Sex on the Death Bed

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

On his death bed, Jacob calls his sons to him for his final words, “Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” Genesis, 49:1. This week’s Parshah of Vayechi is a discussion of Jacob’s passing and the advance preparations that he made; and a full 33 of its 85 verses are devoted to Jacob’s last words to his children.

With respect to a full five of his twelve sons, however, Jacob’s focus is not so much what will happen to them in the future, but regarding events of their past, and specifically, their sexual (mis)adventures. Not-so-coincidentally, the five sons who receive something different than the futuristic blessing given to the others are also the five sons who are recorded in the Torah as having distinguished themselves in some way by their actions: Reuben, Shimon-Levi, Yehudah and Joseph.


Reuben is the sexually sensitive one. He is the one whom, at the tender age of 5 or 6, found dudaim in the field, understood that they were herbs possessed of aphrodisiac qualities, and brought them to his mother Leah to assist her in capturing Jacob’s interest. See Genesis, 30:14. He is also the one that either slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, the mother of two of his brothers – as suggested by the literal meaning of the verse in Genesis (35:22); or, as some have interpreted the verse, he moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s tent, indignant that even after Rachel’s death, his mother Leah would still not be treated as Jacob’s primary wife. We have previously discussed the import of Reuben’s actions here and here.

Now, about 50 years later and on his deathbed, Reuben’s sexual infraction is uppermost on Jacob’s mind, as Jacob laments: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. You should have been superior in rank and superior in power. But you have the restlessness of water; therefore, you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s bed; then you profaned my bed upon it.” Genesis, 49:3-4. And that was it. Jacob had no further words for his oldest son.

Jacob’s disappointment with Reuben’s lapse of sexual morality is evident even in the way he introduces Reuben as “the first of my might.” The Talmud states that this means that Reuben was formed from Jacob’s first drop of semen, for Jacob, in all of his 85 years, had never before emitted any semen until his marriage – and he perhaps expected his firstborn son to share that moral discipline.


Shimon and Levi distinguished themselves as a team, and Jacob addressed them as a team. In the future, the two brothers would grow apart, their tribes separated by mission and destiny. Levi would become the tribe of the priesthood, whereas Shimon would follow its own path. Earlier in their lives, however, Shimon and Levi were the ones who responded to the kidnapping and the rape of Dinah by massacring the male inhabitants of Shechem.

A comparison of Shimon and Levi’s reaction to Dinah’s rape with Jacob’s is fascinating. When a young man wishes to date a young girl, who is it that he needs to be more cautious of? Who is likely to be more possessive over her – her father or her brother? After a male rapist commits his vile act, who can he expect to be the one most seeking vengeance – his victim’s father or her brother? One would certain expect that rage to emanate primarily from the girl’s father, with all of his paternal feelings and sense of possessiveness, and to whom she will always remain his little girl.

Yet, whereas Jacob would have restrained his own feelings in favor of a more measured and politically expedient approach, it was Dinah’s brothers that avenged her honor. Where and how would Shimon and Levi develop such powerful feelings of possession over Dinah? It would certainly appear to be no accident that, as the Midrash relates, when Dinah was ultimately retrieved from the house of Shechem after the massacre, Dinah did not want to leave until Shimon swore to her that he would marry her. See Genesis Rabbah, 80:11. Was there an element of psychosexual jealousy in Shimon and Levi’s rage?

Jacob spends his final words to Shimon and Levi cursing their wrath and violence, and promising that they would be separated among the tribes of Israel.


Yehudah is the first of the twelve sons to receive an openly warm blessing. While Yehudah had had his own role to play in the kidnapping of his brother Joseph and advocating his sale to the Ishmaelites, he was spared Jacob’s ire; perhaps, as some have suggested, Jacob was entirely unaware of the brothers’ role in Joseph’s kidnapping.

Jacob was apparently aware, however, of Yehudah’s incident with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. And this worried Yehudah. In fact, some commentaries state that, after hearing Jacob’s harsh rebuke to Reuben, Shimon and Levi, Yehudah was almost certain that Jacob was about to rebuke him for his sexual liaison with Tamar, and he began to back away.

Jacob had nothing but praise for Yehudah, however. He praised him for having the integrity to withdraw the judgment that he passed upon Tamar when he realized that the babies that she was carrying in her womb were his own. See Aggadath Bereshith 83. Tellingly, Jacob foretold that Israel’s kings – from King David to the righteous Moshiach – would come from Yehudah, through the children that he sired upon Tamar on that fateful night.


Jacob reserves a lengthy blessing for Joseph, the favored son. Obviously, from the perspective of a truly doting father who has only recently been reunited with his long-lost favorite son, there was much to say. However, Jacob does makes special mention of Joseph’s physical beauty and appeal to the local girls: “A charming son is Joseph, a son charming to the eye; the women strode along the wall to see him.” Genesis, 49:22.

According to the Talmud (Sotah, 36b), Jacob became aware of, and lavishes praise upon Joseph for, Joseph’s successful resistance to the seduction of Potiphar’s wife – and in fairly erotic terms. As we discussed here, according to one Talmudic opinion, Joseph was on the verge of succumbing to his mistress’s advances. So, “It came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work” – his “work” being a euphemism for the intimacy that he planned to share with Potiphar’s wife.

However, a vision of his father appeared to him at the critical moment, and he was able to tear himself away and run, leaving his cloak behind. The Talmud relates that several of Jacob’s blessings to Joseph on his deathbed (Genesis, 49:24) were actually recalling the sequence of events that resulted in the preservation of Joseph’s sanctity:

“Immediately his bow abode in strength” – his “bow” is a reference to his manhood, which returned to its position (the Hebrew word for “abode” sharing the same letters as the word for “returned”).

“And the arms of his hands were gilded” – he stuck his hands in the ground so that his semen came out from between his fingernails (the Hebrew word for “arms” sharing the same letters as the word for “seed”). This profound statement tells us that Joseph was so close to giving into temptation, that the sexual pressure had already reached a critical mass, and that ejaculation was inevitable. Joseph, however, by digging his fingers into the ground was able to divert the semen so that it exited from between his fingernails as opposed to his penis. Though Joseph was successful in containing his lust, this involuntary loss of semen was not without consequences. The Talmud goes on to state that Joseph was worthy that an additional twelve tribes would separately issue from him just as they issued from his father Jacob, as it is said: “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph” (Genesis, 37:2); but because of the semen that emerged from between his fingernails, he lost this privilege. Instead, he had only two, and his brother Benjamin was blessed with the additional ten.

“By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob” – it was the vision of his father, Jacob, that recalled Joseph to himself, and enabled him to overcome his lust.

“From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel” – and, having overcome his lust, Joseph thus earned the right to his name engraved in the holy stones of the High Priest’s breastplate, whereas his name would have been expunged had he ultimately indulged his desire for Potiphar’s wife.

In the end, it seems that Jacob judged his sons largely on the basis of their sexual integrity, and their ability to successfully confront their darker impulses. It is no doubt a harsh discussion to be had in the final moments with one’s children; however, it certainly provides an emphasis that resonates thousands of years later.