Are the Maidservants Equal Matriarchs?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Jacob has thirteen named children. Their mothers are Bilhah (Dan, Naphtali), Zilpah (Gad, Asher), Leah (Reuven, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah), and Rachel (Yosef, Binyamin).

Are the four mothers on equal footing?

Genesis 30:3-13 tells us that Rachel, seeing that Leah already had four children with Yaakov, decided to be ‘built up’ through her amah (maid-servant), Bilhah. Bilhah is also referred to as Rachel’s shifchah (literally, female slave) (Gen. 30:4). Leah later does the same thing with her shifchah Zilpah. The relationship among the mothers therefore parallels the relationship between Sarah and Hagar two generations earlier, and Hagar was sent away when she openly presumed herself to be Sarah’s equal. 

However, Hagar’s son Yishmael did not become part of Israel, while Bilhah and Zilpah’s children did.  I would find it disturbing if Bilhah and Zilpah’s original social status had ongoing implications. This seems to be the case in the following series of texts cited on Berakhot 16b:

תניא אידך

עבדים ושפחות אין מספידין אותן

רבי יוסי אומר אם עבד כשר הוא אומרים עליו הוי איש טוב ונאמן ונהנה מיגיעו

אמרו לו אם כן מה הנחת לכשרים:

It was taught in another baraita:

One does not eulogize slaves and maidservants.

Rabbi Yosei says: If he was a virtuous servant, one recites over him a eulogy of sorts: “Alas, a good and loyal man who enjoyed the fruits of his hard labor.”

They said to him: If so, what praise have you left for virtuous Jews? A Jewish person would be proud to be eulogized in that manner.

תנו רבנן

אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה

ואין קורין אמהות אלא לארבע

The Sages taught in a baraita:

One may only call three people patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And one may only call four people matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

אבות מאי טעמא?

אילימא משום דלא ידעינן אי מראובן קא אתינן אי משמעון קא אתינן’ אי הכי אמהות נמי לא ידעינן אי מרחל קא אתינן אי מלאה קא אתינן!?

אלא עד הכא חשיבי טפי לא חשיבי

The Gemara asks: What is the reason for this exclusivity with regard to the category Patriarchs?

If you say that it is because we do not know whether we descend from Reuben or from Simon, if so, with regard to the Matriarchs as well, we do not know whether we descend from Rachel or from Leah!?

Rather, until Jacob they are significant enough to be referred to as patriarchs, but beyond Jacob, they are not significant enough to be referred to as patriarchs.

תניא אידך

עבדים ושפחות אין קורין אותם אבא פלוני ואמא פלונית

ושל רבן גמליאל היו קורים אותם אבא פלוני ואמא פלונית

While the above baraita declares that the term “Fathers” is exclusive,  another Baraita implies that older people were often given the honorific ‘Father’.  

One may not refer to slaves and maidservants as Father [abba] X or Mother [imma] Y.

They would call the slaves and maidservants of Rabban Gamliel “Father X” and “Mother Y.”

מעשה לסתור משום דחשיבי:

The Gemara asks: Is the practice of Rabban Gamliel cited in order to contradict the halakha stated in the previous line of the baraita?

The Gemara answers: There is no contradiction; rather, because Rabban Gamliel’s servants were significant, they were given these honorifics, whereas ordinary slaves should not receive them.

This resolution seems to ignore the problem that the first baraita cited limited the term to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!?  Rashi explains that the first baraita meant father in the national sense; and was intended to distinguish Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their immediate Biblical descendants, such as Jacob’s children.

Rashba offers two extensions of this approach.

אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה.

פירש הראב”ד ז”ל: שאין אומרים “מי שענה ראובן אבינו” או “שמעון אבינו”

ואם אמר – לא הפסיד, אלא שאין עלינו חובה לכבוד זה אלא לשלשה האבות.

ואינו מחוור בעיני,

דאין קורין אמהות אלא לארבעה מאי איכא למימר?!

אלא הפירוש הנכון כמו שפירש רבנו האי ז”ל

דלכבוד בעלמא קאמר, ולומר שאין חשובין להקרא אבות לכל ישראל ואמהות לכל ישראל אלא שלשה אבות וארבע אמהות.

We do not refer to as “fathers” but three.

Raavad interpreted this to mean that we do not liturgically say “He who answered Reuven, our father,” or “Simon, our father.” If one did say so, one has not lost out halakhically; but there is no obligation to give such an honor to anyone other than the three Avot.

But I the Rashba do not like this interpretation,

because if so, what is the purpose of the baraita in writing “one may only call four people matriarchs” (since that element of the liturgy only mentions men)?

Rather the correct interpretations is like Rav Hai interpreted,

that this refers to generic (rather than liturgical) honor, meaning that only the three fathers and the four mothers are not important enough to be called “fathers” for all of Israel and “mothers” for all of Israel.

By limiting the term “mothers” to four, excluding Bilhah and Zilpah, these texts suggest that because Bilhah and Zilpah were slaves or servants, they are less important than Leah or Rachel. Rashba clearly indicates that the titles “father” and “mother” reflect overall significance, and Ben Yehoyada, (authored by the Ben Ish Chai) accepts this line of reasoning so completely that he wonders how it is possible to say that Moshe Rabbeinu is less important than the three Avot. He answers that the title “Rav” or “Rabbeinu” is greater than the title of “Av.”

However, Rashba also cited Raavad, who limits the implications to the liturgical context. Even if “less important” is to be understood as the defining factor for the liturgy, excluding Bilhah and Zilpah would still leave them on the same level as Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yosef, etc. the twelve sons of Jacob, which objectively isn’t unimportant.

Another key difference between Rashba and Raavad is this.  Rashba holds that it is inappropriate to use the term Avinu for anyone other than Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.

By contrast, Raavad says that while we have no obligation to refer to Reuven as an Av, we are permitted to do so. It follows that we may choose to refer to Bilhah and Zilpah as Imahot. 

Midrash Tanchuma to Vayeshev goes further.  It strongly critiques any inequality between the children of Rachel and Leah and those of Bilhah and Zilpah based on their mothers’ original social status. 

אמר לאביו שהן נוהגין בבני בלהה וזלפה מנהג עבדים וקורין אותן עבדים

Yosef said to his father: my brothers are treating the sons of Bilha and Zilpa as if they are slaves, and calling them “slaves.”

This Midrash teaches that the lashon hara Yosef spoke about his brothers from Rachel and Leah was that they were treating the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah in a slavelike manner and calling them slaves. His punishment was being sold into slavery himself.  

It’s ambiguous whether Yosef’s charge was true or invented. But it is clear that the children of Leah and Rachel would have been wrong to treat their brothers from Bilhah and Zilpah as inferior. 

Moreover, many, many midrashim do in fact have the phrase “the six mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.” For example, Midrash Rabbah to Parshat Naso (12) parallels the six wagons offered by the heads of the tribes to the six mothers, and that comparison to the six matriarchs is also taught in Pesikta deRav Kahana (1).  Similarly, midrashim on the number six in Midrash Rabba Esther (1) and Shir haShirim (6) refer to the six mothers, referring to all six by name, including Bilha and Zilpa.

Does this Midrashic tradition, repeated in many independent contexts, disagree with the traditions cited on Berachot 16b?  This appears to depend on the dispute between Raavad and Rashba. According to Raavad, these midrashim might be permissibly choosing to extend the title of “Mother” to Bilhah and Zilpah. According to Rashba, Berachot 16b forbids that extension, and therefore these midrashim must be disagreeing with those baraitot.

Other Midrashim emphasize that Yaakov married Bilhah and Zilpah with the full honor and status accorded to wives, and that their children were his children with the same status as the children from Leah or Rachel. For example,  Pesikta Zutra (Vayetzei 30) teaches that Zilpa was married to Yaakov as an “Isha” (as a full wife, building off the verse Bereshit 30:9), and emphasises: “as a wife, and not as a pilegesh. Rather, she was freed, and married in the manner of free women.” 

Bereshit Rabati to Vayetzei goes farther and suggests, in one possibility, that Bilha and Zilpa were Lavan’s daughters, born to him from a pilegesh, and that this is why they were called shefachot. The Midrash Sekhel Tov (29) also teaches that Zilpah and Bilhah were both Laven’s daughters from a pilegesh. Commenting on the verse, (Bereshit 46:18) “These are the sons of Zilpa, that Lavan gave to Leah his daughter,” Midrash Sekhel Tov (46) teaches that Lavan gave Zilpa as a shifcha or maidservant, but she was freed before marrying Yaakov.

One Midrash (Sechel Tov Buber, Lech Lecha 16) explicitly takes on the comparison to Hagar by saying  that Rachel and Leah named the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, much like Noami named the daughter of Ruth, whereas Sarah didn’t name Hagar’s son Yishmael because her jealousy was overwhelming. This fascinating midrash, based off the verse that Abraham named his son Yishmael (see Bereshit 16:15), suggests a contrast between Bilha, Zilpa, and Hagar. It seems possible that Rachel, Leah, Bilha, and Zilpa got along better than Hagar and Sarah, and were a more united front. This Midrash emphasizes the differences between the two situations in the very aspect of similarity, i.e. women brought into a marriage by wives struggling with infertility.

Bilha and Zilpa were married as full wives, and their children were full and equal inheritors to their father, Yaakov. They may have started out as maidservants to Rachel and Leah, and they may have been daughters of Lavan from a pilegesh, but after they married Yaakov, they were on the same level as Rachel and Leah. Therefore, we can understand and draw on the strong Midrashic traditions that refers to our six matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.


Joshua Skootsky (SBM 2012, 2015) recently graduated Yeshiva University with a degree in Mathematics and still lives in Washington Heights.

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