Vayeitzei: Bilhah, Zilpah and one third of a nation

I gave this D’var Torah on November 21, 2015 at Minyan Masorti at Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia.  The Torah Portion Vayeitzei appears at Genesis 28:10 to 32:3.

Today’s Dvar Torah could be entitled “One third of the nation”

In his second inaugural address in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the plight of one Third of the Nation—ill clad, ill housed, ill nourished. A year later, this phrase was the title of a Federal Theater—WPA play about housing conditions in New York City.

Had our ancestor Jacob, his principal wives, Leah and Rachel, and generations of scholars and commentators acted differently, one third of our nation—the tribes of Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher—would have ben something less than full Jews.


In today’s portion, we read about Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah.   Rachel and Leah gave their handmaidens to their husband Jacob, so they could bear children through them.

In our text, Bilhah and Zilpah, as well as Hagar, are termed a “shifchah.”   From the ancient documents of the Middle East, we learn of the institution of the surrogate mother—a shifchah.   A barren wife would give her slave or servant to her husband for the purpose of breeding. The children born to the shifchah would be considered the children of her barren mistress.   The shifchah had no rights to the children.

In the brutally frank language of Womanist theologian Wil Gafney, the shifchah was a “womb slave.”

Dr. Gafney was a familiar figure at Germantown Jewish Centre as a member of Dorshei Derekh.   She is an Episcopal priest and former faculty member at Lutheran Theological Seminary.   She is now associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In 2012, Dr. Gafney gave a D’var Torah about the womb-slaves Bilhah and Zilpah. Her talk led to a study by that minyan as to whether Bilhah and Zilpah should be included among the Imahot in the beginning blessings of the Amidah.

In her blog post entitled “Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman,” Dr. Gafney uses the term “womb-slave” because “the girls are given by other women to men for sex for the express purpose of impregnating them.” She says girls rather than women because they were likely young enough to be presumed fertile and might be virginal to avoid questions of paternity.

Dr. Gafney says that the terms shifchah and amah are used nearly interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures, although there was likely a distinction between them. Both terms refer primarily but not exclusively to foreign women. Translating either term as “maid” intentionally obscures the sexual nature of the servitude.


The text is silent as to how Bilhah came into Lavan’s household. Dr. Gaffney speculates that Bilhah could have been born in captivity or taken as a spoil of war. She could been a servant to Lavan’s mysteriously missing wife. Given the absence of Lavan’s wife from the narrative, Dr. Gafney says, it is entirely possible that Lavan had used Bilhah sexually.

Dr. Gafney’s focus on sexual exploitation represents a departure from the Jewish tradition.

Our tradition treats Bilhah and Zilpah kindly. The Midrash speculates that they were the daughters of Lavan through concubines. They were half-sisters of Leah and Rachel.

Leah and Rachel freed Bilhah and Zilpah before they were given to Jacob. Rachel and Leah wanted their shifchot to be legitimate wives so that there would be no distinctions between the sons of Jacob.  Jacob treated all his sons as equals.   After the death of Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah raised Joseph and Benjamin.

In summary, Bilhah and Zilpah were family.

The Dorshe Derekh study produced the following reasons why Bilhah and Zilpah should be included in the Imahot.

  1. While there is a strong early tradition of four mothers, there is a Midrashic tradition of six mothers. When the rabbis were looking for things to add up to four, there were four mothers. When they wanted seven, they added the four mothers and three fathers. When they wanted six, Bilhah and Zilpah were included.   The inclusion or exclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah was not driven by values.
  1. No texts were found about Bilhah and Zilpah’s faith or religion.   But if they were daughters of Lavan by a concubine, under patrilineal descent they would have the same status as Leah and Rachel.
  1. The principal of Avadim hayinu bemitzrayim (We were slaves in Egypt.) It could be argued that Bilhah and Zilpah were omitted as Imahot because of race and class. Inclusion would create empathy for all those who are down-trodden, victimized, or in pain. Inclusion would validate marginalized individuals and groups.
  1. The principle of B’tzelem Elohim. (Created in the image of God).   Bilhah and Zilpah should be treated as people rather than womb/surrogates. They put their lives on the line by becoming pregnant and giving birth to One Third of the Nation.

Rabbi Reena Spicehandler did not favor inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amidah. In her post on the Dorshei Derekh blog, Rabbi Spicehandler cited two reasons for not including Bilhah and Zilpah.

“First, I think we are confusing a spiritual issue with one of social justice and fairness. I see no evidence in Bereishit that Bilhah and Zilpah considered the Jewish God or religion to be theirs. The other matriarchs do appear to have chosen to follow a Jewish path and in many cases to pray to God or to be following God’s plan. So, to say God of Zilpah and Bilhah seems inaccurate to me and would not enhance my sense of spiritual connection. If we want to honor those (especially women) who are our ancestors, I suggest a kavanah at some point in the service. There are many others, such as Ruth or Tamar who could be included as important matriarchs!”

Rabbi Spicehandler’s second concern is related to the importance of the number seven (four matriarchs and three patriarchs) in Jewish mysticism and gematria.   Seven days of the week, seven wedding blessings, seven times seven years to the Jubilee. If we add Bilhah and Zilpah we would have nine. In general the rabbis have shied away from multiples of three because of trinitarian concerns, Rabbi Spicehandler concluded.

Ultimately, Dorshei Derekh decided that the prayer leader could chose to include or omit Bilhah and Zilpah.

How should we address the status of Bilhah and Zilpah?

There is the Hebrew acronym, BaRZeL, Bet, Resh, Zayen, Lamed—representing Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah. Note that the names of the maidservants precede the names of their mistresses. BaRZeL translates as IRON in Hebrew.

According to kabbalistic teaching, ( See Elizabeth Wyner Mark,The Four Wives of Jacob: Matriarchs Seen and Unseen, The Reconstructionist, Fall 1998, page 34), it is from the connection to Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah, that a piece of iron derives a magical protective force.

At times of cosmic danger, such as the equinoxes, a piece of BaRZel in the drinking water protects it from contamination.   A piece of BaRZeL at the side of a pregnant woman or under the pillow of a dying person can safeguard life’s beginning and its ending.

I do not advocate adding Bilhah and Zilpah to our liturgy. But we can invoke their role in founding the House of Jacob, their integrity, good character, and strength—their BaRZel —in pursing Jewish values and living Jewish lives.