The Bible Says What? ‘We honour four matriarchs, but there should be six’

The Bible Says What? ‘We honour four matriarchs, but there should be six’

Rabbi Sandra Kviat takes a controversial topic from the Torah and applies a progressive response

 Only three are referred to as patriarchs; and only four are referred to as matriarchs. (Talmud)

Zilpah and Bilhah aren’t names that are familiar to most Jews, yet they gave birth to four of the 12 tribes of Israel. The passages of Torah in which this happens are deeply troubling and throw up many issues around consent and coercion.

The handmaidens (slaves) of Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, are “given” to Jacob by them in order to bear him children, though rabbinic tradition tries to soften the stance by claiming they were the half-sisters of Leah and Rachel, or second wives.

After, we assume, being forced into/expected to sleep with Jacob, their children (Gad, Asher, Dan and Naphtali) are “adopted” by Rachel and Leah, and Zilpah and  Bilhah disappear from view again, their roles as surrogate mothers spent.

Despite playing such a key role in what became the Jewish people, the handmaidens are sidelined and ignored. They are seen as vessels without any status.

Even our own Progressive services and prayer books – which pride themselves on giving equal status to women and always list Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel alongside Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in
the Amidah – have been silent on Zilpah and Bilhah.

But things are starting to change. Modern Jewish feminists are reclaiming Bilhah and Zilpah as matriarchs, and Liberal Judaism is working on
a new Siddur that includes them.

It is vital Judaism shows its commitment to equality and recognising people whatever their background. We should start by talking about these two forgotten matriarchs.


  •   Rabbi Sandra Kviat serves Crouch End Chavurah
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