Parsha and Manuscript – ‘Vayetze: The reasons for the name Reuben’

Thursday, 26 November, 2020 - 3:20 pm

Screenshot 2020-11-26 at 20.25.18.pngIn the Torah portion of Vayetze, it discusses the birth of the twelve tribes of Israel that took place after Jacob was forced to marry the older sister, Leah, before marrying the younger sister, Rachel. While they both provided for him the tribes of Israel, this led to Jacob loving Rachel more than Leah. In this essay, we will discuss the birth of the oldest of the tribes, Reuben, and why Leah called him Reuben. In particular, we will explore two reasons given for this name, one in the biblical text and a further one presented in the Talmud and quoted in the standard published edition of Rashi. We will aim to explain why the second reason for the name Reuben, while found in all published edition nowadays, it is omitted in the early printed editions and the majority of the manuscripts. The Torah states:[1]


And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me."


As with all the names of the sons of Jacob, the biblical text provides for a reason why they were called what they were called. In the case of Rueben, the biblical text states the reason for the name: ‘Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’ The first half of the name ‘Reu’ – from Reuben - is from the Hebrew verb ‘ra-ah,’ which means ‘to see.’ This is a reflection of Leah’s statement: Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’ The meaning of this is that since G-d has seen my affliction and granted a child for Jacob, he will now love me, despite having wanted to marry Rachel and not Leah.


A further reason given for the name Rueben is in the Talmud:[2]


Rabbi Elazar said: Leah said: See [re’u] the difference between my son [beni] and the son of my father-in-law, Esau, son of Isaac. Even though Esau knowingly sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, as it is written: “And he sold his birthright to Jacob,”[3] nonetheless, behold what is written about him: “And Esau hated Jacob.”[4] Esau was not only angry over Isaac’s blessing, but he was angry about another matter as well, as it is written: “And he said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me twice? He took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing.’”[5] While my son, Reuben, even though Joseph took his birthright from him by force, as it is written: “And the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, for he was the firstborn; but, since he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, son of Israel.”[6] Nevertheless, he was not jealous of him, as it is written when Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him: “And Reuben heard and he saved him from their hands, saying ‘Let us not take his life.’”[7]


This interpretation is also quoted in Rashi’s commentary in the published edition:[8]


And she named him Reuben: Our Sages explained: She said, “Look at the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law, who sold the birthright to Jacob. This one (Reuben) did not sell it to Joseph, and he did not contend against him but even sought to take him out of the pit.”


The difference between these two interpretations is that the one provided in the biblical text is referring to the present: the birth of a firstborn child to Jacob. The second pertains to the future,[9] when Reuben grown up and sins by removing Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent, instead of it being in the maidservant Bil-ha’s tent, he forfeits the birthright to the eldest son of Rachel, Joseph. This in fact is only explicitly mentioned in I Chronicles, in its interpretation of a statement by Jacob at the end of his life.


The question that arises in many of the commentaries on the Talmud, is: why the need for the additional commentary when the Torah gives its own reason for the naming of Reuben? This question is posed by Polish RabbisShmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631), known as Maharasha, and Jacob Joshua Falk (1680-1756), known by his Talmudic commentary, Pnei Yehoshua, as well as Iraqi born Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835 – 1909), known also as the Ben Ish Chai, in his Talmudic commentary Ben Yehoyada. As this question is posed on the Talmud, the question is similarly posed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,[10] on the commentary of Rashi, who quotes the Talmudic interpretation in his commentary.


Screenshot 2020-11-26 at 20.31.36.pngManuscripts


In the commentary of Rashi, there are a number of versions to this comment: In the earliest manuscript of Rashi, MS Leipzig,[11] as well as MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225),[12] MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188 (1301-1400),[13] MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396),[14] MS. Michael 384 (1399)[15] and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408),[16] the comment is omitted. The same is the case in the Bomberg Chumash (Venice, 1547).[17] The omission of this commentary in Rashi is also evident from the fact there is no mention of it in the major super-commentators of Rashi of the 15th, 16th and 17-18th centuries, including: Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1425-1525), Rabbi Judah Loew (1520-1609), Rabbi Mordecai Yoffe (c. 1530 – 1612) and Rabbi Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718). They would have no doubt discussed the above problem with this comment, as the Talmudic commentators do, if they would have had it in their edition of Rashi.


The only Oxford manuscript of Rashi where the Talmudic interpretation appears in the main body of the text is MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425).[18] In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225)[19] it appears as a marginal note. Though it is not found in the Venice based Bomberg Chumash (1547), it is found in the German Dahrenfort Chumash (1693),[20] as can be found nowadays in all published editions of Rashi.


Based on this overview, the interpretation of the Talmud for the name Rueben may not have been originally in the text of Rashi, but was added by a later scribe in the margin, as indicated in MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225). It was then included in the main body of the text, as found in MS. Canonici Or. 35 and in the Dahrenfort Chumash.




There are also variants how the comment containing the Talmudic interpretation is presented, as well as additional text that is not found at all in any of the printed editions. In MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425), it has a different version of the Talmudic interpretation: 1. Instead of the opening: Raboteinu pirshu (our sages explained), it states the reverse: Pirshu rabotenu (lit. It was explained by our sages). 2. It adds after mentioning Esau’s selling of the birthright to Jacob that ‘he contended against it.’ This elaboration about the negative unwarranted conduct of Esau about the birthright that he willingly sold is similar to how the comment is found in the Talmud: ‘Even though Esau knowingly sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, as it is written: “And he sold his birthright to Jacob” (Genesis 25:33), nonetheless, behold what is written about him: “And Esau hated Jacob” (Genesis 27:41).’ In the published edition, however, as found in the Dahrenfort Chumash and the standard edition today, this aspect is omitted.


A third interpretation


A further variant found in MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425) is a third additional alternative comment from Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer:[21]


Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, saw the sorrow of Leah, and He gave her power to conceive, (bringing) consolation to her soul; and she bare a male child, goodly in appearance, and wise; and she said: See ye a son which the Holy One, blessed be He, has given me, as it is said, "And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, Because the Lord hath looked upon my affliction" (Gen. 29:32). Therefore he called his name Reuben.


One may argue that the reason for the variants in the manuscripts is connected to how one understands the context for the Talmudic interpretation and its justification, despite the biblical text offering its own interpretation.


Two approaches - alternative or complimentary?


There are fundamentally two approaches to explain the need for the Talmudic interpretation about the contrast between Reuben and Esau, implied in the name Reuben: a. the first is because the biblical interpretation is inadequate and requires a more complete interpretation. b. The interpretations are not alternative interpretations but rather complimentary. We will present the various explanations given for the Talmudic interpretation. RabbiShmuel Eidels explains that the reason the reason for name Reuben offered in the biblical text is inadequate is because it only explains the first half of the name Reuben: ‘Reu’ - derived from the verb ‘ra-ah’ – ‘to see’ in Leah’s statement: ‘Because the Lord has seen (ra-ah) my affliction.’ The second part of the verse: ‘my affliction (be-an-yee),’ however, does not fit well with the second part of the name Reuben. The Talmudic interpretation however offers as explanation for both parts of the name ‘Reu’ and ‘ben.’


This perspective represents the idea that the interpretation as found in the Biblical text is inadequate and thus requires a different interpretation as found in the Talmud. A further perspective is that the interpretation does not negate the Talmudic interpretation but both are offered in tandem and even co-dependent. This view is offered in a number of ways. Rabbi Joshua Jacob Falk presents an anonymous view of a great sage that the biblical text concurs with the Talmudic interpretation. It is only that the one found in the biblical text about the joy of having borne a son was the one that Leah articulated to Jacob, while the consideration indicated in the Talmudic interpretation that pertains to the fact that Rachel will also bear a son, would have had the opposite effect – a further reason for Jacob to continue to love Rachel more than Leah.


Rabbi Joshua Jacob Falk presents also a second perspective: Leah’s having of a son in itself was indeed not a reason for Jacob to love her more than Rachel, since Rachel may also have son afterwards. The Talmudic interpretation is however arguing that in addition to Leah granting a son to Jacob, that naturally draws affection (but not necessarily more than the affection that Rachel will draw when she has a son), Jacob should love Leah in her own right. This was highlighted - in the Talmudic interpretation - from the fact that just as Reuben – the firstborn - will have his birthright transferred to Joseph – the younger son, in effect making him the older son, compared to Reuben, similarly, Jacob should remember that by his acquiring the birthright from his older brother Esau, it also made him in effect the older brother and therefore the suited one for Leah, as she is also the older sister of Rachel. This argument was intended to validate her marriage to Jacob, despite his desire to have married the younger daughter, Rachel, first, having seen himself the younger brother of Esau. In this context, the Talmudic interpretation is meant to give the context to how the birth of Reuben was a reason for Jacob to now love Leah equal to and perhaps even more than Rachel.


A third perspective by Ben Ish Chai is that Leah in fact made birth arguments and both are implied in the text. This is based on the double use of the word ‘because.’ The verse states: ‘and she named him Reuben, ‘for’ she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me." The Hebrew word for the first ‘for’ is ‘ki’ that may be translated also ‘because.’ In this context, the verse is saying that there is a first reason implied in the exact wording of the name Reuben that is made up of two words in Hebrew ‘see’ and son.’ This alludes to the argument articulated in the Talmud that Jacob should ‘see’ my ‘son’ in contradistinction to another son – Esau. This in fact closely uses fully the Hebrew letters in the name Reuben. The verse then proceeds with also a second interpretation that Leah suggested for her calling her son Reuben, as recorded in the biblical text.


A fourth perspective is, similar to the Ben Ish Chai, argued by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,[22] that the biblical interpretation that having a son should make Leah endeared to Jacob is predicated on the reasoning of the Talmud: the type of son that Leah had given birth to Jacob was of extremely virtuous. This is demonstrated by a. he did not sell the birthright, unlike Esau, and more importantly, b. when he had the birthright taken from him he acted in the complete opposite manner, not only without any grudge, but went out of his way to save the very person who will be the recipient of his birthright. This shows a unusal degree of righteousness. Thus, Leah is arguing that having given birth to Reuben is worthy for Jacob to now love her, as mentioned in the biblical text. In this sense, the two interpretation complement each other.




Based on the above two perspectives how to understand the Talmudic interpretation, whether complimentary or substitutional, one can explain the different versions in the manuscripts, whether the Talmudic interpretation should appear in the Rashi commentary or not. In the view that the Talmudic interpretation is substitutional, it may be seen as part of the Midrash that, while assisting in our understanding of the Biblical text, need not be brought in the commentary of Rashi, who prefers the more literal approach to the biblical text. Based on the view that the Talmudic interpretation complementary, it is a necessary interpretation and not only does not undermine the biblical text, it gives reason and necessary understanding to it. In this case, one can justify the Talmudic interpretation being included in the commentary of Rashi. The bringing of an additional interpretation in MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425) from Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer[23] may be understood in the same light. The biblical text is not negating any other interpretation but requires and is complimentary with other interpretation.




We presented a question posed by many of the commentaries: why do we find an additional interpretation in the Talmud about the contrast between Reuben and Esau – both firstborns - for the reason why Leah called her son Reuben, when the biblical text has its own reason: the very fact that she gave birth to a son. We posed the same question on the published edition of Rashi that brings this Talmudic interpretation. We demonstrated that this interpretation is not in fact in the majority of the manuscripts and also not in the early printed edition of the Bomberg Chumash. We argued that the reason for the differences in the manuscripts and published editions is due to two perspectives from the 16th century onwards how to understand the reason for there being this additional interpretation found in the Talmud in the first place. Following the view of in the 17th century that the additional interpretation is to present an alternative interpretation to the reason given in the biblical text, due to an inadequacy, it would be understood the hesitancy to include the additional interpretation in the commentary of Rashi, when the biblical text is in fact giving its own interpretation. With the articulation of the views of the various commentaries on the Talmud and Rashi from the 18th century – though may have been understood in this light much earlier also - that views the additional interpretation from the Talmud (and Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer) is necessary and complimentary to understand the biblical text, it is a reasonable addition to the Rashi commentary, if a scholar scribe had the view to do so, as indicated in some of the manuscripts.




[1] Genesis 29:31:32.

[2] Talmud Berachot 7b.

[3] Genesis 25:33.

[4] Genesis 27:41.

[5] Genesis 27:36.

[6] I Chronicles 5:1.

[7] Genesis 37:21.

[8] Rashi on Genesis 29:32.

[9] Rashi on the Talmud Berachot 7b.

[10] Likkutei Sichot 10:92.


[12] Fol. 18.

[13] Fol. 18.

[14] Fol. 27.

[15] Fol. 22.

[16] Fol. 18.


[18] Fol. 35.

[19] Fol. 18.


[21] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 36:11.

[22] Likkutei Sichot 10:95-6.

[23] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 36:11.


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