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Why aren't Bilhah and Zilpah counted as Jewish Matriarchs?

Why aren't Bilhah and Zilpah counted as Jewish Matriarchs?

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Question:

When blessing a daughter it is traditional to say, "May G‑d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel." Why aren't Bilhah and Zilpah mentioned? I know they were "hand maidens" but they must have been special in order to give birth to four of the twelve tribes of Israel. Thank you, and may G‑d bless you and Chabad.org!

Answer:

We bless our children to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah because they alone are the Jewish Matriarchs. The Talmud tells us:1 "Only three are referred to as Patriarchs; and only four are referred to as Matriarchs." The four are a reference to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

These seven spiritual giants are considered our nation's patriarchs and matriarchs not so much because they are our shared biological antecedents, but primarily because they are our spiritual ancestors.

According to kabbalah, the souls of the Patriarchs were the embodiment of the G‑dly attributes – that transcend creation – of Kindness (Abraham), Severity (Isaac) and Harmony (Jacob); while the Matriarch's souls were the embodiment of (four components of) the Divine attribute of Royalty (Malchut).

It is from them that every Jew – their "children" – inherit these spiritual faculties. For example, our capacity to selflessly love – both G‑d and our fellow man – is an inheritance from Abraham.

Bilhah and Zilpah also had lofty souls, but not as lofty as the Matriarchs. According to the mystical teachings, their souls were also the embodiment of Royalty, as were the Matriarchs', but Royalty as it descends and invests itself in creation.2

The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were utterly detached from creation, and it is from them that we receive the ability to remain unaffected by our mundane surroundings. Bilhah and Zilpah imbue every Jew with the capability to carry over the holiness we inherit from the Patriarchs and Matriarchs into creation.

This is why Bilhah and Zilpah bore these children "on behalf of" and as "the agents of" Leah and Rachel. The children they bore were even named by Leah and Rachel. Bilhah and Zilpah don't represent a unique divine attribute as do the Patriarch and Matriarchs—rather they are the conduit through which our Patriarch and Matriarchs can be manifest in our reality.3

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
Chabad.org Editorial Team

Footnotes
1.

Berachot 16b.

2.

Using kabbalistic terminology: The Matriarchs were from Malchut of Atzilut, Bilhah and Zilpah were from Malchut of BiY"A.

3.

Though the Patriarch and Matriarchs had loftier souls, it is from Bilhah and Zilpah that we receive the ability to execute the most important task of all—creating a "dwelling place" for G‑d in the physical realm, the raison d'etre of everything.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Delicious DeBlair United States, Arkansas August 19, 2017

Concerning overall bloodlines of Bilhah and the children born from her... I am mostly interested in Bilhah's linear ancestry only as I am of the tribe of Dan [Celtic ancestry, mainly Scotland, Ireland and a small amount through Germany] , and only wondered if they were of the same 'root stock' as in the same general Semitic Chaldean group as Abraham, Laban, Rebecca, Rachael and Leah, as opposed to some less distinguished blood line as was Hagar.

I have looked online for several years now and can not find anything that says where Bilhah or Zilpah are from, only their social status.

I know it will not change what has happened in my life or what will happen, but I am a student of Israelitish history, especially related to my own, (somewhat) royal family lineage. Reply

jj July 16, 2016

DNA It's all about their DNA and attributes - surrogates, slaves, handmaidens when it's all said and done, everything boils down to genetic codes and whatever gifts, talents and blessings were handed down to their offspring were from that DNA. And one would do well to read this article - Jewish Iron Maidens on Chabad's own website that explains why Z and B were vital in the process of establishing the tribes. Reply

Uri Brazil July 14, 2016

There was nothing particularly special about Zilpah and Bilhah. Just read the Torah. They were surrogate mothers, Dan and Naftali were considered Rachel`s sons and Gad and Asher Leah`s. Of course they were not chosen by chance, and I`m not saying they did not play a important part. But their role wasn`t exactly related to their atributes. Little attention ins given to them. People want to create facts were they don`t exist. By the way, some people argue why Yossef wasn`t a patriarch - unlike Zilpah or Bilhah, he is a major figure in the Torah, and has even more portions than Avraham, Itschak or Yaakov Reply

Zilpah October 30, 2014

Actually, I asked Rabbi Ginzburg about this sugia and he said - they are indeed counted as the Matriarchs. Reply

Anonymous Columbus, Ohio October 10, 2014

Surely there is a better way to look at this Oh, come on. I tried to read this with an open mind, I really did. But it's just impossible to swallow that these explanations are anything more than apologetics for perpetuating the traditional treatment of those two of our mothers as less deserving solely because they were slaves before they became wives. After all, if anything, Leah's and especially Rachel's behavior as recounted in the Torah does not support a conclusion that their souls were very "lofty" at all, let alone more so than their handmaidens'. At least be honest enough to say "It is simply an artifact of the status of women in the ancient world; we might not count four instead of six matriarchs today, but we don't change it because we honor the consistency of our tradition." Trust us enough to accept that rather than act as if our loyalty to our people and to Judaism is so shallow that we would bolt every time something is troubling to us.
"Beyla" is one of my names; I'd be proud to learn that it comes from Bilhah. Reply

Amy Whinston Anchorage, AK April 16, 2014

They should be included Bilhah and Zilpah bore four sons, and probably helped raise all of Jacob's children. We carry their genetic material. Whether o not Jacob loved them is not relevant. They deserve to be included. Reply

Anonymous March 8, 2014

At least Leah and Rachel did not chase their sons from slaves-concubines-surrogates, simpletons, material grounded non spiritual, etc, into the desert. It is a petty of the rabbis to shower the average humans with mystical attributes. For a moment think about Leah, happily surrogating for her beautiful sister in marriage and in bed with Jacob. Dig deeper into their soul and you will find the superiority complex of the Heart of the nations. Do you think the rest of people or the descendants of non-matriarchs do not feel it? They do. Look at the history and Christian rampage against the Jews, which is still continues,the irrational feelings wrapped into all kinds of explanations. Look into your own hearts and see where it all began. Reply

רוברט בריתו לאה Dominican Republic April 12, 2013

Please, read the foot notes They explain much in few words.
Naftali even goes deep into the teachings of the gaon of Vilna about the secrets of the 7 heavens and 4 worlds, please see that maljut in Atzilut is not the same that maljut in Briya, the sefirah maljut has got to be seen and understood differently in those 2 worlds. שלום Reply

Sidney Davis Boston January 30, 2013

Why aren't Bilhah and Zilpah counted as Jewish Matriarchs? Because they were slaves. Reply

My name is actually Zilpah January 30, 2013

Zilpah and Bilhah Sheesh. People. Listen up. Every single iota in the universe has a mission. A job to do. Zilpah and Bilhah have their work cut out for them. Tending to others, birthing lives, transmitting the virtues of Tiferet into the world via their offspring. Making new connections with Yaakov that were not applicable to the lofty ones - but could only be brought about through the earth angels named Zilpah and Bilhah because they were gifted with attributes - specially inherent to them - courage, HUMILITY, strength, endurance, fortitude and possessing minds that were original, open and receptive. Know the tree by their fruits. Look to Asher and Gad to understand Zilpah. Look to Bilhah's sons to know her. Someone needs to bring the royalty to the common folk. That was the role Zilpah and Bilhah embodied. Reply

Anonymous Boston, MA August 20, 2012

Bilhah and Zilpah Bilhah and Zilpah were slaves. Reply

Mindy Houston, TX June 23, 2012

Bilhah and Zilpah Bilhah and Zilpah were surrogates. In today's jargon, they would be termed Gestational Surrogates. They helped Rachel and Leah have children, but did so without any intention of keeping these children as theirs. Women who become surrogates are giving the ultimate gift, but after their pregnancies, they go back to their own families. Reply

Paul Middletown, NY February 7, 2011

bilha and zilpah I believe that if a woman labors for nine months and then gives birth to a child, she is entitled to be a matriarch. My confusion is that the Hebrew word for wife and concubine is the same, "isha".
Both Leah and Rachel say to Jacob, I give you my handmaiden as a wife and Jacob did not hesitate to have four sons by them. If Bilhah and Zilpah are not considered as matriarchs, then we have only eight tribes in Israel. Then in the blessing, Rachel is mentioned before Leah even though she had only two sons Leah had six sons and a daughter.Notwithstanding the Ancient Near East custom of having the barren wife lie beneath the laboring woman while she gave birth between the knees. I don't see anything special about Zilpah and Bilhah since it was customary for the head of the family to sleep with his concubines or servants. Reply

Kaylee February 5, 2011

4 components of the Divine attribute of Royalty "while the Matriarch's souls were the embodiment of (four components of) the Divine attribute of Royalty (Malchut)."

Do these also have names? I am very curious! Reply

Anonymous New York July 22, 2010

Bilhah I thought that the name Beyla was the Yiddish form of Bilhah. Reply

Kareem Jacob rogers new york, ny June 6, 2010

bilhah so is this teaching on bilhah yet another way to attempt to deny us Yemeni Jews of our Jewish heritage? Reply

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