Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Parshat VaYetzeh

Yaakov's Many Wives

In this week's parsha, Yaakov Avinu, marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. He then takes their maidservants, Bilha and Zilpa, as concubines. It is possible that they, in particular Bilha, also became his wives at a later stage.

Yaakov was not the only one of our forefathers who had more than one wife. Avraham himself married not only Sarah, but also Hagar and Keturah. In fact, Yitschak was the only one of the Patriarchs to have one wife.

It is however, interesting, that polygamy does not seem to be the natural Biblical ideal. To begin with when God created Man, He said: "It is not good that man is alone" (Bereshit 2:18) and so He creates a partner for him. After having created a soul-mate for him, the Torah states: "a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (ibid 24). Adam and Eave are the archetype human beings and their relationship is totally monogamous and complete when they found each other.

Indeed, the Rabbis even suggest that the original human being was a hermaphrodite, that God split them and therefore, when they found each other, they were actually finding themselves.

Furthermore, if we examine the Biblical examples when a man had more than one wife, we will find cases of suffering and strife.

The first person to have more than one wife was Lemech: "Lemech took himself two wives; one was named Adah, and the other was named Zillah…'incline your ears to my words, for I have slain a man by wounding (him) and a child by bruising (him)'" (ibid 3:23). While we cannot attribute Lemech's murderous actions directly to the fact that he had one wife, the Torah does imply that in Lemech's time, humanity took a turn for the worse.

The next person who had more than one wife was Avraham: "Sarai said to Avram, 'Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid'" ibid 16:2). Sarah makes an ultimate sacrifice. She knew her husband was promised an heir, however, she did not know that she was to be the mother. So after years of childlessness, she gave Avram the opportunity of having that child. However, it turned out that it was a challenge she found impossible to cope with: "Sarai said to Avram, 'May my injustice be upon you! I gave my handmaid into your bosom…and I became unimportant in her eyes. May the Lord judge between me and you'" (ibid 5).

Indeed, Avram is eventually forced to send his son Yishmael away as Sarah was concerned about him impeaching Yitschak's inheritance. Avraham is even forced to send away his other sons from Keturah, in order to protect Yitschak: "To the sons of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive" (ibid 25.

Rachel and Leah, both of Yaakov's wives, also did not get on, even though they were sisters. Indeed "The Lord saw that Leah was hated" (ibid 29:31). Leah felt hated and second best. Rachel herself is so jealous of her sister's childbearing that she's prepared to give Bilha to Yaakov. Leah promptly follows suit and gives him Zilpa. The episode with the dudaim, the mandrakes that Reuven had gathered for Leah, also shows the tenseness and deep jealousy of their relationship.

It is therefore, no surprise that this mutual jealousy was transferred to their sons with Yoseph, eventually being sold into slavery by his half-brothers.

The relationship between Hannah and Penina, the wives of Elkana, was also hostile: "Her rival (Penina) would frequently anger her (Hanna), in order to make her complain" (I Shmuel 1:6).

Certainly Adoniah and Shlomo, two sons of David from different wives, did not get on and were rivals for the throne. Adoniah plots against Shlomo who has him executed (see I Kings 3:13-25).

Shlomo himself had many wives: "He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned away his heart. It was at the time of Solomon's old age, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord" (ibid 11:3-4).

Every single case that the Torah reports of a man having more than one wife led to problems.

It is therefore, clear, especially if we consider Adam and Eve's harmony in the Garden of Eden, that while the Torah tolerated the concept of polygamy, it seems to consider monogamy to be the ideal.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: "Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " Yaakov's Guilt” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " The Dust of The Earth" can be found at

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