Eldest son of Jacob (Gen. xlvi. 8, xlix. 9) by Leah (ib. xxix. 32), to whom he once carried mandrakes which he had found in a field during the wheat harvest (ib. xxx. 14). He wronged his father by his conduct with the latter's concubine Bilhah (ib. xxxv. 22), and in punishment his rights as first-born (ib. xlix. 3) were transferred to the children of Joseph (I Chron. v. 1). When his other brothers planned to kill Joseph, Reuben tried to save him: secretly intending to rescue Joseph later and to restore him to his father, he advised his brothers to throw him into a pit instead of putting him to death outright. They acted on Reuben's suggestion, and the latter was therefore much distressed, when he came to the pit, to find that the boy was not there (Gen. xxxvii. 19-22, 29-30). Upon Jacob's refusal to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt with his brothers, Reuben offered two of his own four sons (ib. xlvi. 9; Ex. vi. 14) as a pledge, agreeing that they should be killed if he did not bring Benjamin back (Gen. xlii. 37).
Reuben was born on the fourteenth day of the ninth month (Kislew) in the year 2122 after the Creation (Book of Jubilees, xxviii. 11; Midr. Tadshe viii., in Epstein, "Mi-Ḳadmoniyyot ha-Yebudim," p. xxii., Vienna, 1887). His name was interpreted to mean "behold the splendid son!" (), since Leath referred to him with these words (Gen. R. lxxi. 4), although, according to another interpretation, she thus implied a distinction between her first-born and Esau, the eldest son of her father-in-law (Ber. 7b). The mandrakes which Reuben brought home at the time of the wheat harvest (see above) were Hefḳer; otherwise he would not have taken them (Sanh. 99b). He carried them to his mother without tasting them, because of his reverence for her (Gen. R. lxxii. 2). While some scholars interpreted the passage Gen. xxxv. 22 literally (Shab. 55b; Gen. R. xcviii. 7; comp. Test. Patr., Reuben, 3), others endeavored to explain away the wrong which Reuben committed against his father, by saying that he did not dishonor Bilhah, but that he merely espoused his mother's cause (Shab. 55b), since after Rachel's death Jacob sought to give the precedence to the handmaid Bilhah, as he had formerly preferred her mistress. Reuben, who would not countenance this, removed Bilhah's bed from the place where Jacob wished to have it (Gen. R. l.c.). In consequence of this sin Reuben lost both his birth-right and his claims to the priesthood and the crown, since the birthright would have given his children the prospect of becoming priests and kings (Gen. R. xcviii. 5, xcix. 6). He lamented his act, however, and showed contrition immediately. Thus he was the first penitent (Gen. R. lxxxii. 12, lxxxiv. 18); and in consideration of his remorse he became the ancestor of the prophet Hosea, who exhorted Israel to turn to the Lord (Hos. xiv. 2; Gen. R. lxxxiv. 18).
Reuben did penance in secret meditation, and he chastened himself by frequent abstinence from meat and wine (Test. Patr., Reuben, end; comp. Gen. R. l.c.). When, however, Judah confessed his sin and justified Tamar (Gen. xxxviii. 26), Reuben publicly acknowleged his own fault (Tan., Wayesheb, ed. Buber, p. 94b), lest his other brothers might be suspected (Soṭah 7b). In reward for this penitence and voluntary confession he was granted life in the future world.
The first cities of refuge were located in the territory of Reuben's descendants, since he had taken the first steps in saving Joseph by counseling his brothers not to kill him (Mak. 10a; Gen. R. l.c.). Reuben was not present when his brothers took Joseph out of the pit and sold him, because he had to serve his father on that day, and could not leave the house, of which he was obliged to take charge (Gen. R. lxxxiv. 14). When his work was finished, however, he hastened to the pasture, and was very angry when he did not find Joseph; for as the eldestsof the brothers he felt himself responsible for his safety (ib.). In Egypt Reuben was the patriarch of the brothers, this right of rulership being transferred after his death to Simon and then to Levi (Num. R. xiii. 10). He died at the age of 125 years (Midr. Tadshe l.c.; "Sefer fha-Yashar," section "Shemot," ed. princeps, p. 121a; Test. Patr., Reuben, 1, beginning), and his body was put into a coffin and given to his children, who carried it with them in the exodus from Egypt and interred it in Palestine ("Sefer ha-Yashar," l.c.; Test. Patr., Reuben, 7, end).