Leah: Midrash and Aggadah

by Tamar Kadari

“Marriage of Jacob and Leah,” biblical bas-relief by Sylvia Lefkovitz. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

Many midrashic interpretations of Leah compare her to her sister, Rachel, as they are both extremely influential scriptural figures. Although Jacob prefers Rachel, he ultimately marries Leah first due to the scheming of the sisters’ father. God blesses Leah with children, preventing her divorce with Jacob, either because of her unhappiness or her merits. She has six sons and one daughter; two of her sons become ancestors of two of the twelve tribes. Leah gives her handmaiden Zilpah to be Jacob’s new wife after Leah herself becomes unable to bear children. The midrash interprets this deed as extremely selfless, leading to rewards for Leah herself and also all of Israel.


Leah is depicted in the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah as the woman who was married to Jacob against his will, and as the sister of the beloved and beautiful Rachel. The Rabbis compare Leah and Rachel: both were equivalent in beauty and in their erect stature. However, Leah’s eyes were weak from crying, for she feared that she would have to be married to the wicked Esau. The Rabbis found this weeping to be praiseworthy and declared that by merit of her prayers this fate was set aside, and she was married to Jacob.

The Rabbis ascribe Jacob’s antagonism to Leah to the stratagem by which she was married to him, an act that reminded him of his own act of deception [when he stole the birthright]. Jacob did not divorce her because she bore him children: six sons and a daughter. The tribes of Levi and Judah, the two tribes that were superior to all the rest, descended from her. Leah is called the “older” [ha-gedolah, literally, great] sister (Gen. 29:16), because her gifts were great: she received the priesthood and the throne, which are eternal gifts, in contrast with Rachel, whose gifts were for a limited time. Toward the end of his life, Jacob admits that Leah is the “head of his bed” (the chief wife, the mother of most of his children).

The Rabbis are lavish in their praise of Leah. She was like the rafter of a house, on which the entire world rests; she was a prophet, and the names she gave her sons allude to each tribe’s future. The A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash asserts that from the day that God created His world, He was not praised by anyone until Leah came and said (Gen. 29:35): “This time I will praise the Lord.” This act was a positive example for her offspring, who learned from it, followed in her ways and also praised the Lord.

Two Sisters

Gen. 29:16 mentions Laban’s two daughters, each by name: “the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.” The midrash adds that they had a name by right, and they also had a name by force of their good deeds (Sifrei Zuta 27:1). Scripture indicates that Rachel was more beautiful than Leah, while the exegesis emphasizes the statement (idem) “Now Laban had two daughters,” for both were equal in beauty and in their erect stature (Tanhuma [ed. Buber], Vayeze 12). According to one tradition, they were twins (Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.Seder Olam Rabbah 2).

In the midrashic portrayal, Leah and Rachel were like two rafters of a house extending from one end of the world to the other (i.e., the whole world rested on them). One reared princes and the other reared princes; one produced kings (the dynasty of the house of David, from Leah) and the other produced kings (Saul, Jeroboam and Nadab came from Rachel); the killers of lions came from one (David) and the killers of lions came from the other (Samson). The conquerors of lands were descended from one (Moses and David) and the conquerors of lands were descended from the other (Joshua and Saul); from one, the dividers of lands (Moses) and from the other, the dividers of lands (Joshua); the sacrifice by the son of one overrides the Sabbath (Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple) and the sacrifice by the son of the other overrides the Sabbath (Ephraim, at the dedication of the Tabernacle). The war of the son of one overrides the Sabbath (the war of the Hasmoneans) and the war of the son of the other overrides the Sabbath (the war of Joshua at Jericho); two nights were given to one and two nights were given to the other: the night of Pharaoh and the night of Sennacherib to Leah (Moses and Hezekiah were descended from Leah) and the night of Gideon and the night of Mordecai to Rachel (Gideon’s war against Midian, and the night when sleep deserted Ahasuerus). Notwithstanding this comparison, Leah enjoyed greater gifts, for she received everlasting priesthood and everlasting kingship, while Rachel’s gifts were lesser, since the reigns of both Joseph and Saul were fleeting (Gen. Rabbah 70:15).

Leahs’ Weak Eyes

Gen. 29:17 states: “Leah had weak [rakot, literally, soft] eyes.” The unclear meaning of the adjective “rakot” provided an opportunity for various Rabbinic expositions. According to one interpretation, this description was given in praise of Leah, since the Torah does not speak disparagingly of the righteous. Consequently, the word “rakot” is to be derived from arukot (long), since God gave Leah gifts that continued for all time: the High Priesthood, the throne, and the anointing oil (Tanhuma, ed. Buber Vayeze 20).

According to another exegesis, Leah’s eyes were actually soft, from weeping. This is not understood as disparagement, but rather as praise. At the crossroads she would hear people say: “Rebekah has two sons, and Laban has two daughters. The older girl for the older boy, and the younger girl for the younger boy” (BT Bava Batra 123a). According to another exposition, this was not merely what people said, rather, Rebekah and Laban sent letters to each other, settling among themselves that Esau would marry Leah, while Jacob would take Rachel as a wife (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayeze 12). Leah would ask: “What does the older one do?” They told her: “He is an evil person, a highway robber.” She continued to ask: “What does the younger one do?” She was told that he was (Gen. 25:27) “a mild man, who stayed in camp.” Leah would cry until her eyelashes dropped (BT Bava Batra loc. cit.). Accordingly, her weak eyes teach of Leah’s good traits: that she did not want to be married to Esau. Another exposition has her weeping and saying: “May it be His will that my lot not fall in the portion of the wicked Esau,” and her prayer was efficacious in saving her from this fate (Gen. Rabbah 70:16).

Marriage by Deception

According to one exegetical tradition, Jacob did not prefer Rachel to Leah from the outset. He asked to marry Rachel because he knew that Leah was intended for Esau. He thought to himself: “When I stole the blessings, Esau sought to kill me. Now, when I take his intended wife, he will leave Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael [whom he had married], and he will come to me and say: ‘Was it not enough for you, that you took my birthright and my blessing, you have also taken my intended?’ “Jacob therefore asked Laban to give him Rachel’s hand in matrimony. Laban, also, saw that Esau had married Mahalath, and he worried about Leah’s marriage. Consequently, he decided to immediately give Jacob his elder daughter (Tanhuma ed. Buber, loc. cit.). This exposition, which is based on the juxtaposition of the marriage of Esau to Mahalath (Gen. 28:9) and Laban’s act of deceit (29:26), reflects the above tradition that the parents had already agreed that Esau would marry Leah, and Jacob, Rachel. Jacob kept to this agreement, but Laban feared that it would not be honored because of Esau’s marriage to Mahalath.

In another tradition, which corresponds to the Biblical narrative, Jacob had already fallen in love with Rachel at the well and desired to marry her, preferring her to Leah. Jacob asked Rachel: “Will you marry me?” She answered: “Yes, but my father is a deceiver, and you will not be able to best him.” He asked her: “What is his deceit (in what will he be able to deceive me)?” She told him: “I have an older sister, and he will not marry me off before her.” He said: “I am his brother in deceit.” Jacob gave Rachel signs (so that he would be able to recognize her on the wedding night). When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed (when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her).” She gave the signs to Leah. This is why Gen. 29:25 relates: “When morning came, there was Leah!”—because Rachel had given her the signs, Jacob did not know until the morning that they had been switched (BT Bava Batra loc. cit.). This midrash seeks to explain how Laban succeeded in defrauding Jacob. In this presentation, Jacob is aware of Laban’s deception and even tries to protect himself from it, but his plan is frustrated by Rachel’s compassion for her sister.

Other traditions accentuate Laban’s insurmountable treachery. In one midrashic expansion, Jacob tells Laban: “I know that the people in your place are deceitful. I therefore clearly state my business with you. ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel’ (Gen. 29:18). ‘For Rachel’—and not Leah. ‘Your daughter’—so that you will not bring another from the marketplace whose name is Rachel. ‘Younger’—so that you will not exchange their names.” But this detailing was of no avail to him, and Laban nevertheless succeeded in cheating him (Gen. Rabbah 70:19).

Laban convened all the local people and told them: “You know that we are short on water, and since this righteous one [Jacob] has come, we are blessed with water.” They replied: “Do what you find to be good.” He responded: “Do you want me to deceive him and give him Leah? He loves Rachel exceedingly, and he will remain with you an additional seven years.” They replied: “Do what is good for you.” He said to them: “Give me pledges that none of you will make this known.” They gave him pledges. Laban went and bought wine, oil, and meat for the wedding with that money. This is why he is called Laban the Aramean (arami—ramai, deceiver), because he deceived even the people of his place (and fed them at the wedding feast from their own money). All that day they were joyously chanting praises and singing in honor of the bride and groom. Once evening fell (while they were still singing before him), Jacob asked them: “What is this?” They replied: “You acted charitably with us.” They would shout out: “Heilih, hei lih, hei Leah” [thus hinting to him of the deception, but Jacob did not understand]. At night they came to bring in the bride and they extinguished the lights (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.).

According to another exegetical tradition, Laban sat Rachel in a palanquin and extinguished the lamps; he then took Rachel out with his own hand and put Leah in her place (TanhumaVayeze 7). Jacob asked them: “Why are you extinguishing the lamps?” They answered: “What do you think, that we are disgraceful like you (that we are licentious like you, to engage in relations by the light of a lamp)?” All that night he called her “Rachel,” and she answered him. In the morning, “there was Leah!” He told her: “What is this, you are a deceiver the daughter of a deceiver!” She retorted: “And is there a scribe [teacher] without pupils? Did not your father call you ‘Esau,’ and you answered him? You, too, called me ‘Rachel,’ and I answered you” (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). This midrash shows the parallelism in the Biblical narrative between Laban’s deception of Jacob and Jacob’s tricking of his father; with the exchange of the women, Jacob was punished “measure for measure” for the act of deceit that he committed. This midrash also reveals the reason for Jacob’s enmity towards Leah, who reminded him of a past that he perhaps would have preferred to forget.

Jacob began to work for seven years, and after the seven years he held a banquet for seven days and married Leah. He added another seven days of feasting and rejoicing and then married Rachel. The Rabbis learned from this that seven days of feasting are to be conducted for a bride and groom (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer [ed. Higger], chap. 16). One midrash maintains that Rachel and Leah were married to Jacob when each was twenty-two years old, since they were twins (Seder Olam Rabbah loc. cit.). When Jacob married Laban’s daughters, all the inhabitants of the place came to repay Jacob for his behaving well with them. God said: “You have repaid My servant Jacob—I, too, will give you and your children reward in this world” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, [ed. Higger], chap. 35).

Laban took his two handmaidens and gave them to his two daughters (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer loc. cit.). The midrash relates that Laban did not give his daughters a dowry. Although he had promised them this, his undertaking was merely empty words, and when he sent them from his house, he sent then empty-handed (Gen. Rabbah 74:16).

“And The Lord Saw that Leah Was Unloved and He Opened Her Womb"

The Rabbis tell of Leah’s unhappiness. Jacob was cognizant of her acts of deception and wanted to divorce her (Gen. Rabbah 96:31, [ed. Theodor-Albeck, MS. Vatican, p. 1241]). She was unloved not only by her husband; everyone sneered at her. Sea voyagers would sneer at her, those traveling on the roads would sneer at her, and even women behind the koryas (working clothes, i.e., those who worked in a winepress or who wove) would sneer at her. All would say: “This Leah, what she hides is not as what she reveals. She appears righteous, but she is not such a one. If she were righteous, would she have defrauded her sister?” (Gen. Rabbah 71:2).

When God sees a person bent over in dejection, He gives him a hand and raises him up, as it is said (Ps. 145:14): “The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight.” When God saw that Leah was unloved, He said: “How shall I make her beloved of her husband? Now, I give her children first, so that her husband will love her, and thus I make her stand straight” (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayeze 10). Another tradition has God saying: “Now, I give Leah children so that she will be more beloved than Rachel” (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayeze 12). When Jacob saw that God had remembered Leah with children, he said: “Will I divorce the mother of these?” (Gen. Rabbah 96:31 [ed. Theodor-Albeck, MS. Vatican, loc. cit.]).

According to another exegetical approach, however, God did not give Leah children because of her unhappiness, but because of her merits. He saw that “Leah was unloved” because Esau’s actions were hateful to her and she was willing to deceive Jacob in order to be married to him and thereby be saved from Esau; He accordingly opened her womb (BT Bava Batra loc. cit.).

The Rabbis learned from the wording (Gen. 29:31) “and he opened her womb” that Leah was barren until God remembered her and enabled her to become pregnant (Pesikta de-Rav KahanaRoni Akarah 20:1). They applied to her the verse (I Sam. 2:5): “While the barren woman bears seven,” for she had first been barren, and then bore seven children (Gen. Rabbah 72:1).

The Children of Leah

Leah bore Jacob six sons and one daughter. In the midrashic retelling, her pregnancies lasted seven months, and all of Jacob’s sons, with the exception of Benjamin, were born within a space of seven years (Seder Olam Rabbah loc. cit.). The Torah states that Leah named her children, to which the Rabbis comment that the children of Jacob have fine names and their deeds are seemingly fine (Gen. Rabbah 71:3). The Rabbis, who regarded Leah, like all the Matriarchs, as a prophet, found allusions to the future of her children and descendants in the names that she gave.


God saw (ra’ah) Leah’s distress; He enabled her to become pregnant as consolation for her soul and she gave birth to a handsome and wise son. Leah said: “See the son (re’u ben) that God has given me” and she therefore called him Reuben (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, [ed. Higger], chap. 35). Another tradition has Leah saying: “See my son among the children. He is neither tall nor short, neither pale nor ukam [dark-complected?]” (Midrash ha-GadolYayeze 29 [ed. Margaliot, p. 524]). In yet another tradition, Reuben’s name is connected with his future. Leah said: “Re’u ben (See [this] son), see the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law (Esau son of Isaac). Esau knowingly sold his birthright; despite this he hated Jacob and sought to kill him. But my son Reuben’s birthright will be taken from him against his will, yet he will not be jealous of Joseph, but rather will save him from death when (Gen. 37) his brothers want to kill him” (BT Berakhot 7b). According to this midrash, Reuben’s name expresses his mother’s joy at her son’s good qualities. In her statement we hear her satisfaction at having been married to Jacob rather than to Esau.


When Simeon was born, Leah said (Gen. 29:33): “This is because the Lord heard [shama] that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” The Rabbis comment that Simeon’s fine name attests to his fine deeds because he listened to the voice of God, his Father in Heaven (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). According to another interpretation, Leah’s prophetic ability finds expression in this name. When she said “that I was unloved (senu’ah),” she prophesied that Simeon would produce a hated one (sanu’, i.e., sinner): Zimri, son of Salu (the chieftain of the tribe of Simeon who whored with the Midianite woman; see Num. 25). When she further spoke: “and has given me this one also,” she prophesied that her next son (Levi) would produce Phinehas, son of Eleazar the priest, who healed the wound caused by the sinner (Phinehas killed Zimri and thereby turned back God’s wrath) (Gen. Rabbah 71:4).


When Levi was born, Leah said (Gen. 29:34): “This time my husband will become attached [yilaveh] to me.” The Rabbis view this statement as prophetic, for in the future he would accompany the sons to their Father in Heaven [his descendants would be the priests and Levites who would serve in the Temple and the role of the tribe of Levi would be to teach Torah to Israel] (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.).


Upon the birth of Judah, Leah exclaimed (Gen. 29:35): “This time I will praise (odeh) the Lord.” The Rabbis ask: Why did Leah praise God upon this birth, but not at the three previous births? They argue that since Leah knew that twelve tribes would come forth from Jacob, she assumed that each of his wives would give birth to three children. When she gave birth to Judah, she said: “I have already borne my share, and now God had added for me a fourth son; this time I will certainly praise the Lord” (TanhumaVayeze 9).

According to another tradition, Leah said, “This time I will praise the Lord” because she saw that she had also merited both the tribe of priesthood [Levi] and the tribe of royalty [Judah]; these two tribes would ascend over the other tribes (Gen. Rabbah 71:5).

The Rabbis state that from the day that God created His world, no one praised God until Leah came and did so (BT Berakhot 7b). The exegetes further say that Leah “made praise her skill,” and all her offspring engaged in praise. Judah inherited the ability le-hodot (also meaning to recognize the other, to admit) from his mother Leah when he admits, in the episode of Tamar that (Gen. 38: 26) “She is more in the right than I.” David praised the Lord (Ps. 107:1): “Praise the Lord, for He is good”; as did Daniel (Dan. 2:23): “I acknowledge (mehode) and praise You” (Gen. Rabbah loc. cit.). This exposition stresses Leah’s highly meaningful role in providing a positive example for her children and her long-term influence.


When Issachar was born, Leah said (Gen. 30:18): “God has given me my reward [sekhari],” in which the midrash finds an allusion to Issachar’s future greatness. Although, chronologically Issachar was the ninth of the tribes to be born, he was the second to offer his sacrifice at the dedication of the Tabernacle (Num. 7:18). He was so honored because of his Torah scholarship. Two hundred Sanhedrin heads emerged from his tribe, all the brothers accepted the The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah as issued by them, and Issachar transmitted to them the laws given to Moses at Sinai (Gen. Rabbah 72:5).


After giving birth to Zebulun, Leah stated (Gen. 30:20): “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me [yizbeleni, literally, he will fertilize me].” In the Rabbinic expansion, Leah says: “As long as you fertilize and hoe this field, it yields fruit” (Gen. Rabbah 75:6). So, too, the wife: as long as she adds children, her husband adds love to her. For more on the birth of Issachar and Zebulun, see below: “Mandrakes.” For the birth of Gad and Asher, the sons of Zilpah, see below: “Zilpah.”


The midrash asserts that Leah carried a male fetus in her womb during her seventh pregnancy. When Rachel saw that her sister was pregnant, she prayed and caused the fetus’s sex to change (JT Berakhot 9:3, 14[a]). In another tradition, it was Leah herself who was responsible for the change. Leah knew that twelve tribes [i.e., sons] would issue from Jacob. When she saw that she was pregnant, and that Jacob already had ten sons (six from Leah, two from Bilhah and two from Zilpah), she said: “Will my sister Rachel not be even as one of the handmaidens?” Leah prayed to God on behalf of her sister. She requested: “Turn what is in my womb to a female, and do not prevent my sister Rachel from bearing a son.” God accepted her prayer and the sex of the fetus in her womb changed to female. Gen. 30:21 consequently says: “Lastly [ve-ahar, literally, and after], she bore him a daughter”—after Leah’s prayer. Since Leah had rendered judgment [danah din] on herself, the infant was named Dinah (BT Berakhot 60aTanhuma, ed. Buber Vayeze 19).


Gen. 30:14 relates that Reuben found mandrakes, which are aphrodisiac, in the field, and brought them to his mother. The midrash adds that Reuben brought his mother ownerless plants, for Jacob’s family was meticulous in not stealing from the fields of others. The Rabbis further note that he honored his mother and did not taste of the mandrakes before he brought them to her (Gen. Rabbah 72:2).

In the narrative in the Torah, when Rachel saw the mandrakes, she asked Leah to give them to her (because of her barrenness). In return, Leah requested that Rachel forgo her right to be with Jacob that night. The Rabbis comment that by doing so Leah was ungrateful to Rachel. God asked her: “Is this the reward for a good deed? Is this the reward of your sister Rachel, who gave you her signs with her husband on your wedding night, to spare you embarrassment?” As punishment for this behavior, Leah was caused even greater embarrassment with the episode of Dinah (Gen. RabbatiVayishlah, p. 168).

Gen. 30:16 tells that when Jacob returned from the field, Leah went forth to greet him and she invited him to her tent. The Rabbis disagree in their assessment of her behavior. According to one opinion, Leah acted immodestly when she went forth to greet Jacob and she was dressed as a harlot. As punishment for this conduct, her daughter Dinah behaved in the same fashion when she went out to visit the daughters of the land, which culminated in her rape by Shechem son of Hamor (Gen. Rabbah 80:1).

The Rabbinic sources also voice the opposite view, that every wife who demands a A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.Mitzvah [relations] with her husband will have sons the likes of whom were not even in the generation of Moses. This may be learned from Leah, who went forth to greet Jacob and demanded that he have relations with her, and who became pregnant with Issachar that night. It is said of the tribe of Issachar (I Chron. 12:33): “of the Issacharites, men who knew how to interpret [yodei binah, literally, who know discernment].” Even in the time of Moses there were none like them, for Moses says (Deut. 1:15): “So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men,” but “discerning” is not stated, for the Issacharites exceeded them in this respect (BT Eruvin 100b). Further to this approach, the midrash states that Leah’s intent was to raise tribes, and therefore the exchange of mandrakes were pleasing in the eyes of God, and by the merit of giving up the mandrakes, she bore two major Israelite tribes: Issachar and Zebulun. Issachar would engage in Torah study, Zebulun would sail the seas and provide for Issachar, and Torah would increase in Israel (Gen. Rabbah 72:5).


When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she gave her handmaiden Zilpah to Jacob as a wife. Zilpah had been given to Leah by her father Laban when she was married to Jacob. The midrash adds that Laban knew that Jacob married Leah unwillingly, and therefore gave him Zilpah, as well, so that he would not grieve Leah (Gen. RabbatiVayeze, p. 120). According to another Statements that are not Scripturally dependent and that pertain to ethics, traditions and actions of the Rabbis; the non-legal (non-halakhic) material of the Talmud.aggadah, Zilpah was Rachel’s handmaiden, and Laban exchanged her with Bilhah when he tricked Jacob; thus, Zilpah became Leah’s handmaiden (Midrash Aggadah [ed. Buber], Gen. 29:24).

The midrash states that, as reward for Leah’s deed, for taking Zilpah and bringing her to Jacob’s bed, God took Israel out from Egypt (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah [ed. Friedmann (Ish-Shalom)], para. 25). This midrash is aware of the difficulty entailed in bringing an additional woman into the house and perceives Leah’s action as waiving her personal benefit for the good of the people [the birth of all twelve tribes]. Consequently, the reward for her actions is also in the national sphere.

Zilpah bore two sons to Jacob: Gad and Asher, who were named by Leah. Upon Gad’s birth, Leah said (Gen. 30:11): “What luck [ba-gad, literally, luck came]!” In the exegetical explanation, Leah said: “Luck came to the house, luck came to the world.” According to another tradition, she said, with the spirit of divine inspiration: “Someone is coming who will destroy the foundations of the nations,” thereby alluding to Elijah, who will deliver Israel in the End of Days and who, according to some opinions, is from the tribe of Gad (Gen. Rabbah 71:4).

When Zilpah gave birth to Asher, Leah declared (Gen. 30:13): “‘What fortune!’ meaning, ‘Women [banot] will deem me fortunate.’“ One interpretation understands banot as bonot, builders: Leah prophesied that all the builders would envy Asher for having many palaces and not needing to sleep in inns. According to another interpretation, Asher was pleased by his daughters [banot]: the women from the tribe of Asher were beautiful and married priests who were anointed with olive oil; or, according to another opinion, they were married to kings who were so anointed (Gen. Rabbah 71:10). This midrash alludes to the blessing given to the tribe of Asher (Deut. 33:24): “May he dip his foot in oil.”

The Sons of Leah, the Sons of Rachel, and the Sons of the Handmaidens

In the meeting between Jacob and Esau in Gen. 32:8, when Jacob fears that his brother has warfare in mind, he divides his family into two camps: “he divided the people with him […] into two camps.” Gen. 33:2 elaborates: “putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last,” to which the midrash comments: “The more behind, the more beloved” (Gen. Rabbah 78:8). This teaches of the Rabbinic notion that Jacob thought differently of the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, on the one hand, and those of Leah and Rachel, on the other.

According to the Rabbis, this distinction between the offspring of Rachel and Leah and those of the handmaidens continued to be reflected in later generations. Thus, for example, the names of the twelve tribes were engraved on the two lazuli stones of the High Priest’s ephod (six names on each). The Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud relates that the six sons of Leah appeared in order of seniority on one stone and the sons of Rachel appeared on another stone, one first and the other last, with the sons of the handmaidens in the middle. The Talmud then discusses whether this was the same division of the Israelites in the time of Joshua, when half stood on Mount Gerizim and half on Mount Ebal (as related in Josh. 8:33; BT Suspected adulteressSotah 36b).

The midrash, however, also voices an opinion opposed to any differentiation between the sons. R. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi that the names of the tribes are not the same everywhere and the order changes: once one is first, and another time, another. Why is this so? So that it would not be said: the sons of the ladies first, and the sons of the handmaidens last; this teaches you that the former were not greater than the latter (TanhumaShemot 3).

After Rachel’s Death

After the death of Rachel, so the midrash relates, Jacob brought Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden, to the latter’s tent. Reuben saw that Jacob had done so; infuriated by this act, Reuben sought to restore his mother’s honor. He exclaimed: “As long as Rachel was alive, her bed was next to that of Jacob. Is it not enough that my mother was jealous of her sister in her lifetime; even after her death must she be jealous of her handmaiden?” He therefore went and upset his father’s couch, removed Bilhah’s bed and replaced it with that of his mother Leah. Jacob reproached him for this act before his death, as is related in Gen. 49:4: “For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch you mounted!” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy, 347; Gen. Rabbah 99:4 [ed. Theodor-Albeck, MS. Vatican: pp. 1254–55; BT SabbathShabbat 55b).

Another tradition asserts that even though, from the outset, Jacob did not want to marry Leah, and preferred Rachel to her, at the end of his life he admitted that she was the head of his bed (his chief wife, the mother of most of his children), since Gen. 47:31 states: “then Israel bowed at the head of the bed.” Who was the head of Jacob’s bed? Leah (Gen. Rabbah 71:2).

The Death of Leah

After Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, to his father Isaac, he served him for twenty-two years. Leah died at the time that Joseph was brought to Egypt and she was not older than forty-four when she died (Seder Olam Rabbah 2). In the midrashic account, Reuben’s zealousness for his mother continued after her death. When Leah died, Jacob brought Bilhah and sat her on the bed. When Reuben saw this, he overturned the bed; Jacob rebuked him, as the Torah tells: “For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch you mounted!” (Gen. Rabbah 97:4 [ed. Theodor-Albeck, “Shitah Hadashah,” p. 1205]).

Halakhic Discussions: Rachel and Leah

The two names “Rachel” and “Leah” routinely appear in the The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic literature as typical names in discussions concerning any two women (see, e.g., JT Ketubot 10:1, 33[d]; BT Eruvin 13a).


Adelman, Rachel. "The Collusion of Sisters: A Study in the Leah-Rachel-Jacob Triangle." In The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible, 38-67. Sheffield, 2015.

Gottlieb, Avivah Zornberg. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Schocken, 2011. See esp., “Leah: the dynamic imagination,” 211-21.

Gottlieb, Avivah Zornberg. The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. Schocken, 2009. See esp., 282-296.

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How to cite this page

Kadari, Tamar. "Leah: Midrash and Aggadah." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/leah-midrash-and-aggadah>.