Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns 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. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, and Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year.

Rated PG-13

This week is truly a “Double Mitzvah,” as we celebrate both Shabbat and Sukkot! Consequently, let us dip into both themes for our weekly message.

Although the Parshah that we will read this Saturday is not the next one on the list – we read a special Torah portion for when Shabbat coincides with Sukkot – the Torah’s final Parshah of V’Zot HaBracha is still the next-up. Moreover, if we don’t discuss it now, we won’t have another opportunity, as next Shabbat we will already be reading B’reishit.

The bulk of V’Zot HaBracha focuses on Moses’s final blessing to each of the twelve tribes of Israel before his passing. Some of the tribes get longer blessings, some get shorter ones; some tribes have their names repeated (to great significance) during the course of their blessing; others are named only once. However, I am always struck by the different treatment that Reuben gets from all of the other tribes.

See, in his youth, Reuben made a mistake. The nature of his mistake is itself shrouded in mystery, ambiguity and euphemism. However, this particular mistake haunts Reuben throughout both his individual and tribal existence, all the way through Moses’s final blessing hundreds of years later. What was this great error?

The Torah’s fleeting description of Reuben’s blunder suggests that it was decidedly sexual in nature. It says: “And it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard [of it]…and the sons of Jacob were twelve.” Genesis, 35:22.

On the one hand, Torah could not be clearer. We know the biblical meaning of “to lay with her.” In fact, Reuben himself had been instrumental in his step-mother Rachel offering to let Jacob “lay” with Reuben’s mother Leah in exchange for the flowers that Reuben had picked for his mother. And, in fact, the deal was struck and Jacob indeed did “lay with her on that night.” Genesis, 30:15-16. So when the Torah says that Reuben “lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine,” we know what that means. It means sex.

On the other hand: WTF?? Reuben? The first born? Having sex with his father’s concubine? His step-mother’s maidservant? A woman who happens to also sort of be his step-mother too, and the mother of some of his younger brothers?

It is because the proposition is so unthinkable that the commentaries such as Rashi, quoting the Talmud, say that it is impossible that he actually had sex with Bilhah. Rather, he simply moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent into his mother’s tent, in an effort to defend his mother’s honor. However, the explanation continues, this act of disrespect for Jacob’s bed by someone of Reuben’s righteous caliber was so serious an infraction, that Torah regards it as if he had actually slept with Bilhah. Yet, the reason that the verse ends the tale of Reuben’s error so abruptly and immediately states that “the sons of Jacob were twelve,” teaches us that “that all of Jacob’s sons were equal, and all of them were righteous, for Reuben had not sinned.” See Talmud Bavli, Shabbos 55b.

So we are left with the following odd conundrum: Reuben didn’t sin. Yet his mistake was so severe that Torah equates it with sleeping with his father’s wife. Yet the Torah immediately confirms that Reuben was equal to his brothers in righteousness. Yet years later, on his deathbed, Jacob’s last words to Reuben recalled the “bed incident”: “You have the restlessness of water; you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned he who ascended upon my bed.” Jacob’s final words to his firstborn son were words of criticism for “bedgate.”

In this week’s Parshah, we see that, centuries later, Reuben’s misdeed still features prominently in Moses’s final words to his descendants: “May Reuben live and not die, and may his people be counted in the number.” Deuteronomy, 33:6. That’s it. Reuben’s final blessing is that he live and not die, and that his descendants be included among the rest. Why on earth wouldn’t they be? Again, Rashi explains that Reuben “shouldn’t die” – “in the world-to-come, i.e. that the incident involving Bilhah not be remembered against him.” Similarly, his “descendants should be counted in the number” means that the incident with Bilhah should not be the cause of his descendants being excluded from the rest of the Jewish nation.”

This is even more alarming. In Genesis, it seemed as though Torah immediately assured us that there were no lasting consequences of Reuben’s deed; it immediately counts him (and equates him) with the other tribes. Moses’s last words to Reuben, however, suggest that a special blessing is necessary to keep the tribe of Reuben from excommunication? (Incidentally, notice how Rashi refers to it as the “Bilhah incident,” and not the “bed incident”?)

Is it possible that Reuben’s repeated exclusion from the empowering and cosmic blessings of both Jacob and Moses are the just result of his having disrespect his father’s bed in defense of his mother’s honor?

Let’s let this mystery percolate for a few weeks (we’ll get back to it), and turn our attention to another question involving moving one’s bed. On the holiday of Sukkot, do we move our marital bed into the sukkah? How about Sex on Sukkot?

The Torah tells us that we are commanded to “dwell in the Sukkah” for seven days; and our sages have understood that requirement to treat the Sukkah as our home for that period — with all of the incidents of home. We are required to eat there, to drink there, to hang out there, to sleep there, and…yes, to have sex there.

The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chayim, Chapter 135:2) articulates this fascinating halachah, which beautifully emphasizes Torah’s sex-positive philosophy.

It begins by stating that “one must treat the sukkah with dignity, so that one will not view commandments as being ‘cheap’.” Accordingly, “one should not bring utensils that are not dignified into the sukkah” (such as pots, a kneading trough, a frying pan, etc.). “Similarly, one must remove plates after one has eaten,” as keeping dirty plates in the sukkah is considered disrespectful. “Similarly, one should not carry out any disrespectful activity, such as washing pots or plates.” And “it is certainly forbidden to urinate in the sukkah….even if one urinates into a receptacle, and even if one usually does so inside one’s home.”

So there are exceptions to the rule that we should treat a sukkah like our home: there are undignified and disrespectful activities that we might carry out in our home, that we may not do in a sukkah.

Nevertheless, “sexual relations are permitted in the sukkah, because the essence of the mitzvah is that a person should dwell in the sukkah together with his wife” (as they would in the house)!

Unlike the role that sex plays in other religions as a necessary-but-dirty-evil, Torah regards sex as so beautiful and sacred an activity that – not only is it permissible to have sex in the sukkah (notwithstanding the heightened level of respect and sanctity that a sukkah requires) – but coming together sexually with one’s spouse epitomizes life itself, and is therefore “the essence of the mitzvah”: living in the sukkah.

(Disclaimer: presumably, the same standards of modesty and discretion that would apply to sexual activity within the home would also apply to sex in the sukkah. This author takes no responsibility for any damper that such standards might place on your sukkah-sex, nor for any police activity or unwanted attention that ignoring such standards might engender.)