was apparently seeking and he lost the priesthood.

Numerous sources speak of the repentence of Reuben. Perhaps this is why we are not to discuss his failures.

In the end we do not know what really was the sin of Reuben, yet numerous sources speak of the repentence of Reuben. Perhaps this is the reason we are not to discuss his failures.

One thing is certain -- greatness is not something which we are born into, it is not a birthright. Greatness must be earned. It can not be arranged, nor acquired by deception. Perhaps, as his mother had used deception, and his father had used deception, Reuben felt that this was his mandate as well. Perhaps he believed that he had to go create his own destiny -- whatever the means, the ends always justify one's action. Unfortunately for Reuben, that is just not so.


  1. Mishna Chagiga 2:1, the term sitrie, "secret," is used in the Talmud on the same page. (return to text)


  2. [Psuedo] Yonatan [Yerushami] (return to text)


  3. Parallel sources have instead of the word "mistaken" the word "foolish." This would lean in the direction that it is not a "mistaken" position, rather one which should not be stated. See Kasher in Torah Shlema note 93. (return to text)



  4. I have often wondered what constitutes heresy believing an unacceptable position or stating it. See the Mishna in Chelek:

    "All Israel have a portion in the world to come -- for it is written, Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified -- but the following have no portion therein: he who says that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and the heretic. (return to text)

  5. The verse begins And it came to pass when Israel lived -- Maimonies in "The Guide for the Perplexed" associates this word "lived" -- bishachen -- with the Shechina. (return to text)



  6. This idea may also explain how Jacob could have blatantly acted in a manner against a section of the Torah, which prohibits a father from disinheriting the son of the hated wife in favor of the son of the loved wife. Jacob, when intimate with Leah, thought he was with Rachel. Therefore the Zohar maintains that mystically the firstborn was destined to be a son of Rachel. (return to text)



  7. There is a mystical tradition taught by the Ariz'al, that Jacob was to have had fifteen children, but Reuben's action frustrated the plan, therefore the two children that should have been born via the relationship with Bilah instead were born to Joseph. (return to text)




Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,900

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram