The twelve tribes of Israel were conceived by four women. Two of them, Rachel and Leah, are lionized in history as the matriarchs of our people. They are so well known that in the list of the most popular American girls’ names, Rachel and Leah rank 235 and 61 respectively.1 Lesser known are the other two, Bilhah and Zilpah, mothers to Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.2 Bilhah and Zilpah were originally Rachel and Leah’s handmaids, but when Rachel and Leah struggled to conceive, they proposed that Jacob marry and have children with their handmaids.

Why Aren't Bilhah and Zilpah Jewish Matriarchs?

Who Were They, Anyway?

In Biblical times, men often had many wives. Sometimes, the wives were of different social castes and would retain that social status after marriage. The woman of the higher caste was considered the man’s primary wife and her children received preferential treatment. When a man married into the slave’s caste, on the other hand, the children of their union usually remained slaves. Social anthropologists have coined a rarely used term to describe the practice of a man marrying women from both higher and inferior castes: polycoity.

Our tradition tells us that Laban also had (at least3) two wives.4 Most traditions5 assert that Laban’s second, inferior wife was a concubine, while others6 posit that she was actually his maidservant. Leah and Rachel were sisters born of Laban’s primary wife, and Bilhah and Zilpah were daughters of his second wife, making Bilhah and Zilpah the half-sisters of Rachel and Leah. Before they married, Laban gifted Bilhah and Zilpah to Leah and Rachel as handmaidens (in Hebrew amah or shifchah).7

Bilhah means “to become alarmed” (lehibahel). Bilhah was named so because of her stunning beauty.8 Zilpah means “to flow” (lezalef). This name proved to be prophetic, as when Zilpah was told—as a young girl—that she was destined to join Leah in her marriage to the evil Esau,9 tears would flow down her face.10

Vayeitzei in a Nutshell

Jacob Marries the Maidservants

One could assume that a young bride would be opposed to having her husband marry her maid. What events led Jacob’s wives to offer their handmaids to him in marriage?

At the beginning of her marriage, Rachel could not conceive despite her desire to have Jacob’s children and be part of the future he was trying to build.11 The pain of her childlessness was exacerbated when she watched her sister, Leah, birth not one but four children one after the other. Rachel became jealous of her sister. Besides envying the children she had begotten,12 Rachel attributed Leah’s fertility to her righteousness, and envied the good deeds Leah must have done to merit offspring.13 “Give me children, Jacob!” she cried to her husband. “If not, I am as good as dead!”14 Rachel was so stricken that she thought she would die from grief.15

Mirroring her grandmother Sarah who gave Abraham her maidservant Hagar, Rachel hoped that she would merit to have children if she did the same.16 At the very least, Rachel hoped to help raise Bilhah’s children as her own, mitigating some of the pain she was experiencing.17 Thus, Rachel set Bilhah free and Jacob married her.18 In time, Bilhah bore two children and Rachel named them Dan (“judgment,”) and Naphtali (“contest” or “prayer”19).20

After Leah saw Rachel’s partial success, Nachmanides relates, she too desired more children. Rachel and Leah were prophetesses and knew that Jacob was only destined to have twelve sons. To ensure that the majority of those boys would be borne by her or her handmaid, even though she already had four children at the time (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah), Leah offered Zilpah to Jacob in marriage. It appears that she made the offer half-heartedly, almost hoping he would refuse.21 Zilpah gave birth to two children, and Leah named them Gad (“good luck”) and Asher (“fortune”).22

Rachel eventually gave birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. After her premature passing, Bilhah raised Rachel’s children as her own.23

Why Does Torah Law Allow Polygamy?

Reuben and Bilhah

In Talmudic times, the Torah was read in Hebrew and then in the colloquial Aramaic so that the congregation could understand what was being said. The reader chanted a verse in Hebrew and the meturgeman (translator) would repeat it in Aramaic.24 The Mishnah25 lists four Biblical stories that should not be translated lest they be misinterpreted by the unlearned.26 One of them is the story of Reuben and Bilhah.

The verse27 simply states, “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 so, the sons of Jacob were twelve.”

While one Talmudic tradition interprets the verse literally, the majority do not, prompting the Talmudic dictum, “Anyone who says that Reuben sinned [with Bilhah] is nothing other than mistaken, as it is stated: ‘Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.’ This teaches that all of the brothers were equal [in righteousness].”28

So what does the verse mean? The Talmud (quoted in Rashi29) explains that Reuben moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to the tent of his mother, Leah. Reuben knew that Jacob loved Rachel more than his mother,30 and that it was she who Jacob desired to marry at the outset. Indeed, Jacob kept his marriage bed in Rachel’s tent for the duration of her life. After Rachel’s passing, Reuben assumed that Jacob would move into Leah’s tent. In his mind, Bilhah and Zilpah were inferior to Rachel and Leah, their former masters. When Jacob chose to move into Bilhah’s tent instead, he felt righteous indignation. “If my mother’s sister was my mother’s rival, should my mother’s sister’s handmaid be her rival as well?” He took Jacob’s bed and moved it to Leah’s tent.31

Years later, when Jacob blessed his children before his passing, he chastised Reuben for this act. “[You have] the restlessness of water; [therefore,] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father's couch; then you profaned [Him Who] ascended upon my bed.”32

Jacob punished Reuben for his disrespectful act by declining to give him the usual firstborn rights.33 The Book of Chronicles records, “For he [Reuben] was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel.”34 Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, became two separate tribes, mirroring the double inheritance given to firstborn children.

How Could Jacob Marry Two Sisters?

The Talmud tells us that Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.35 Presumably, Abraham taught his descendants to observe the commandments as well.36 Indeed, the Midrash records that Jacob kept Shabbat,37 and Rashi quotes Jacob in conversation with Esau, “I have lived (גרתי) with Laban and kept all of the 613 (תריג) commandments.”38

Knowing this, commentators throughout the ages have grappled with instances where it seems that the patriarchs neglected to observe a particular commandment, including Jacob’s marriage to two sisters despite the Biblical prohibition:39 “And you shall not take a woman with her sister [in marriage] as rivals.” Many explanations have been given to solve this contradiction. Here are a few:

Nachmanides answers that the patriarchs only kept the law when they resided in Israel. Outside the Holy Land, they kept only the moral laws incumbent on all of humanity, and that code permits marrying sisters.40

Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Eidels, the Maharsha,41 explains, based on the dictum, “a convert is considered like a newborn,” that Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah converted to Judaism before they married Jacob and were no longer legal siblings.42

Rabbi Judah Lowy, the Maharal of Prague,43 understands that the patriarch’s fulfillment of the commandments was based on ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration). In the instances where they veered from that practice, it was once again ruach hakodesh that instructed them to do so. In this instance, G‑d saw that these four women were especially suited to be the progenitors of the Jewish people, so He suspended His prohibition for Jacob.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, of righteous memory, wonders why Rashi—who is supposed to address all questions a simple reader of the Torah might have—doesn’t address this one. In two talks,44 the Rebbe answers the question in regards to both sets of sisters.

The Rebbe explains that the patriarchs agreed to observe the Torah not as an obligation (like it became after the Torah was given) but as a self-imposed stringency. The Seven Noahide Laws and other accepted moral practices, however, were absolutely binding. As such, when faced with competing values, an accepted moral precept would trump their non-binding acceptance of the Torah’s prohibitions. In our case, Jacob promised Rachel he would marry her.45 Keeping one’s promise was an accepted moral law at the time,46 so even after he married Leah he would have to fulfill his promise to Rachel despite the Torah’s prohibition against doing so.47

This explanation does not justify his marriage to Bilhah and Zilpah, however, to whom no promises were made. In a long and complex legal treatise, the Rebbe argues, a) that Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s mother was a maidservant according to Rashi,48 and b) that the children of a maidservant do not have the legal status of siblings.49 Therefore, Jacob did not violate a Torah prohibition by marrying them.

On a final note, while little has been recorded about these two great women, Bilhah and Zilpah, that which we do have paints a portrait of devotion, piety and goodness, traits they undoubtedly passed on to their children.