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Leah (Hebrew: לֵאָה, Modern Leʼa Tiberian Lēʼāh; "Weary; tired") is the first of the two concurrent wives of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, and mother of six of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, along with one daughter, from Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. She is the daughter of Laban and the older sister of Rachel, whom Jacob originally wanted to marry. Leah is Jacob's first cousin, as her father Laban is the brother of Jacob's mother Rebecca.
The Torah introduces Leah by describing her with the phrase, "Leah had tender eyes" (Hebrew: ועיני לאה רכות) (Genesis 29:17). It is debated as to whether the adjective "tender" (רכות) should be taken to mean "delicate and soft" or "weak." Some translations say that it may have meant blue or light colored eyes. The commentary of Rashi cites a Rabbinic interpretation of how Leah's eyes became weak. According to this story, Leah was destined to marry Jacob's older twin brother, Esau. In the Rabbinic mind, the two brothers are polar opposites; Jacob being a God-fearing scholar and Esau being a hunter who also indulges in murder, idolatry, and adultery. But people were saying, "Laban has two daughters and his sister, Rebecca, has two sons. The older daughter (Leah) will marry the older son (Esau), and the younger daughter (Rachel) will marry the younger son (Jacob)." Hearing this, Leah spent most of her time weeping and praying to God to change her destined mate. Thus the Torah describes her eyes as "soft" from weeping. God hearkens to Leah's tears and prayers and allows her to marry Jacob even before Rachel does.
Marriage to Jacob
Leah becomes Jacob's wife through a deception on the part of her father, Laban. In the Biblical account, Jacob is dispatched to the hometown of Laban—the brother of his mother Rebekah—to avoid being killed by his brother Esau, and possibly to find a wife. Out by the well, he encounters Laban's younger daughter Rachel tending her father's sheep, and decides to marry her. Laban is willing to give Rachel's hand to Jacob as long as he works seven years for her.
On the wedding night, however, Laban switches Leah for Rachel. Later Laban claims that it is uncustomary to give the younger daughter away in marriage before the older one (Genesis 29:16-30). Laban offers to give Rachel to Jacob in marriage in return for another seven years of work (Genesis 29:27). Jacob accepts the offer and marries Rachel after the week-long celebration of his marriage to Leah.
Seeing that she is unable to conceive, Rachel offers her handmaid Bilhah as a third wife to Jacob, and names and raises the two sons (Dan and Naphtali) that Bilhah bears. Leah responds by offering her handmaid Zilpah as a fourth wife to Jacob, and names and raises the two sons (Gad and Asher) that Zilpah bears. According to some commentaries, Bilhah and Zilpah are actually half-sisters of Leah and Rachel.
One day, Leah's firstborn son Reuben returns from the field with mandrakes for his mother. Leah has not conceived for a while, and this plant, whose roots resemble the human body, is thought to be an aid to fertility. Frustrated that she is not able to conceive at all, Rachel offers to trade her night with their husband in return for the mandrakes. Leah agrees, and that night she sleeps with Jacob and conceives Issachar. Afterwards she gives birth to Zebulun and to a daughter, Dinah. After that, God remembers Rachel and gives her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.
Rivalry with Rachel
On a homiletical level, the classic Chassidic texts explain the sisters' rivalry as more than marital jealousy. Each woman desired to grow spiritually in her avodat Hashem (service of God), and therefore sought closeness to the tzadik (Jacob) who is God's personal emissary in this world. By marrying Jacob and bearing his sons, who would be raised in the tzadik's home and continue his mission into the next generation (indeed, all 12 sons became tzadikim in their own right and formed the foundation of the Nation of Israel), they would develop an even closer relationship to God. Therefore Leah and Rachel each wanted to have as many of those sons as possible, going so far as to offer their handmaids as wives to Jacob so they could have a share in the upbringing of their handmaids' sons, too.
Each woman also continually questioned whether she was doing enough in her personal efforts toward increased spirituality, and would use the other's example to spur herself on. Rachel envied Leah's tearful prayers, by which she merited to marry the tzadik and bear six of his twelve sons. The Talmud (Megillah 13b) says that Rachel revealed to Leah the secret signs which she and Jacob had devised to identify the veiled bride, because they both suspected Laban would pull such a trick.
Death and burial
Leah died some time before Jacob (according to Genesis 49:31). She is thought to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron alongside Jacob. This cave also houses the graves of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah.
God fulfills His covenant to Abraham through Leah's descendants. Her son Judah becomes the effective leader among the sons of Jacob and the father of the pre-eminent tribe in the nation of Israel. All the kings of the united kingdom of Israel (save for the Hasmonean dynasty and Saul) come from Judah, most notably King David. Later on, David's dynasty ruled the Southern landscape of that kingdom, in what became the Kingdom of Judea while the North was ruled by several different dynasties. According to Jewish tradition, King David's rule is not completely vanished as his future offspring will be the Messiah, who will continue David's legacy.
Another notable factor to consider in Leah's offspring is that of the tribe of Levi, which is the tribe of the priests and Temple functionaries. Some of the members of this tribe are still aware of their heritage today, more than 3000 years later.
All 6 tribes that come from Leah's offspring, together with the 2 that come from that of her slave, Zilpah, are considered children of Leah in Jewish and Biblical tradition. Therefore, it is as though she gave birth to 8 tribes altogether.
Leah's daughter, Dinah, is considered traditionally to be the mother-in-law of Joseph, making Joseph's offspring that of Leah too.
One of Leah's most notable descendants came from Judah.
- Bivin, David, "Leah's Tender Eyes," at jerusalemperspective.com
- "What's in A Name," Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3) at aish.com
- Ginzberg, Louis (1909) The Legends of the Jews, Volume I, Chapter VI: Jacob, at sacred-texts.com
- Mandrake in the American Bible Society Online Bible Dictionary, 1865, Broadway, New York, NY 10023-7505 at www.bibles.com
- Feinhandler, Yisrael Pesach, Beloved Companions, Vayetze - III, "Jealousy Can Be a Tool for Spiritual Growth," at shemayisrael.com
- Wagensberg, Abba (2006), "Between The Lines," in Toras Aish, Volume XIV, No. 11, © 2006 Rabbi A. Wagensberg & aish.com
- Richman, Chaim (1995), "Focus on Hebron," © 1995 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved, Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, July, 1995 (Tammuz/Av, 5755) at lttn.org
- Judah at jewishencyclopedia.com
- Messiah at jewishencyclopedia.com
|Children of Jacob by wife in order of birth (D = Daughter)|
|Leah||Reuben (1)||Simeon (2)||Levi (3)||Judah (4)||Issachar (9)||Zebulun (10)||Dinah (D)|
|Rachel||Joseph (11)||Benjamin (12)|
|Bilhah (Rachel's servant)||Dan (5)||Naphtali (6)|
|Zilpah (Leah's servant)||Gad (7)||Asher (8)|