The Talmud does not consider Jacob's "other" two wives, Zilpah and Bilhah, to be "matriarchs":

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אֵין קוֹרִין ״אָבוֹת״ אֶלָּא לִשְׁלֹשָׁה, וְאֵין קוֹרִין ״אִמָּהוֹת״ אֶלָּא לְאַרְבַּע. -- The Sages taught in a baraita: One may only call three people patriarchs, [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but not Jacob’s children.] And one may only call four people matriarchs, [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.] [Berakhot 16b]

Why not? They had the status of wives and were mothers of some of the tribes. I found only one source that refers to them as "matriarchs", a popular 17th-century Musar work:

Thus I have seen it written in the name of one great scholar that Dovid Hamelech was asking the Holy One Blessed is He to break and destroy Israel’s oppressors in the merit of the twelve tribes [shevatim] who were born to the four Matriarchs. For the acronym of the names of the Matriarchs is the word barzel — “iron”: Bilhah, Rochel, Zilpah and Leah. The merit of the Matriarchs stands by us to deliver us from the harsh judgments alluded to by the word “blood” because these derive from the female aspect of the Sitrah Acharah.. [Kav HaYashar 47:2]

Are there others? Is there a dispute? What are we discussing here? Why does it matter whether a progenitress of Israel is called a "matriarch" or not?

Note: This archived answer only confirms what I found: Only the mystics consider Bilhah and Zilpah as "matriarchs". My questions above are not answered.

  • They did not have the status of wives. When reuvain 'slept' with bilha it states she was only a concubine pilegesh and therefore allowed. Although the gemoro says that according to R Yehuda a fathers 'anuso' which would include a concubine isnt. But no one says she was ossur because of having a husband. And the posuk says she was a pilegesh to say it was allowed.
    – interested
    Nov 29, 2020 at 10:46
  • Rashi and the gemoro who says he did not really 'sleep' with her must be going according to R Yehuda. She was old enough to have been his mother and the question is why he did it. The answer must be, because he didnt want Yaakov to carry on sleeping with her although it may be muttar. And most likely he didnt. She is not buried with him. The question is also why Yaakov preferred her to Leah. The answer can be, because she looked after yosef and was also instrumental for him to be born. I would be grateful if this was not deleted.
    – interested
    Nov 29, 2020 at 10:50
  • 4
    Does this answer your question? Why are there only four mothers?
    – Alex
    Nov 29, 2020 at 16:52
  • @Alex "and I will thereby be built up through her" Means in that zchus I will also have children. I dont fully understand why it is a 'zchus'. Sara gave Hagar and in that zchus she expected to have children.
    – interested
    Nov 29, 2020 at 18:42
  • @interested (first comment): Bereishis 37:2 contradicts you: את בני בלהה ואת בני זלפה נשי אביו. (For that matter, what would you do with ibid. 31:17, וישא את בניו ואת נשיו על הגמלים - did he leave Bilhah and Zilpah behind?)
    – Meir
    Nov 29, 2020 at 21:05

1 Answer 1


The Talmud immediately explains the exclusions:

אבות מאי טעמא אילימא משום דלא ידעינן אי מראובן קא אתינן אי משמעון קא אתינן אי הכי אמהות נמי לא ידעינן אי מרחל קא אתינן אי מלאה קא אתינן אלא עד הכא חשיבי טפי לא חשיבי

What is the reason? Shall we say because we do not know if we are descended from Reuben or from Simeon? But neither do we know in the case of the matriarchs whether we are descended from Rachel or from Leah! — [Rather the reason is] because up to this point they were particularly esteemed, from this point they were not so particularly esteemed.

(Soncino translation)

  • One could perhaps argue that the explanation is only for patriarchs.
    – Alex
    Nov 29, 2020 at 3:03
  • One could indeed. Doesn't answer my question. Nov 29, 2020 at 3:04
  • Why doesn’t it answer your question?
    – Alex
    Nov 29, 2020 at 3:06
  • You said it: it applies only to the patriarchs. Nov 29, 2020 at 3:08
  • I said one could argue that. That doesn’t mean it’s a compelling argument, especially considering that the Talmud already linked the two in its question.
    – Alex
    Nov 29, 2020 at 3:12

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