Parsha Halacha

Parshat Vayetzei

Bilhah and Zilpah

The Almost Matriarchs

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The Torah portion of Vayeitzei discusses how Yaakov built his family while in Charan. He married the two sisters Leah and Rachel and then also married their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Bilhah and Zilpah became the mothers of four of the tribes of the Jewish people; Dan and Naftali were from Bilhah while Gad and Asher were from Zilpah. This article is about those maidservants.

Wedding Gifts

The Chumash recounts that Lavan gave Bilhah to Leah as a gift when she married Yaakov and he gave Zilpah to Rochel when she married Yaakov.[1] When Rochel saw she was barren, she gave Zilpah to Yaakov as a wife in order to merit having children of her own.[2] Following her example, Leah gave Bilhah to Yaakov as a wife in order to merit more of her own children.[3]


The Midrash says[4] that Leah and Rochel inherited Bilhah and Zilpah from the Ketubah of their mother. (Perhaps Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s mother was a maidservant who originally belonged to Rochel and Leah’s mother, see below.) Although Lavan presented it as if he was giving them a gift, it was, in fact, something that was due them.

Daughters of Lavan

According to Rashi,[5] Bilhah and Zilpah were also daughters of Lavan. But since their mother was a maidservant,[6] they had the status of maidservants rather than that of regular daughters. This explains why he gave them to his “official” daughters as their servants.

It seems that Bilhah and Zilpah shared the same mother and, as such, were full sisters.[7]

Marrying Sisters

Yaakov married Bilhah and Zilpah despite the fact that they were sisters to each other and to Rochel and Leah. This is difficult to understand as it is forbidden by Torah law to marry sisters[8] and Yaakov Avinu[9] (and all of the patriarchs[10]) observed the entire Torah.[11]

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that children of a maidservant are considered to be the property of the owner of that maidservant and are therefore not considered to be related to their biological family.[12]

Who Was Older?

Although Leah was older than Rochel, Lavan gave her Zilpah, the younger handmaiden, in order to confuse Yaakov and make him think that Leah was Rochel, the younger sister, the one whom he had promised to Yaakov.[13]

The fact that Zilaph was younger can also be inferred from the verse. As regarding the conception of all of the tribes it says that their mother conceived, whereas regarding Zilpah it says “and Zilpah gave birth…”[14] and does not mention the conception. This indicates that she was so young that she had not yet had her first period and as such her pregnancy was not known until it was visible. As such, the time of conception was not known until much later.[15]

Were They Freed?

Some say[16] that Rochel and Leah freed Bilhah and Zilpah respectively when they gave them to Yaakov as wives, as the verse says,[17] “Here is my maid Bilhah [i.e., she was my maid up until this point]… And she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife [i.e., from this point on, she is your wife and no longer my maid].”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out,[18] however, that the Chumash refers to both Bilhah and Zilpah as maidservants many times even after they were given to Yaakov as wives.[19] Thus it seems that they maintained that status even after they were married. Nevertheless, their children were not considered slaves but rather full children in every way.[20]


The Arizal taught[21] that the word בַּרְזֶלBarzel (iron) is an acronym for the four wives of Yaakov, בלהה רחל זלפה לאה (Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah). These four holy women counter four unholy feminine aspects[22] which are also manifested in the bed of Og, the king of Bashan, which is described as[23] הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל – “Behold, his bed was an iron (barzel) bed.” In the list of the matriarchs, the maidservants are mentioned before the main wives as in the realm of unholiness (which they are opposing,) “the maid precedes her mistress.”[24]

Another reason as to why the maidservants are mentioned first in this acronym is that Rochel and Leah merited to have (more) children because of them.[25]

Mystical Levels

From a Kabbalistic perspective, Bilhah and Zilpah represent the Divine attribute of Malchut (kingship) as it descends into the realms of Briyah, Yetzirah and Asiyah (the mystical realms of Creation, Formation and Action). Although this a low level, by marrying them, Yaakov “rectified” this level and was then able to fully rectify the higher spiritual levels represented by Rachel and Leah.[26]

Why Did Yaakov Move in with Bilhah?

When Rachel was alive, Yaakov’s main residence was her tent.[27] After she passed away, Yaakov moved his bed into the tent of her maidservant, Bilhah. Leah’s son Reuven was upset that his mother was being treated inferior to a maidservant, so he moved his father’s bed into his mother’s tent.[28] Since he interfered with his father’s marital bed, the Torah considers it as if he committed adultery.[29]

The commentaries offer different reasons as to why Yaakov chose Bilhah above Leah who was a primary wife.

Here are some of their interpretations:[30]

●      The Maharsha says that he decided to live (mostly) with the maidservant of Rachel in order to honor her memory as his main wife.

●      The Eitz Yosef says that Yaakov feared that Leah would resent him moving in with her since he had not done so while Rachel was alive.

●      The Menachem Meishiv Nafshi explains that Yaakov would generally spend time with Rachel as he sensed that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) was found in her tent. After Rachel passed away, he sensed that the Shechinah was in Bilha’s tent, which is why he moved in with her.

Four Matriarchs

According to our sages,[31] we only call four of our female ancestors “matriarchs” (lit. אמנו – “our mothers”). These are Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah.[32] Although Bilhah and Zilpah were the mothers of four of the tribes, they are not considered matriarchs. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro explains[33] that only the main wives of the patriarchs are counted as matriarchs as they are considered to be one unit with their husbands. The Ben Ish Chai explains[34] that Bilhah and Zilpah, being the handmaidens of Rochel and Leah were considered to be included in their status and do not have to be counted separately.

May we merit to follow in the ways of our holy ancestors!

[1] Gen. 29:24 and 29

[2] Rashi explains that in the merit of giving her maidservant to her husband as a wife, Rochel hoped that G-d would grant her children of her own.

[3] Ibid 30:3 and 9

[4] Midrash Lekach Tov, quoted in Ohr HaChaim on Gen. 29:24

[5] On Gen. 31:50 based on the repetition of the word בְּנֹתַי (my daughters)

[6] Rashi writes that they were daughters of a pilegesh, which means a concubine. But see Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, pg. 231 that often pilegesh refers to a concubine who is a maidservant (see Rashi on Gen. 22:20) as people would often take women of inferior social status (such as a maidservant) as a concubine. (See Gen. 36:12 that Timnah, the daughter of a prince, was a pilegesh. But see Rashi there that she was born of an adulterous relationship and was thus considered an illegitimate child.)

In this case, since these daughters were treated as servants, it is clear that their mother had the same status.

But see Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosfot that in ancient days it was customary for the daughters of a secondary wife to be treated as servants.

[7] Rashi writes בִּלְהָה וְזִלְפָּה בְּנוֹתָיו הָיוּ מִפִּילֶגֶשׁ – Bilhah and Zilpah were his daughters from a pilegesh(singular). See Likutei Sichot vol. 5 page 231. But see there, page 141 footnote 5.

[8] Levit. 18:18

[9] Rashi on Gen. 32:5

[10] See Gen. 26:5 and commentaries there.

[11] See Yad Rameh on Sanhedrin 58a that, according to some, it is forbidden by Noahide law to marry two sisters.

As to why Yaakov married Rochel and Leah who were sisters, see Likutei Sichot vol. 5 page 141 and on.

[12] See Gen. 30:6 where Rochel refers to Bilha’s son as her own.

See Exodus 21:21 that a slave is “his (the owner’s) property” and Nazir 62b that a slave “does not own himself.”

[13] Midrash Aggadah on Gen. 29:24

[14] Gen. 30:10

[15] Rashi as explained in Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez

[16] Ohr Hachaim on Gen. 30:3

[17] Gen. ibid

[18] Likutei Sichot vol. 5 page 235, footnote 46

[19] See Gen. 30:7, 10 and 12, ibid 32:23 and 33:1. See also 35:22 and Rashi there

[20] See Rashi on Gen. 37:2 that Yosef reported the “bad behavior” of the sons of Leah who were calling the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah “slaves.” Clearly, this was not considered their true status.

[21] Sefer Halikutim of the Arizal, Parshat Vayechi, 49:11

[22] Their names are רהב, לילית, אגרת and מחלת

[23] Deut. 3:11

[24] Proverbs 30:23

[25] Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. 2, Parshat Vayechi, pg. 85

[26] Ibid. In a similar manner, King David was conceived from a relationship with a woman who his father thought was a maidservant (ibid footnote 89).

[27] Rashi on Gen 31:33

[28] Sefer HaYashar, Parshat Vayishlach. See Yalkut Biurim on Shabbat 55b for other interpretations as to what Reuven did.

[29] See Gen. 35:22 and commentaries. See also Shabbat ibid

[30] Quoted in Yalkut Biurim on Shabbat ibid

[31] Brachot 16b and Tractate Smachot 1:14

[32] Chidushei HaRa’ah on Brachot ibid

[33] Magid Ta’alumah on Brachot ibid

[34] Responsa Ben Ish Chayil, Siman 2


Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom uMevorach!

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