“The Hated Wife”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we come face-to-face with the difficulties that are often encountered in polygamous marriages.

In our analysis of parashat Kee Teitzei 5760-2000, we explore in detail Judaism’s view regarding polygamy. It is not surprising to learn that there is not a single polygamous marriage in the Bible that can be regarded as fully successful. Each polygamous marriage is fraught with challenges and difficulties. In fact, the rival wife is referred to in the Hebrew text as the “tzarah, the pain, or narrowness.

Perhaps the most succinct and effective summary that I have encountered of Jacob’s polygamous household, was not something I found in a lengthy sociological or psychological analysis, but rather was handed to me in a Torah class on a little piece of paper by one of my students. It read as follows:

Jacob wed Rachel and Leah,
And Bilhah and Zilpah as well.
If living with one wife is tricky,
Then living with four must be hell!

Limericks aside, we do, however, find in parashat Vayeitzei a number of very challenging verses regarding love and hate, like and dislike, between Jacob, Rachel and Leah.

In Genesis 29:31, scripture states: “Vah’yahr Hashem kee s’noo’ah Leah, vah’yif’tahch et rach’mah; v’Rachel ah’kah’rah,” And the L-rd saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceives and bears a child and calls the child’s name “Reuben,” because she says, “The L-rd has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”

Is it possible that the great patriarch, Jacob, actually “hated” his wife? The commentators wrestle with this issue. The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) explains that since the Torah tells us that G-d opened Leah’s womb, the implication is that, at least until then, Leah was by nature barren. As a result, Jacob’s love for Leah was diminished, which the Torah refers to as “hate.”

Most of the other commentators, as well, state that the word “hate” must not be taken literally, but means, rather, that Leah was the less-loved of the two wives. Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) even suggests that Jacob had intended to divorce Leah, not only because she deceived him when she was switched for Rachel at the wedding, but also for taking what rightly belonged to Rachel. However, when Leah began giving birth in rapid succession, he changed his mind.

Twice we are told in scripture that Jacob loved Rachel. Soon after Jacob first meets Rachel at the well, scripture informs us (Genesis 29:18), “Vah’yeh’eh’hav Yaakov et Rachel,” and Jacob loved Rachel. It was especially due to the fact that Jacob’s love for Rachel was so great, that he offered to serve Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand. Again, when Jacob actually marries Rachel, the Torah tells us (Genesis 29:30), “Vah’yah’voh gahm ehl Rachel, vah’yeh’eh’hav gahm et Rachel mee’Leah,” that Jacob had relations with Rachel as well, and [he] loved Rachel more than Leah, which made his additional seven years of service more tolerable.

The fact that the Torah tells us twice that Jacob loved Rachel, lends credence to the commentators’ contention that it was only in contrast to Jacob’s extraordinary love for Rachel that Leah appeared to be hated. While it was true that Leah was less-loved, she was definitely not hated.

Citing the Talmud (Sanhedrin 22b), the Ramban (Nachmanides) maintains, that it is man’s nature to favor the woman with whom  he has relations first. Therefore, Jacob’s love for Rachel was not natural, since he had relations with Leah first. Despite Leah’s noble intentions (she had hoped in this way to avoid falling into the hands of Esau, whom she was otherwise destined to marry) Jacob still bore a grudge against Leah for colluding with Laban and deceiving him.

The Da’at Sofrim (an extensive compilation of scriptural commentaries, edited by Rabbi Chaim D. Rabinowitz, 1909-2001) sheds some light on the dynamics of the situation. He explains that although Jacob was not wholehearted with his marriage to Leah, he did not nullify it when he discovered the deception. Jacob, in fact, might have justifiably terminated the marriage because of his fear that Leah might be a negative influence on his children, as Esau’s wives were on Esau’s children. These concerns on Jacob’s part are referred to in the Torah as “sin’ah,” hatred. But, when G-d opened Leah’s womb, Jacob saw it as a heavenly omen that his betrothal to Leah was propitious and correct. The fact that in short order she had six sons and a daughter, further confirmed Leah’s righteousness and her appropriateness to be his wife.

The word “hate” is a highly charged expression in Judaism, and one that we are advised to avoid as much as possible. In fact, the Torah firmly instructs us (Leviticus 19:17), “Loh tis’nah et ah’chee’chah bil’va’veh’cha,” Do not hate your fellow in your heart. Hatred is corrosive and leaves a bitter wound that is very difficult to heal. We see that even being less-loved, makes Leah feel “hated.” Leah, however, eventually wins her husband’s affections when she bears many wonderful children. And when Rachel departs from the scene prematurely, Leah assumes the position of the primary wife. But that is hardly the ideal way to become a “primary wife.”

May you be blessed.