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שֵׁשׁ אִמָּהוֹת | Shesh Imahot (Six Matriarchs) — Sarah, Rivqah, Raḥel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, as found in rabbinic sources

https://opensiddur.org/?p=51331 שֵׁשׁ אִמָּהוֹת | Shesh Imahot (Six Matriarchs) — Sarah, Rivqah, Raḥel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, as found in rabbinic sources 2023-06-03 11:19:14 I find it important to remind myself, when there is an opportunity to do so in Jewish liturgy, that there are six matriarchs of the children of Israel recognized together as the "shesh imahot" in rabbinic sources: Sarah, Rivqah, Leah, Raḥel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. This is important to me because it is important to recognize that while the Jewish people are famously endogamous, we must also remain open, honest, and respectful of our ancestors who connected to our people through exogamous relationships. Text the Open Siddur Project Aharon N. Varady Aharon N. Varady https://opensiddur.org/copyright-policy/ Aharon N. Varady https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ Yom ha-Ém (30 Shəvat) Midrash Aggadah Egalitarianism & Feminism Mother's Day (2nd Sunday of May) Antiquity inclusion fundamental principles of rabbinic judaism
I find it important to remind myself, when there is an opportunity to do so in Jewish liturgy or in private prayer, that there are six matriarchs of the children of Israel recognized together as the shesh imahot in rabbinic sources: Sarah, Rivqah, Leah, Raḥel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. I feel it is important to recognize that while the Jewish people are famously endogamous, we should also remain open, honest, and respectful of our ancestors who connected to our people through exogamous relationships. We can do so by more openly recognizing Bilhah and Zilpah, neither of whose origins are ever explicated in the Torah.[1] Moshe Reiss and David Zucker write, “Bilhah and Zilpah [are] presumably two local Aramean women…. According to the midrashic tradition, Bilhah and Zilpah are Laban’s own daughters through a concubine. This would make these women half-sisters of Leah and Rachel. (Genesis Rabbah 74.13-14; cf. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 36)” in “Co-opting the secondary matriarchs: Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth,” Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, vol. 22 (May 2014) pp. 307-324. 

In our people’s matrilineal genealogy, we are all descendants of Ḥavah the ancestor of all human beings. Sarah is the great-grandmother of bnei Yisrael, the partner of Avraham and the mother of Yitsḥaq. Rivqah is the grandmother, the partner of Yitsḥaq and the mother of Yaaqov. Leah, partner to Yaaqov, was the mother of Yehudah, Issakhar, Zevulun, Reuven, Shimon and Dinah. Zilpah her handmaid, was mother to Gad and Asher. Raḥel, partner to Yaaqov, was the mother of Yosef and Binyamin. Bilhah, her handmaiden, was the mother of Naftali and Dan. Mindful of all of the mothers of the Twelve Tribes of Bnei Yisrael, we should also consider adding As’nat, the Egyptian partner of Yosef (and so, Raḥel’s daughter-in-law), the mother of Efraim and Menashe. (As’nat does not appear in the rabbinic sources compiled below).

Four, not six imahot, are commonly referenced traditionally, and yet the sources arranged below attest to an alternate tradition that embraced these six. I think it’s an important question in every generation to ask why and under what contexts have our ancestors been drawn to limit its matriarchs to those (besides Sarah) who modeled endogamous relationships and omit those mothers attesting to exogamous relationships. If in our own generation, we choose to embrace the six (or, for the first time, seven including As’nat) then I believe we will have made a beautiful expression of inclusion for all of those bound to our people by means of all the complex ways through which we as human beings are drawn to one another in building caring and supportive families, mutually concerned for each other’s welfare, the wellbeing of our societies, and of all those creatures with whom which we share this planet, our home.

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TABLE HELP

Source (Hebrew and Aramaic)Translation (English)
תרגום יונתן על שמות יד:כא
 
וְאַרְכִין משֶׁה יַת יְדֵיהּ עַל יַמָא
בְּחוּטְרָא רַבָּא וְיַקִירָא דְּאִיתְבְּרִי מִן שֵׁירוּיָא
וּבֵיהּ חָקִיק וּמְפָרֵשׁ שְׁמָא רַבָּא
וְיַקִּירָא וְעִישַרְתֵּי אַתְוָותָא דִי מְחָא יַת מִצְרָאֵי
וּתְלַת אַבְהַת עַלְמָא
וְשִׁית אִימְהָתָא
וּתְרֵיסַר שִׁבְטוֹי דְיַעֲקב
וּמִן יַד דְּבַר יְיָ יַת יַמָא בְּרוּחַ קִידוּמָא תַקִיף כָּל לֵילְיָא
וְשַׁוִי יַת יַמָא נְגִיבָא
וְאִתְבְּזָעוּ מַיָא לִתְרֵיסַר
בְּזִיעַן כָּל קְבֵיל תְּרֵיסַר שִׁבְטוֹי דְיַעֲקב
Targum Jonathan on Exodus 14:21
 
And Mosheh stretched out his hand over the sea,
with the great and glorious rod which was created at the beginning,
and on which were engraven and set forth the Great and Glorious Name,
and the ten signs which had smitten the Mitsra’i
and the three fathers of the world,[2] In the context of the world (alma in Aramaic), we can’t help but wonder whether the idea of the avot here might also follow an alternative tradition. For example, we might consider “Adam, Noaḥ, and Avraham” rather than “Avraham, Yitsḥaq, and Yaaqov.” However, as there is no other source referring to the avot as Adam, Noaḥ, and Avraham, it is unlikely that Targum Yonatan intended his interpretation to be understood this way. 
and the six mothers,[3] Likewise, in the context of the world, without them being explicitly named, we might also consider “Ḥavah, Naamah, Sarah, Rivqah, Raḥel, and Leah.” Find note above. 
and the twelve tribes of Yaaqov:
and straightway Hashem brought a vehement east wind upon the sea all night,
and made the sea dry;
and divided the waters into twelve divisions
according to the twelve tribes of Yaaqov.
במדבר רבה יב:יז
 
וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת קָרְבָּנָם לִפְנֵי ה׳
שֵׁשׁ עֶגְלֹת צָב וגו׳ (במדבר ז:ג),
שֵׁשׁ, כְּנֶגֶד שֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי בְרֵאשִׁית.
שֵׁשׁ, כְּנֶגֶד שִׁשָּׁה סִדְרֵי מִשְׁנָה.
שֵׁשׁ, כְּנֶגֶד אִמָּהוֹת, אֵלּוּ הֵן:
שָׂרָה וְרִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה, בִּלְהָה, זִלְפָּה.
Bemidbar Rabbah 12:17
 
“And they brought their offering before Hashem,
six covered wagons” (Numbers 7:3).[4] On this verse, find the similar midrash found in Shir haShirim Rabbah 6:4.2. 
Six corresponding to the six days of Creation.
Six corresponding to the six orders of the Mishnah.
Six corresponding to the mothers, namely:
Sarah and Rivqah, Raḥel and Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah.
אסתר רבה א:יב
 
עַל כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ (אסתר ה:א)
[….]
רַבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא רַבָּה אוֹמֵר
שֶׁהָיָה עָשׂוּי כְּטִירְכֵי מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ
שֶׁל מִי שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא,
וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר: שֵׁשׁ מַעֲלוֹת לַכִּסֵּא, (מלכים א׳ י:יח, דברי הימים ב׳ ט:יז)
שֵׁשׁ כְּנֶגֶד שִׁשָּׁה רְקִיעִים.
וְלֹא שִׁבְעָה הֵן?
אָמַר רַבִּי אָבוּן
הֵן דְּמַלְכָּא שָׁארֵי טִיטְיוֹן.
שֵׁשׁ כְּנֶגֶד שֵׁשׁ אֲרָצוֹת:
אֶרֶץ, אֲדָמָה, אַרְקָא,
גַּיְא, צִיָּה, נְשִׁיָּה,
תֵּבֵל, וּכְתִיב:
וְהוּא יִשְׁפֹּט תֵּבֵל בְּצֶדֶק (תהלים ט:ט).
שֵׁשׁ כְּנֶגֶד שִׁשָּׁה סִדְרֵי מִשְׁנָה:
זְרָעִים, מוֹעֵד, נָשִׁים,
נְזִיקִין, קָדָשִׁים וּטְהָרוֹת.
שֵׁשׁ כְּנֶגֶד שֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי בְרֵאשִׁית.
שֵׁשׁ כְּנֶגֶד שֵׁשׁ אִמָּהוֹת:
שָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל, וְלֵאָה, בִּלְהָה, זִלְפָּה….
Esther Rabbah 1.12
 
“On his royal throne” (Esther 5:1)
[….]
Rabbi Hoshaya the Great said:
[Solomon’s Throne] was made according to the specifications of the Chariot
[the chariot] of the One who spoke and the world came into existence, the blessed Holy One.
And so it says: “There were six steps to the throne” (I Kings 10:19; II Chronicles 9:18)
six [steps] corresponding to six heavens.
But aren’t there seven [heavens]?
Rabbi Avun said:
That where the King resides is separate.
Six [steps] corresponding to six [terms for] ‘land’:
1) earth/land (erets), 2) fertile-earth/soil (adamah), 3) terra (arqa),
4) valley (gayê), 5) desert (tsiyah), 6) desolation (neshiyah),
[in sum,] the World, and it is written:
“He will judge the World with righteousness” (Psalms 9:9).
Six corresponding to the six orders of the Mishnah:
1) Zera’im (seeds); 2) Mo’ed (appointed times); 3) Nashim (women);
4) Neziqin (damages); 5) Qodashim (consecrations); 6) Teharot (purities).
Six, corresponding to the six days of Creation.
Six corresponding to the six mothers:
Sarah, Rivqah, Leah, Raḥel, Bilhah, Zilpah….

 

Notes

Notes
1Moshe Reiss and David Zucker write, “Bilhah and Zilpah [are] presumably two local Aramean women…. According to the midrashic tradition, Bilhah and Zilpah are Laban’s own daughters through a concubine. This would make these women half-sisters of Leah and Rachel. (Genesis Rabbah 74.13-14; cf. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 36)” in “Co-opting the secondary matriarchs: Bilhah, Zilpah, Tamar, and Aseneth,” Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, vol. 22 (May 2014) pp. 307-324.
2In the context of the world (alma in Aramaic), we can’t help but wonder whether the idea of the avot here might also follow an alternative tradition. For example, we might consider “Adam, Noaḥ, and Avraham” rather than “Avraham, Yitsḥaq, and Yaaqov.” However, as there is no other source referring to the avot as Adam, Noaḥ, and Avraham, it is unlikely that Targum Yonatan intended his interpretation to be understood this way.
3Likewise, in the context of the world, without them being explicitly named, we might also consider “Ḥavah, Naamah, Sarah, Rivqah, Raḥel, and Leah.” Find note above.
4On this verse, find the similar midrash found in Shir haShirim Rabbah 6:4.2.

 

 

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