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How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?

How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?


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

Commentary to Genesis 32:5.
Talmud, Yevamot 22a, et al.; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 269:10.
Commentary to Genesis 34:7.
Commentary to Genesis 11:32.
See Rashi to Genesis 37:34.
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's copyright policy.
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Anonymous toronto November 28, 2014

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

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

Anonymous Visalia, CA October 1, 2012

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

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US December 7, 2011

So in the Hebrew there is meaning we do not see in the English. That is what I understand you to be saying. Reply

Baruch Davidson Brooklyn December 6, 2011

The sages of the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 74:13) deduced that all four were Laban's daughters from verses in the Torah where Laban doubles his reference to "my daughters", seemingly superfluously. One is Genesis 31:43 "And Laban answered and said to Jacob, "The daughters are my daughters (plural - BD), and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. What would I do to these daughters (another two - BD) of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?". Another such verse is 31:50 "If you afflict my daughters (2 - BD), or if you take wives in addition to my daughters (another 2 - BD) when no one is with us, behold! God is a witness between me and you." Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US December 6, 2011

How do you know they were daughters of Laban? Hagar was not a half sister to Sarah? Why do you assume this?
(to Anon in NYC) Reply

Anonymous NYC December 5, 2011

The handmaids were also daughters of Laban, and thus were the same nationality as Rachel and Leah. Upon delivering the handmaids to Jacob as wives, they also freed them so that their children would not be considered slaves but legitimate sons of Jacob. Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US December 3, 2011

Leah's handmaid bore the children "for" Leah, and so they (the children) were as Hebrew as Leah's.
Rachel's handmaid bore the children "for" Rachel, and so they (the children) were as Hebrew as Rachel's.
If the handmaid's were "slaves" their children were the "property" of the mistress. Only the mistress gave them the same rights as sons, not slaves.
This is my impression of how it worked. Reply

Josie Ruiz Richmond, TX December 2, 2011

My question was not about Jacob and his two wives,my question was what were the hand maidens were they Hebrew, or just what were they. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous canton, ma December 2, 2011

Another explaination for Jacob's marriages giving rise to the legal conflict in the Jewish law which arose at a later date, is perhaps the fact that G_d sanctioned Jacob's marriages through unknown or unreported communication between G_d and Jacob himself.
This is perhaps an alternative explanation of the conflict. Reply

Josie Ruiz Richmond, TX December 1, 2011

Some one made a comment ,Jacob had to marry sisters to make it the same blood line to the tribes or nation,but what were the maid servants? Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US November 30, 2011

In my mind it is pretty simple. The law in its fullest sense was not given/created until the mount and the 40 years of travelling in the wilderness. That law probably came BECAUSE of situations like that of Jacob and his wives, which created heartache and jealousy. Reply

Little Gator maiden, nc November 27, 2011

As a noachide this is a very helpful article. We often have to walk a very fine line in our relationships and how we interact in the world around us. Thank you very much. Reply

Hillel Flesch Belgrade, serbia November 27, 2011

As anonymous posted not only according to the plain meaning of the text, but according to others as well, there is no clear answer to the raised topic. Still my opinion is that the idea (I do not know whose) that our forefathers had kept all 613 commandments before Torah were received is very hard to comprehend if not impossible. Do not forget that some 350 or less commandments are related to the service in the Temple, and no Temple existed in time of our forefathers. Jacob marring four sisters for me was very simple. In order to marry Rachel whom he loved and promised he was prepared to do all. Waiting for her 21 years tells it all. When I put myself in his shoes I cry a lot. What a life he had! Reply

david sil November 27, 2011

impressive,thanks Reply

Gersh the Mentch December 21, 2010

While the halachic mechanics of being related may not be there, the fact is that in colloquial use you are still cousins and may address each other as such. Reply

Anonymous December 16, 2010

What is a good way that one can refer to, their second cousin that has converted, in a blessing for them? Namely what is a good way to establish one's relationship to them in specifying the blessing for them. Can it be 'to my second cousin' as stated in this article it was acceptable before? Reply

M. Benge Missouri City, TX via November 13, 2010

The arguments presented do not account for the concept that they may be sisters of the same location rather than the same family. Later in the reading it mentions the wicked Laban as a group.
I am not at all familiar with the reading and just postulate this based on what is in front of me to read. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY November 24, 2009

"when a man (person) 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"

A major lesson for the communities straying too far to the zealous right at the expense of the underlying principles of Judaism: love, peace, harmony, caring, understanding, consideration and respect for others. That ain't religion, folks. And I say that with love. Reply