Zilpah: Midrash and Aggadah
The Rabbis count Zilpah among the six Matriarchs (Cant. Rabbah 6:4:2) and an aggadic tradition relates that she was the niece of Deborah, Rebekah’s wet nurse. She was named Zilpah after the place where her father had been taken prisoner (Midrash Aggadah, ed. Buber, Gen. 30:2). However, according to another tradition, Zilpah was the daughter of Laban and one of his concubines and she was thus the paternal half-sister of Rachel and Leah (Gen. Rabbati, Vayeze, p. 119).
The rabbis reveal that Leah and Zilpah knew that they were intended to marry Esau, while Rachel and Bilhah were meant for Jacob. In consequence Zilpah wept incessantly and tears poured (zolfot) from her eyes; hence her name. But since Esau threw off all moral bounds, Jacob was given all four women (Shir ha-Shirim Zuta 1:15; Sekhel Tov [ed. Buber], Gen. 30:7).
Zilpah was the handmaiden of Leah, to whom she had been given by her father Laban upon her marriage to Jacob. The midrash relates that since Jacob married Leah unwillingly, he was also given Zilpah so as not to grieve Leah (Gen. Rabbati, Vayeze, p. 120). According to another midrashic account, Zilpah was Rachel’s handmaiden, and her father exchanged her for Bilhah when he deceived Jacob, so that Zilpah became Leah’s handmaiden (Midrash Aggadah, ed. Buber, Gen. 29:24).
When Leah saw that she ceased bearing, she gave Zilpah to Jacob. The Rabbis relate that Leah learned such conduct from Sarah. Leah said: “If Sarah, who was barren, gave her handmaiden to her husband and was built up through her, should I, who have sons, surely not do so?” (Gen. Rabbati, Vayeze, p. 121). One tradition has Leah freeing Zilpah, whom she then gave to Jacob as a wife, and not as a concubine (Lekah Tov, Gen. 30:9). Zilpah was the youngest of Jacob’s four wives and her pregnancy was not apparent; therefore the Torah states merely that “she bore” (Gen. 30:10–12), in contrast with the other Matriarchs, of each of whom it is also said “she conceived” (Gen. Rabbah 71:30).
Jacob favored Rachel and even loved her maidservant Bilhah more than Zilpah, the handmaiden of Leah (Gen. Rabbati, Vayeze, p. 120). Zilpah initially refused to bear children for Jacob; hence the wording “persons in all,” that is used in reference to the children of Rachel, Leah, and Bilhah, is not used in regard to Asher’s sons, thereby not fully accrediting them to Zilpah in the listing of Jacob’s descendants in Gen. 46:17 (Gen. Rabbati, Vayigash, 223).
According to one midrashic tradition, Reuben did not lie only with Bilhah, as is recounted in Gen. 35:22, but also with Zilpah. Jacob accordingly reproved him in his blessing to his sons (Gen. 49:4): “For when you mounted [mishkavei—implying more than one act] your father’s bed” (Gen. Rabbah 99, ed. Theodor and Albeck [MS. Vatican]).