Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah 5767/ December 9, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Story of Reuben


Rabbi Dr. Raphael Benjamin Posen


Department of Bible and Midrasha for Women


The Sages forbade translating the Torah’s account of what Reuben did:  “The story of Reuben is read but not translated – to save his honor.” [1]   Hence it is surprising that Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah which generally is very mindful of preserving the honor of the patriarchs – and to that end actually changes expressions pertaining to marital relations [2] – translated “the story of Reuben” literally:   “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah” (Gen. 35:22) using the very same root, sh-kh-v, in the Aramaic translation as in the Hebrew text, which connotes sexual relations.

A double difficulty is presented here.   Firstly, since translating the verse was explicitly forbidden, for whom was this translation intended?   Moreover, since translation was forbidden to protect Reuben’s honor, how could Onkelos dare translate literally and not conceal the blot on Reuben’s character?  Why did he not tone it down, as was done in the translation called Pseudo-Jonathan:  “Reuben went and rumpled Bilhah’s bedding … so it was thought he had slept with her,” which is in accord with the tradition of the Sages? [3]

The first question – how was the verse translated altogether when it had been forbidden– was answered by the Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities):  The Sages only decreed that it may not be translated publicly, but they had no reservations about a translation that would remain in the hands of a select few. [4]

As for the second question – why did Onkelos not tone down the text in translation – it turns out that Onkelos alters failings in the patriarch’s intimate relationships in order to preserve their honor only in those texts that were permitted to be translated; in these instances Onkelos deviates from a literal translation and circumvents in order to preserve the honor of the patriarchs, going even further than demanded by the Sages.  In contrast, regarding “the story of Reuben” which is forbidden to be translated, he renders it as it appears in Scriptures, for since in any event there was no fear that the translation would be read out loud in public, there was no danger in a literal rendition.

It turns out that two different approaches were taken by the Aramaic translations when it comes to concealing Reuben’s indiscretion.  The more common approach was to change the translation.  Thus in the Peshitta, the Syriac (Aramaic) bible from the first century C.E. translates “and he lay (shekhav) with Bilhah,” and not, as it usually does, “u-demakh [|LR1]  [= slept],” or as in Targum Jonathan’s rendering, presented above.   The second approach appears in Targum Onkelos:  even though it is translated literally, many manuscript editions add a note of warning – “not for public translation!”

Even though the Tosefta indicates that “the story of Reuben” which is forbidden to be translated refers to the verse, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah,” [5] the Targums extended this directive to apply also to Jacob’s words to Reuben:   “For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace – my couch he mounted” (Gen. 49:4).   The Aramaic translations of this verse are rendered in a similar fashion. The translation attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel tones it down as follows: “For it is reckoned to you as if you came to the woman whom your father slept with, when you confused his bed that you went up upon.” The Neophyti translation omits it altogether, [6] but Targum Onkelos renders it literally, although several manuscripts note in addition that “it is not for public translation.”

One might explain Onkelos by saying that if Scripture itself did not cover up Reuben’s deed, why should the Targum? Such an approach is apparently found in Genesis Rabbah 87.10:

Matrona asked Rabbi Jose:   Is it possible that Joseph at the age of seventeen, in all his heat, could have done this (refrained from transgressing with Potiphar’s wife)?  He took out the book of Genesis in her presence and began reading about the acts of Reuben and Judah [and Tamar], then said to her:  If Scripture did not cover up what these people did, who were greater and acted while in their father’s jurisdiction, then all the more so for Joseph, who was of lesser stature and in his own domain. [7]

R. Jose was saying that had Scripture wanted to cover up our ancestors’ deeds, why did it not do so in the case of Reuben? And if it did not, then we may assume that Joseph was indeed not guilty of any wrongdoing. Still, as we have said, it is difficult to ascribe such intentions to Onkelos.   The fact is that Targum Onkelos does cover up for Judah in the story of Tamar.  The above midrash wishes to stress that Scripture did not cover up these flaws, but it was not taking a stand opposed to the general trend among the Sages to be discrete about these events.

It should be noted that after citing the Amora Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani saying, “whoever says Reuben sinned is simply mistaken” (Shabbat 55b), the gemara presents a four-way tannaitic dispute:

A tannaitic dispute: “Unstable as water [Heb. pahaz], you shall excel no longer” (Gen.49:40).  Rabbi Eliezer says:  You acted rashly [pazta], you were found wanting [havta], you demeaned yourself [zalta].   Rabbi Joshua says:   You overstepped the law [pasa’ata al dat], you sinned [hatata], you fornicated [zanita].   Rabban Gamaliel says:   You prayed [pilalta], you entreated [halta], your prayer shone through [zarha].   Rabban Gamaliel said:   We still need to hear out Moda’i; Rabbi Eliezer ha-Moda’i says:  Reverse the letters in the word and interpret it:  you were shaken [zu’aza’ta], you refrained [hirta’ta], sin departed [parha] from you.

Rashi summarized the views expressed here:   “In the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, he [Reuben] sinned; and in the opinion of Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Eleazar ha-Moda’i, he would have liked to sin, but did not.”   Things are spelled out more explicitly in the Arukh in his explication of the words of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel:  Pilalta – meaning you supplicated, demanding redress for the insult your mother suffered. Halta – you prayed as Moses did [for the Israelites after the golden calf, for it says va-yehal Moshe].   Thus this Tanna was of the opinion that he did not sleep with her.” That means the Arukh thought that the Tanna’im who differed with Simeon believed that Reuben did sleep with her. [8]   On this basis several commentators on Onkelos have said that his literal translation relies on the view expressed by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, his teachers, who believed that Reuben indeed had sinned, “for Onkelos the Proselyte had his translation of the Torah from the mouth of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua” (Megillah 3a).

Even though in his commentary on the Torah Rashi interpreted, “he lay – since he rumpled the bed clothes, Scripture treats him as if he had slept with her” (and, according to Bahya, Nahmanides was inclined to hold a similar view), many exegetes interpreted “and he lay” at face value, such as Radak, who wrote that Reuben “went to Bilhah’s tent and slept with her.”  The same follows from Ibn Ezra’s comment on this verse, “The Rabbis interpreted this aptly:   But a clever man conceals his humiliation (Prov. 12:16).”  In other words, the Rabbis did well by covering up Reuben’s disgrace.   That means that there was a disgraceful act, but that the Rabbis covered it up, and well that they did.   Rashbam had a similar interpretation of Genesis 49:3:

In other words:  you are my firstborn, and hence you should have been privileged over your brothers with my strength and the first of my wealth, and you should have had more strength to rule over your brothers.   But you were rash and impetuous like spilling water, and therefore “you shall excel no longer,” neither having the rights of first-born nor sovereignty, for you mounted your father’s bed.   And thus it says in Chronicles (I 5:1-2):  “but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy; although Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.” [9]

However, since Reuben could have been at most fourteen years old when the episode took place, it may well be that because of his tender age some of the commentators were inclined to believe that he had not done anything.


[1] Mishnah Megillah 4.10, and Rashi, BT Megillah 25a.

[2] Such as when Joseph “came into the house to do his work” (Gen. 39:11), which is rendered “to examine the books,” and not, as some would have it, ‘with the intention of sinning with Potiphar’s wife.’   The changes which the Targum makes in the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38:2 and 38:26), also have in common that they clear Judah of sin.  For further examples (pertaining to intimate relations), see R. B. Posen, Consistency of Translation in Targum Onkelos [Hebrew], Jerusalem 2004, pp. 92-94.

[3] Shabbat 55b:  “Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said, quoting Rabbi Jonathan:  Anyone who says Reuben sinned, is simply mistaken.   So what about the text, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah”?  It indicates that he rumpled his father’s bedding, and Scriptures presents it as if he had slept with her.”

[4] “ ‘Is read but not translated’ – meaning in the synagogue, where it receives great publicity.  But for each individual in his own home, there is nothing that may not be translated” (Meiri on Megillah 25a).  Likewise, Rashi comments on the same talmudic passage:  “ ‘Is read’ [but not translated] in the synagogue.”   Similarly, Maimonides in Hilkhot Tefillah 12.12:  “Not all the readings from the Bible are translated in public.”   Also Rav Hai Gaon took a similar stand (see Torah Shelemah, Gen. 35, par. 82, citing Sefer ha-Itim of R. Judah al-Barceloni, par. 169):  “The story of Reuben and the story of the golden calf are not translated in public; rather, the interpreter repeats the reading of the verses to let it be known that it was not from laziness that he did not translate them, rather out of respect for the public and out of respect for Reuben.   Whoever pays attention to the language used in the translation, may ponder their explanation for himself.”

[5] Compare:  “The story of Reuben is read but not translated.  Once Rabbi Haninah ben Gamaliel was reading [Torah] in Cabul, and he came to the passage, ‘Reuben went and lay with Bilhah … Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number,’ and he told the translator, ‘Translator only the latter verse,’”   (Tosefta Megillah 4.35; Megillah 25b).

[6] Similarly in remnants of the Targum as found in the Cairo Genizah (Michael Klein, Genizah Manuscripts of the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch, I-II, Cincinnati 1986).   In the two remnants found, the passage “For when you mounted your father’s bed,” appears in Hebrew and not in translation (ibid., p. 165).

[7] Likewise in Maimonides, Hilkhot Sotah 3.32:  “And they say to her, ‘My child, many before you have been carried away, and great and important people have had their desires get the better of them and failed.’ And they tell her the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, and the story of Reuben and his father’s concubine according to the plain text, and the story of Amnon and his sister, in order to make it easier for her, until she confesses.” That is to say, when necessary, the acts of biblical characters are enumerated and made explicit. Here, the idea is to get the wife suspected of adultery to confess.

[8] Arukh, entry פל 1, also cited in Or Zarua I, Hilkhot Tefillah par. 105.

[9] Also see the discussion of the aharonim (later Rabbinic authorities) on Maimonides, Laws of Prohibited Relations (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah) 21.13, that alludes to the birth of Reuben: “He meant to sleep with his wife Rachel, but slept with his wife Leah, as is hinted by the words, ‘When morning came, there was Leah!’ (Gen. 29:25) – that was the night that Leah conceived Reuben.”  The gemara mentions the “sons of temurah” as defective sons, because their father’s intentions during intercourse were not wholly proper (Nedarim 20b:  Rabbi said:  A man should not drink from one goblet while having his eyes on another.   Ravina said:   Even regarding his own two wives.   I will remove from you those who rebel and transgress against me (Ezek. 20:38) – Rabbi Levi said:   these are the sons of nine [bad] attributes: [the first] the sons of temurah”).    

 [|LR1]Either I don’t understand the text, or the Aramaic has nuances I don’t appreciate, or something is wrong, because this first example seems to me to belong in the second category.