The Torah states (Gen. 35:22):

Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine

The Gemmorah explains (Shabbat 55b):

Rabbi Shemuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonathan said: Anyone who says that Reuben sinned [with Bilhah] is nothing other than mistaken… How then do I establish the meaning of the verse: “And he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine” (Gen. 35:22)? The verse teaches that the Torah ascribes to him liability for his action as if he had actually lain with Bilhah.

Sleeping with one's father's woman is one of the Noahide prohibitions. I understand, that the Talmud claims that the action was at least as severe as the transgression of Arrayos, but nothing in the text or the Meforshim indicates that.

What are the implications that Reuben suffered as a result of the severity of his action?

  • 2
    – Joel K
    Mar 30, 2022 at 11:23
  • @JoelK Can you elaborate please, I don't understand what part of the "firstborness" was taken and given to the sons of Josef. The text says "בְּכוֹר־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי הוּא הַבְּכוֹר" and right after "he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy" - what genealogy?
    – Al Berko
    Mar 30, 2022 at 11:33
  • Joseph received a double portion (Efraim and Menashe) in the land.
    – Joel K
    Mar 30, 2022 at 11:48

1 Answer 1


If I am understanding your question correctly, you are asking what the consequences or punishment was for Reuben's offense. If what he did was tantamount to a crime for which there was a death penalty (כאילו שכב עמה), surely there should have been some major repercussions.

I Chronicles 5:1-2 states that as a consequence of Reuben's offense, the bekhor (birthright) passed over from Reuben and was granted to the descendants of Joseph:

ובני ראובן בכור ישראל כי הוא הבכור ובחללו יצועי אביו נתנה בכרתו לבני יוסף בן ישראל ולא להתיחש לבכרה

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 the son of Israel, yet not so that he was to be reckoned in the genealogy as first-born.

Bamidbar Rabbah 6:2 teaches further, that as a part of losing the bekhor, Reuben was also stripped of the malkhuth (monarchy), kehunah (priesthood), and 'avodath haleviim (Levitical class) which otherwise would rightfully have belonged to him and his heirs:

יעקב אומר לראובן (בראשית מט, ג): "ראובן בכרי אתה כחי וראשית אוני יתר שאת ויתר עז". שאת זו כהונה, כמה דתימא (ויקרא ט, כב): "וישא אהרן את ידיו אל העם ויברכם". עז זו מלכות שנאמר (שמואל א ב, י): "ויתן עז למלכו". שאלולי לא סרח ראובן במעשה בלהה, היה ראוי ליטול כהונה ומלכות, לפי שהיה בכור. ומנין אף לעבודת הלוים היו ראויין, שכן את מוצא שנכנסו פשוטי הלוים תחת בכורי ישראל, שנאמר (במדבר ג, מא): "ולקחת את הלוים לי אני ה' תחת כל בכר בבני ישראל"

Jacob said to Reuben (Gen 49:3): “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank (יתר שאת) and superior in power (ויתר עז).” שאת refers to the Priesthood, such as is said (Lev. 9:22): “And Aaron lifted-up (ישא) his hands toward the people, and blessed them.” עז refers to the Monarchy, as it says (I Samuel 2:10): “and He will give strength (עז) unto His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed.” For had Reuben not sullied himself with the episode of Bilhah, he would have been fit to take the Priesthood and the Monarchy, since he was the firstborn. And from whence do we know that he even would have been granted the Levitical class? For we see that the Levites subrogated the firstborns of Israel, as it said (Numbers 3: 41): "And thou shalt take the Levites for Me, even the LORD, instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel"

The Sifrei (Deut. 347:1-2) offers a few other suggestions which would seem to mitigate against the consequences being too major. 1) His brothers banded together and interceded to God that he be forgiven. 2) Reuben sought to save Joseph, so his good deed allayed the consequence of his bad deed 3) Reuben utterly repented of his sin.

יחי ראובן ואל ימות - וכי מה ענין זה לזה? משל למלך שבא אצל בניו לפרקים. כשהוא נפטר מבניו - היו בניו וקרוביו מלוים אותו. אמר להם: בני, שמא כלום צורך יש לכם, שמא דבר יש לכם? אמרו לו: אבא, אין לנו צורך ואין לנו דבר, אלא שתתרצה לאחינו הגדול! אלמלא שבטים לא נתרצה המקום לראובן, לכך נאמר יחד שבטי ישראל - יחי ראובן:... ד"א יחי ראובן במעשה יוסף, ואל ימות במעשה בלהה. ר' חנינא בן גמליאל אומר: לעולם אין מחליפים לא זכות בחובה ולא חובה בזכות, חוץ משל ראובן ומשל דוד; שנא' (שמואל ב טז) ושמעי הולך בצלע ההר לעומתו הלך ויקלל ויסקל באבנים לעומתו ועפר בעפר, ואעפ"כ הר לעומתו: (מלכים א י״א:כ״ז) שלמה בנה את בית המילוא סגר את עיר דוד אביו. וחכמים אומרים: אין מחליפים לעולם לא זכות בחובה ולא חובה בזכות, אלא נותנים מתן שכר על המצות ועונשים על העבירות. ומה ת"ל יחי ראובן ואל ימות? שעשה ראובן תשובה. רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר: נוצל ראובן מאותו החטא, ולא נזקק לאותו מעשה. אפשר שהוא עתיד לעמוד בראש שבטים בהר עיבל, ואומר ארור שוכב עם אשת אביו, ונזקק לאותו מעשה? ומה ת"ל כי עלית משכבי אביך? שתבע עלבונה של אמו

(Devarim 33:6) "Reuven shall live and he shall not die": How is this related to what precedes [("together, the tribes of Israel")]? This is analogous to (the situation of) a king, who visits his sons on occasion. When he takes leave of them, they and his kinsmen come to escort him. He says to them: "My sons, is there anything that you need? Is there anything on your mind?" They answer: "Father, there is nothing that we need and nothing that we desire of you but that you forgive our big brother." If not for the tribes' (intercession), the L-rd would not have forgiven Reuven (for the episode of Bilhah [viz. Bereshith 35:22]) — wherefore it is written (at this point) "together, the tribes of Israel."...Variantly: "Reuven shall live for his act with Joseph (viz. Bereshith 37:21), and he shall (therefore,) not die for his act with Bilhah. R. Chanina b. Gamliel says: Merit is not exchanged for liability, nor liability for merit — except for the instance of Reuven (above) and that of David (viz. II Samuel 16:13) … And the sages say: Neither merit for liability nor liability for merit, but mitzvoth are rewarded and transgressions are punished. And what is the import of "Reuven shall live and he shall not die"? That he repented of his deed. R. Shimon b. Gamliel says: Reuven was far removed from that sin (of cohabitation with Bilhah) and he did not descend to that act. Is it possible that he would stand at the head of the tribes on Mount Eival and say (Devarim 27:20) "Cursed be he who lives with father's wife," having descended to such an act! What, then, is the intent of (Bereshith 49:4) "For you went up on your father's bed?" He was solicitous of his mother's honor (viz. Shabbath 55b).

Rabbenu Bahaye (Gen. 38:1) suggests that the death of the Ten Martyrs was a punishment not just for the sale of Joseph but also for Reuben's actions:

עשרה אחי יוסף אלו עשרה הרוגי מלכות ... והנה זה מרמזי התורה והמשכיל יבין ומה שהיו עשרה הרוגי מלכות והאחים בעלי המעשה לא היו אלא תשעה שהרי ראובן לא הסכים עמהם ... שהרי ראובן לא חטא במכירתו אבל חטא בלהה נפקד עליו ועל כן היו עשרה וראובן בכללם על החטא שחטא במעשה בלהה וזה רמוז בפסוק ויהי מתיו מספר כי היו עשרה עם ראובן

The ten brothers of Joseph, these are the Ten Martyrs... and this is hinted at in the Torah and one of keen intellect and understanding asks how this is so given that there were ten martyrs and the brothers complicit in the sale were only nine as Reuben did not agree with them... however since Reuben sinned by Bilhah it was counted against him and he was included among the ten on account of his sin with Bilhah, and this is hinted at in the passage "in that his men become few" (Deut. 33:6).

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