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How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?

How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?

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This week’s Parshah contains an account of Jacob’s four marriages, all (according to Rashi) to daughters of Laban. Now this appears to contradict the traditional view that Jacob (together with Abraham and Isaac) kept all the commandments of the Torah despite the fact that G‑d had not yet given them to Israel—out of a combination of personal zealousness and a prophetic knowledge of what the law would be; for marriage to two sisters is later prohibited. Rashi seems to offer no explanation of the difficulty, and the Rebbe considers a number of possible solutions, eventually reconciling the apparent contradiction, and drawing out the moral implications of the story.

Jacob’s Wives

An important and well-known principle about Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is that his policy is to answer all the difficulties which are apparent in construing a literal interpretation of the verses. And when he cannot find an answer on this level, he will note the difficulty and add, “I do not know” how to resolve it. When there is a difficulty which Rashi does not even point out, this is because the answer is obvious, even to a five-year-old (the age when a Jewish child begins to study the Torah).

It is therefore very strange that we find in this week’s Parshah a puzzling fact, that has preoccupied many commentators, and which Rashi not only does not explain but of which he appears to take no notice at all.

We are told that Jacob married both Rachel and Leah, and later Bilhah and Zilpah, all daughters of Laban. Now since we have a tradition that the forefathers kept the entire Torah, even though it had not yet been given—how can it be that Jacob married four sisters, when we are told,1 “You shall not take a woman to her sister”—that is, one may not marry the sister of one’s wife?

Perhaps we could say that Rashi does not comment on the problem because when the “five-year-old” learns this Parshah, he does not know that Jacob’s act was forbidden (for the law does not appear until Vayikra (Leviticus), and the child has not yet reached that book). However, this will not do, for Rashi does not explain the difficulty even later on.

Alternatively, it is possible that Rashi felt that, amongst the many explanations of the point given in other commentaries, there was one sufficiently obvious enough that he was not bound to mention it. But this also will not explain his silence. First of all, there are many disagreements among these other commentators, so the explanation is not obvious; and second, they are not explanations of the literal meaning of the text—which is therefore still wanting.

Some Explanations

Ramban offers the explanation that the forefathers kept the 613 commandments of the Torah only when they lived in Israel, whereas Jacob married the two (or four) sisters while he was in Haran. But Rashi could not consistently hold this view, for he says elsewhere of Jacob,2 “While I stayed with the wicked Laban (i.e., in Haran), I kept the 613 commandments.”

Another explanation is that Jacob was in fact obeying a specific command of G‑d, in order to have the 12 sons who would later become the 12 tribes. But though it is clear that G‑d’s explicit command would have overridden the prohibition involved, nonetheless we find no indication in the Torah that G‑d commanded Jacob to take Rachel, Bilhah or Zilpah in marriage. On the contrary, it is clear from the narrative that he married Rachel because he wanted her, from the very outset, to be his wife; and both Bilhah and Zilpah were given to Jacob as wives by their mistresses (they were the handmaids of Rachel and Leah). He did not take them in obedience to a command from G‑d.

The Argument from Leniency

There has been intensive speculation as to whether the forefathers, in undertaking to keep the Torah before it has been given, accepted only those rulings which were more stringent than the (then binding) Noahide Laws, or also accepted the rulings which were more lenient. If we follow the second view, and remember that all four sisters must have converted to Judaism before their marriages, and take into account the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a newborn child”3—then it would follow that the wives were no longer considered sisters, since their lineage was affected by their conversion.

However, even this answer is unsatisfactory at the level of literal interpretation.

  1. Before the Giving of the Torah, there is no biblical evidence that Jews had any other law than the Noahide Code (other than the specifically mentioned obligations of circumcision, etc.). So the undertaking of the forefathers was entirely a self-imposed thing, and did not involve their children in any obligation. It follows that there was no general legal distinction, before the Giving of the Torah, between Jews as such and the other descendants of Noah. Hence, the whole idea of conversion did not arise. Nor can we support our point by saying that the voluntary undertaking of the 613 commandments was itself a kind of conversion. For this was a self-imposed stringency, and could not have included the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a newborn child.”
  2. Besides which, Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, never mentions this law; and indeed a literal reading of the Torah inclines one to the contrary view, for G‑d says to Abraham,4 “You shall come to your fathers in peace.” In other words, even after Abraham’s conversion, Terach is still regarded as his father, to whom he will be joined in death.
  3. Finally, the prohibition of marrying one’s wife’s sister is not simply because she belongs to the category of those forbidden for the closeness of their relation to the would-be husband, but for the additional psychological reason that it might put enmity and jealousy in place of the natural love between two sisters. So even if the law “a convert is like a newborn child” applied before the Giving of the Torah, it would not be relevant in the present instance, for there is still a natural love between two converted sisters, which would be endangered by their sharing a husband.

Individual and Collective Undertakings

The explanation is that the manner in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the Torah was one of self-imposed stringency alone (and this is why it was so esteemed by G‑d: “Inasmuch as Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commands, ordinances and laws”5). If so, then clearly if something which they had been commanded conflicted with something they did only from their own zealousness, the former, having G‑d’s authority, would overrule the latter.

This is—at the simple level—why Abraham did not circumcise himself until he was commanded to (when he was 99 years old); for the Noahide Code forbade shedding one’s blood—even when it would not harm one. And though circumcision outweighed this prohibition, it could do so only when commanded by G‑d.

Now, besides the Seven Noahide Laws, there were other restraints that the descendants of Noah voluntarily undertook. As Rashi says,6 “the non-Jewish nations had restrained themselves from unchastity (i.e., even in relationships which had not been expressly forbidden to them) as a consequence of the flood (which was a punishment for this sin).” And this explains what Rashi says elsewhere,7 that the Torah mentions the death of Terach, Abraham’s father, before Abraham left his father’s house, even though in fact he left before his father died, “so that this matter should not become known to all, in case people should say that Abraham did not show a son’s respect for his father.” Even though respecting one’s parents had not yet been commanded by G‑d, nonetheless, since the nations had of their own accord undertaken this duty, it had acquired something of the force of law—to the extent that Jacob was punished by G‑d for not respecting his parents,8 simply because of the status which this universal voluntary undertaking had acquired.

It follows that if there were a conflict between the self-imposed stringencies of the forefathers (as individuals) and the voluntary restraints of the descendants of Noah (en masse), the latter overruled the former.

And one of these restraints that had become universally adopted was that of taking care not to deceive others, as is evidenced by Jacob’s accusation against Laban,9 “Why have you deceived me?” against which Laban takes pains to justify himself (showing that he agreed that deception was a sin).

Now we can at last see why Jacob married Rachel. For he had promised her that he would marry her, and even gave her signs to prove her identity on their wedding night. Not to marry her would have involved deception, and this had a force which overruled his (individual) undertaking not to marry his wife’s sister (in accordance with what G‑d would later command).

The Concern Due to Others

One of the morals which this implies is that when a man wishes to take more on himself than G‑d has yet demanded of him, he must first completely satisfy himself that he is not doing so at the expense of others. And indeed, in the case of Abraham, we find that his preciousness in the eyes of G‑d was not primarily that he undertook to keep the whole Torah before it had been given, but rather, “I know him (which Rashi translates as “I hold him dear”) because he will command his children and his household after him to keep to the way of the L‑rd, doing righteousness and justice.”10

And the self-imposed task of personal refinement must not be at another’s expense, either materially or spiritually. When a fellow Jew knows nothing of his religious heritage, and needs (as it were) spiritual charity, it is not open to another Jew who is in a position to help him to say, “Better that I should spend my time perfecting myself.” For he must judge himself honestly and answer the question, “Who am I, that these extra refinements in myself are worth depriving another Jew of the very fundamentals of his faith?” And he will then see the truth which underlies Jacob’s marriage to Rachel, that care for others overrides the concern for the self-perfection which goes beyond G‑d’s law.11

Footnotes
2.
Commentary to Genesis 32:5.
3.
Talmud, Yevamot 22a, et al.; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 269:10.
6.
Commentary to Genesis 34:7.
7.
Commentary to Genesis 11:32.
8.
See Rashi to Genesis 37:34.
11.
From Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp. 141–8.
Adapted by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteus memory.
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Rebbe's talks by the United Kingdom's chief rabbi.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Jeanne December 10, 2017

It seems to me that God can be complex at times to humanity and other times be extremely simple. I think this is one time God is very simple. Look at what scriptures states when certain events occurred. A sin is not a sin until God states it is a sin. Otherwise, Jacob was still full filling God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply as it is still today. Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin December 9, 2017

B"H a marriage is also a contract. Now although his Uncle Laban deceived him, Yaacov had already made his vows. Giving his word made him responsible for Leah's well being. The greater mitzvah is to keep your oaths, regardless of how it was obtained. Of second import was the respect he had for his elders. Ever heard the expression, "God only knows..." ? For all he knew, Yaacov may have figured out that HaShem had a bigger reason for this than he knew at that time, and decided to trust HaShem. Without his marriage to Leah, how many tribes of Israel would there be? It is also a lesson for us to be constantly aware of how seriously we should take things before giving our oaths to others, and to G-d. Reply

Feigele St Johns FL November 30, 2017

I think the Laws came after the facts. It took several generations to realize that it was all wrong. Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin December 11, 2017
in response to Feigele:

If you do not believe the mitzvoh of Torah to have come from G-d, Himself you might be right that there were no commandments, or laws of Moses' Torah before he'd written them. However, if you believed that G-d spoke to Moshe, and told him what to write; Then it would be easy to explain that Yaacov's G-d, is also Moshe's G-d, and that G-d taught Yaacov all the same laws as He taught Moshe. Proverbs indicate that the Torah was with the Creator before He laid the foundations of the Earth. This passage has far deeper meaning than meets the eye. Just as the striped, and spotted goats of Laban's flocks being agreed to belong to Yaacov, and Yaacov using higher knowledge to produce more. Laban felt cheated when he saw that Yaacov had a much larger flock than he did. That is directly related to Laban's deception. It is called Karma and karmic debt in other traditions. Blessings. Reply

Randy Smith Bakersfield, Ca. November 29, 2017

Add a comment...I cannot understand how someone can keep the commandments and the Torah when G d had not given the Torah to Moses to give to the Nation of Israel. The commandments were given to Moses 400 plus years after Jacob. You cannot follow something commandments that G d had not given yet. Having read the Hebrew-English Tanakh, I do not find anywhere in it where G d gave the commandments to Jacob. Please explain! Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin December 9, 2017
in response to Randy Smith:

B"H......it's difficult to grasp isn't it? You could wrestle the knowledge from an angel I suppose. Yaacov did do that. And even though the written Torah was not written, it nonetheless existed in the mind of God. You are we believe that God told the Prophet Moshe what to write. That means God very well could have taught His laws, and statutes to whomever He chose, and whenever He chose. But if you want something to chew on; somewhere in the Proverbs it says in an English Bible, "...the instruction (Torah) is a Tree of Life..." The Tree of Life is mentioned in Genesis chapter 2. Kind of hard to find it in an English bible. From the Tree of Life comes a river, that divides into 4 rivers. There are 4 sentences in Exodus that have 72 letters in them, which can be unified to form some extremely powerful words, enough to split the seas. Contact a good rabbi for more info., or ask someone at a nearby Chabad to learn more. Blessings Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org December 11, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

As Anonymous said, the Torah did exist before it was written and given to the Jewish people, and it was studied and applied by our patriarchs even when they were no bound by it. And by "Torah" we mean the laws and the wisdom, as well as an insight to events that would occur later on. Reply

zalmy london england November 27, 2017

hi amazing devar torah from the Rebbe Reply

Paul Stein Santa Ana, CA via shulbytheshore.org November 25, 2017

It is obvious that “You shall not take a woman to her sister” does not mean one shall not marry one's wife's sister. How could what made us be wrong? It's time these infinite puzzles need to be answered with newer eyes and with straight answers. Now figure it out. Reply

Bendeguz79 Florida November 27, 2017
in response to Paul Stein:

You have totally disregarded when Jacob married.
And when Moses recorded the Torah.
Try to compare the time difference ! Reply

Paul Stein Santa Ana, CA via shulbytheshore.org December 10, 2017
in response to Bendeguz79:

This time difference is completely irrelevant. What are we talking about? A few hundred years? If we are talking about the difference between, say, 1776 and 2017, the differences in ways of life, Jewish philosophy, medicine, and technology are amazing. Back then ~1,500-1,000 B.C.E.? Very little changed in anything...as seen in the Torah. You had sheep and goats and, well, sheep and goats. Attributing anything to this sort of time difference is an extremely weak argument, and it's about time someone said that. It's time to find much, much better reinterpretations of the law. For instance, if the sisters are in two separate rooms, one cannot "take a woman to her sister". Reply

Phil Mandelkorn Charlottesville Va November 24, 2017

Jacbs's Wives At that time men often had several wives in many cultures; this is all much ado about nothing. However we should be honoring Billha and Zipah as we do Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah because they too are the mothers of our lineage. Reply

Bendeguz Florida November 27, 2017
in response to Phil Mandelkorn:

Amen Reply

Anonymous Fort Lauderdale November 23, 2017

I am satisfied with these explanations of a subject that has reasons to need explanations. I appreciate that there are several reasons that we can draw from. I like the idea that Jacob gave his oath to marry Rachel and marriage Leaha unknowingly. Reply

Lyons Dovid Ashdod November 24, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The Rebbe's solution in the Sicho leaves two problems : Why did Yakov still have to remain married to Leah ? Also what with Zilpa and Bilhah ? There was no commitment to them to marry. Reply

Shoshana GA November 23, 2017

Abel and Cain must have learned from Adam about acceptable sacrifices. Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean animals as he took 7 pairs of the clean ones into the arc, Gen 7:2. This indicates more than the Noahide laws were practiced. In Gen 26:5 we just read again that Abraham kept Torah, maybe not the entire 613 but he kept Torah, not just the seven Noahide laws. Reply

Anonymous Australia November 23, 2017

Abraham more than one wife. I believed that one could have more than one wife at this time. Later it was law that only one wife was legal. Let me know if I am wrong. Reply

Michael Moradzadeh via chabadnp.com November 24, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The issue is not number of wives, but the prohibition of marrying sisters. Reply

John Winlow England November 23, 2017

But Israel was not yet a nation, the Law had not yet been given to Moses, and HaShem did not reprove Jacob for what he had done, yet He did reprove the king of Egypt for taking Avram's wife into his harem..
And anyway where in Torah does it say the patriarchs kept 613 laws? Reply

Ohio Celina November 23, 2017

I appreciate this explanation of why Jacob had 4 wives and it gives me a better understanding of it. Thank you. Bruce Douglas Thurston Reply

Helen Dudden United Kingdom November 23, 2017

I can see hurting others, and I can see the problem with marrying sisters. I can see why it was forbidden.
I suppose I am a child looking with innocence and seeing simple truth.
To be born Jewish is to obey laws older than time itself.
As I write on relationships and failings this a simple truth. We don't have a right to hurt, and abuse another just because we can. Marriage in some cases has become less than it should. I believe in the Jewish principles of family and Hashem.

Reply

Eleanor Skibo Pennsylvania, USA November 22, 2017

Man does not make the rules, meaning G d’s commandments, laws, statutes, precepts, etc.. Whether it was 2000 years ago, 200 years ago or yesterday, all who believe, love and devote their lives to G d shouldn’t waver from what G d proclaims as truth. If it was Abraham, Moses or John Doe of today, you can’t say you follow G d without following his proclamations. Reply

Lewis B. Sckolnick USA November 22, 2017

How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters? by getting down on two knees! Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin November 21, 2017

B"H........Although this does appear to contradict Torah observance, was it even possible to keep all 613 mitzvoh of Torah prior to there being a Tabernacle, a priesthood, or an altar? Many mitzvoh can only be kept by the Priests, the Levites, or women alone. Further there were a few exceptions and exemptions to keeping Torah mitzvoh. Some one on guard duty at the Temple was exempt from observing Pesach, and allowed to keep 2nd Pesach a month later. And, Moshe was commanded to make an image of metal, a Serpent to heal the people of the poison from the fiery serpents in the wilderness. So, these are just two examples, where HaShem allows for exemption, and exception. Yet, Torah does establish that Moshe was Holy, and Righteous before HaShem. Reply

Anonymous toronto November 28, 2014

Leah The Torah does not condone polygamy. Leah refers to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is needed for prophesy and blessings. Families get the gift of the Spirit by the commandments which they observe. If Rachel , Leah are buried separately it is to show that the Jewish marriage does not have the blessings of the Holy Spirit . Women are not responsible for the lack of Spirit, because it is men who studied Torah. One cannot prophesy without the Holy Spirit. Reply

Anonymous New York November 28, 2014

But still, why doesn't Rashi feel the necessity to clarify. Reply

jtflores TX January 1, 2014

Taking 2 wives in the abscense of the law There can be no transgression without some kind of established Law. If I am driving at high speeds, I am not transgressing until a Law is established and places a speed limit, which I have transgressed at that point. Since the Mosaic Law was not given at the time Jacob took his 2 wives, then there was no transgression of the Law. Jacob, his wives, and generations passed before the Law, prohibiting the marrying of sisters was given. Reply

Lou Blauvelt November 22, 2017
in response to jtflores:

I too thought this as well. Reply

Anonymous Visalia, CA October 1, 2012

Nationality of Leah and Rachel I believe that if Rachel and Leah are the daughters of Laban and Laban is from modern Irak (ancient Padan-Aram, Babilon) how can they be Hebrew. Can you explain? Reply

arlene Ohio November 22, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Laban was "family" another branch but I don't think he worshipped one God, right?
Laban was not a Hebrew in the caliber of Abraham or Isaac or Jacob. His daughters were acceptable because Abraham sent his servant for Isaac's wife. It was acceptable to have more than one wife in Laban's country. Jacob wanted Rachel so it says that after the bridal week he married Rachel. I think because the wives wanted more children.. they suggested, offered.. their handmaids to Jacob because Leah and Rachel were competing with each other to have more children than the other and even named their son's accordingly. However the nationality of the handmaids were, it was acceptable to G-d. Reply

Ofomata BiafraLand November 23, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

yes its possible. if Abraham is Hebrew then laban too can be Hebrew for the very fact that he's Abraham's kinsman. Reply

Chris Mmuoesona Kaduna - Nigeria November 28, 2017
in response to arlene:

Again, it most likely too that even Laban accepted the marriage of his daughters handmaids to Jacob, because all the 11 sons except Benjamin were born in his house! Reply

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