From The Chassidic Masters How Could Yaakov Marry Two Sisters?

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This week’s parashah contains an account of Yaakov’s four marriages, all to daughters of Lavan (according to Rashi). Now this appears to contradict the traditional view that Yaakov, as well as Avraham and Yitzchak, kept all the commandments of the Torah (out of a combination of personal zealousness and a prophetic knowledge of what the laws would be, although G‑d had not yet given them to Israel), for marriage to two sisters is prohibited by the Torah. Rashi seems to offer no explanation of the difficulty, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe considers a number of possible solutions, eventually reconciling the apparent contradiction and drawing out the moral implications of the story.

A well-known principle about Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is that his policy is to answer all the difficulties which are apparent in construing a literal interpretation of the verses. And when he cannot find an answer on this level, he will note the difficulty and add, “I do not know” how to resolve it. When there is a difficulty which Rashi does not even point out, this is because the answer is obvious, even to a five-year-old (the age when a Jewish child begins to study the Torah).

It is therefore very strange that we find in this week’s parashah that Rashi makes no comment about Yaakov’s marriages to the daughters of Lavan.

Some Explanations

Ramban offers the explanation that the patriarchs kept the 613 mitzvos of the Torah only when they lived in Israel, whereas Yaakov married the two (four) sisters while he was in Charan. But Rashi could not consistently hold this view, for he says elsewhere of Yaakov, “while I stayed with the wicked Lavan (i.e., in Charan), I kept the 613 commandments.”

Another explanation is that Yaakov was in fact obeying a specific command of G‑d in order to have the 12 sons who would later become the 12 tribes. But though it is clear that G‑d’s explicit command would have overridden the prohibition involved, nonetheless, we find no indication in the Torah that G‑d commanded Yaakov to take Rochel, Bilhah, or Zilpah in marriage. On the contrary, it is clear from the narrative that he married Rochel because he wanted her, from the very outset, to be his wife; and both Bilhah and Zilpah were given to Yaakov as wives by their mistresses (they were the handmaidens of Rochel and Leah); he did not take them in obedience to a command from G‑d.

The Argument

From Leniency

There has been intensive speculation as to whether the patriarchs, in undertaking to keep the Torah before it had been given, accepted only those rulings which were more stringent than the (then binding) Noachide Laws, or also accepted the rulings which were more lenient. If we follow the second view, and remember that all four sisters must have converted to Judaism before their marriages, and take into account the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a newborn child,” then it would follow that the wives were no longer considered sisters, since their lineage was affected by their conversion.

However, even this answer is unsatisfactory at the level of literal interpretation, for a number of reasons:

• There is no Biblical evidence that Jews had any law other than the Noachide Code (other than the specifically mentioned obligation of circumcision, etc.) before Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe. So the undertaking of the patriarchs was entirely a self-imposed thing, and did not involve their children in any obligation. It follows that there was no general legal distinction, before Mattan Torah, between Jews as such and the other descendants of Noach. Hence, the whole idea of conversion did not arise. Nor can we support our point by saying that the voluntary undertaking of the 613 mitzvos was itself a kind of conversion—for this was a self-imposed stringency and could not have included the lenient ruling that “a convert is like a newborn child.”

• Besides which, Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, never mentions this law; and indeed a literal reading of the Torah inclines one to the contrary view, for G‑d says to Avraham, “You shall come to your fathers in peace.” In other words, even after Avraham’s conversion, Terach is still regarded as his father, to whom he will be joined in death.

• Lastly, the prohibition of marrying one’s wife’s sister is not simply because she belongs to the category of those forbidden for the closeness of their relation to the would-be husband, but for the additional psychological reason that it might put enmity and jealousy in place of the natural love between two sisters. So even if the law “a convert is like a newborn child” applied before Mattan Torah, it would not be relevant in the present instance, for there is still a natural love between two converted sisters, which would be endangered by their sharing a husband.

Individual And Collective Undertakings

The explanation is that the manner in which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov kept the Torah was one of self-imposed stringency alone (and this is why it was so esteemed by G‑d: “Inasmuch as Avraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commands, ordinances, and laws”). If so, then clearly if something which they had been commanded conflicted with something they did only from their own zealousness, the former, having G‑d’s authority, would overrule the latter.

This is, at the simple level, why Avraham did not circumcise himself until he was commanded to (when he was 99 years old); for the Noachide Code forbade shedding one’s blood—even when it would do no permanent harm. And though circumcision outweighed this prohibition, it could only do so when commanded by G‑d.

Now, besides the Seven Noachide Laws, there were other restraints that the descendants of Noach voluntarily undertook. As Rashi says, “the non-Jewish nations had restrained themselves from unchastity (i.e., even in relationships which had not been expressly forbidden to them) as a consequence of the Flood (which was a punishment for this sin).” And this explains what Rashi says elsewhere that the Torah mentions the death of Terach, Avraham’s father, before Avraham left his father’s house, even though he left, in fact, before his father died, “so that this matter should not become known to all, in case people should say that Avraham did not show a son’s respect for his father.” Even though respecting one’s parents had not yet been commanded by G‑d, nonetheless since the nations had of their own accord undertaken this duty, it had acquired something of the force of law—to the extent that Yaakov was punished by G‑d for not respecting his parents, simply because of the status which this universal voluntary undertaking had acquired.

It follows that if there were a conflict between the self-imposed stringencies of the patriarchs (as individuals) and the voluntary restraints of the descendants of Noach (en masse), the latter overruled the former.

And one of these restraints that had become universally adopted was that of taking care not to deceive others, as is evidenced by Yaakov’s accusation against Lavan, “Why have you deceived me?” against which Lavan takes pains to justify himself (showing that he agreed that deception was a sin).

Now we can at last see why Yaakov married Rochel. For he had promised her that he would marry her, and he even gave her signs to prove her identity on their wedding night. Not to marry her would have involved deception, and this had a force which overruled his (individual) undertaking not to marry his wife’s sister (in accordance with what G‑d would later command).

The Concern Due

To Others

One of the morals which this implies is that when a man wishes to take more upon himself than G‑d has yet demanded of him, he must first completely satisfy himself that he is not doing so at the expense of others. And indeed, in the case of Avraham, we find that his preciousness in the eyes of G‑d was not primarily that he undertook to keep the whole Torah before it had been given, but rather, “I know him [which Rashi translates as “I hold him dear”] because he will command his children and his household after him to keep to the way of the L‑rd, doing righteousness and justice.”

And the self-imposed task of personal refinement must not be at another’s expense, either materially or spiritually. When a fellow Jew knows nothing of his religious heritage and he needs, as it were, spiritual charity, it is not open to another Jew, who is in a position to help him, to say, “Better that I should spend my time perfecting myself.” For he must judge himself honestly and answer the question, “Who am I that these extra refinements in myself are worth depriving another Jew of the very fundamentals of his faith?” And he will then see the truth which underlies Yaakov’s marriage to Rochel—that care for others overrides the concern for the self-perfection which goes beyond G‑d’s law. v

Based on Likkutei Sichos, vol. v, pp. 141–148. From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks. Reprinted with permission from

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