Sisterhood is Complicated

Rachel and Leah's complex relationship allows us to imagine new possibilities for strengthening our own relationships.

Commentary on Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3


  • Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. God blesses him. Jacob names the place Bethel. (28:10-22)
  • Jacob works seven years in order to marry Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. (29:16-25)
  • Jacob marries Rachel but only after having to commit himself to seven more years of working for Laban. (29:26-30)
  • Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, give birth to 11 sons and one daughter. (29:31-30:24)
  • Jacob and his family leave Laban’s household with great wealth. (31:1-32:3)

Focal Point

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel.” Laban said, “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may consort with her.” And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her. (Laban had given his maidservant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her maid). When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (Genesis 29:16-26).

Your Guide

What is meant by the word “weak” that describes Leah’s eyes?

Why is Jacob’s offer to serve Laban for seven years so specific?

What do you think transpired in the household during the first seven years that Jacob served Laban?

How could Jacob have spent the entire night with the other sister and not realized it?

By the Way…

Leah was destined to marry Esau and Rachel to marry Jacob. Leah sat at the crossroads asking about Esau, and they told her, “Oh, he’s a wicked man.” Hearing this, she cried bitterly, “My sister Rachel and I were born of the same womb, yet Rachel is to marry the righteous man, and I, the wicked Esau.” She wept and fasted until her sight became weak. (Tanchuma Vayeitzei 4)

Jacob said to Laban, “Knowing that the people of your town are deceivers, I make my demands absolutely clear.” Thus he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel” [Genesis 29:18]–not Leah. “Your daughter”–you mustn’t bring some other woman from the marketplace named Rachel. “The younger”–you mustn’t exchange their names. (Genesis Rabbah 70:17)

As we have listened for centuries to the voices of men and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak. Yet in the different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection (Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982, p.173).

Jacob said to Rachel, “Will you marry me?” She answered, “Yes, but Father is a trickster, and you will not prevail against him.” He asked, “What is his trickery?” She said, “I have a sister who is older than I; he will not let me marry before she does.” He said, “I am his brother in trickery.” She said to him, “May the righteous indulge in trickery?” “Yes,” he replied. “‘With the pure, You act in purity, and with the crooked, You are wily'” (II Samuel 22:27). Thereupon he gave her certain identification marks. When Leah was led [into the bridal chamber], she [Rachel] thought, “My sister will now be disgraced;” so she gave the marks to Leah. That explains what is written: “When morning came, there was Leah!” which seems to imply that until then, she was not Leah! Rather, because of the signs that Jacob gave to Rachel, who gave them to Leah, he didn’t know who she was until then (Talmud, Bava Batra 123a).

Jacob said to Leah: “You are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!” “Is there a teacher without pupils?” she retorted. “Didn’t your father call you Esau, and you answered him! So did you call me, and I answered you!” (Genesis Rabbah 70:19).

“Afterwards she bore him a daughter, and she called her name Dinah” (Genesis 30:21) What is meant by “afterwards”? Rab said: After Leah had passed judgment on herself, saying, “Twelve tribes are destined to issue from Jacob. Six have issued from me, and four from the handmaids, making ten. If this child will be a male, then my sister, Rachel, would not even be equal to one of the handmaids.” Immediately the child was turned into a girl, as it says, “And she called her name Dinah” (Talmud, B’rachot 60a) .

Your Guide

The word for “weak” can also be translated as “delicate” or “soft.” What differences do these translations convey about Leah? (See Tanchuma Vayeitzei)

Jacob’s attention is initially focused entirely on Rachel. How might his feelings about both sisters have been influenced by their relationship with each other?

Which of the aggadic or midrashic interpretations best support Carol Gilligan’s statement about a woman’s ethic of care?

How do you think that the often silent voices of women in the Torah can be heard?

What does the talmudic text Bava Batra 123a tell us about the bond between the sisters? Does it also teach us anything about the relationship between Laban and Jacob?

What is the nature of Leah’s concern for Rachel’s “honor” in B’rachot?


The relationship between Leah and Rachel is one of the most complex sibling relationships in the Torah. Other siblings are either locked in rivalry (Cain and Abel) or work together cooperatively (Moses, Aaron, and Miriam). Leah and Rachel, one of the few sister pairs, present a more complex relationship. As Jacob’s wives, they seem to be rivals, vying for his attention, affection, and ability to produce children.

However, their childhood relationship is veiled in the silence of the text. Since they did not have a mother (as suggested by tradition), there was probably an emotional vacuum that drew the girls together in a mutually supporting “self-mothering” bond. They may also have been competitors for the affection of their father as they were for Jacob’s love. As our texts suggest, however, their underlying relationship of mutual concern was not disrupted entirely. On the surface, they seem to be rivals and competitors; however, the insights of our tradition and imaginations present a picture of silent partners, allies for a greater purpose.

Our own relationships with our siblings, parents, children, and friends are also combinations of caring, competition, jealousy, and concern. By getting “inside” the printed text to hear the voices of our biblical families, we can understand, elevate, and heal the important relationships in our own lives.

Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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