Which of Yaakov’s wives should be listed first?

In Parshat Vayigash, Breisheet 46:8-27 we read the list of B’nai Yisrael (Yaakov’s descendents) who went down to Egypt, seventy people in total.

First Leah’s children and grandchildren are listed followed by Zilpah’s, Rachel’s and Bilha’s.

Why did the Torah choose to list Yaakov’s wives and their children in this order? If Rachel was Yaakov’s first choice for a wife, why is she sandwiched in between Zilpa and Bilha, the secondary wives?

According to Ramban since they were being counted in descending order, the wife with the most children was mentioned first. This is different from the listing in Breisheet 35:23-26 (right after Binyamin was born) and the opening of the Book of Shmot which list Leah’s children followed by Rachel’s, Bilha’s and Zilpa’s.

In order to ensure that Rachel would be honored and not be thought of as a concubine in any way it says specifically in Breisheet 46:19: “The sons of Rachel, Yaakov’s wife were Yosef and Binyamin.”

Ramban explains in Breisheet 44:27 that Rachel is called Yaakov’s wife since she is the one that he actually chose to marry.

When Yaakov was ready to leave Lavan’s house (Breisheet 31:4) it says: “Yaakov sent and called Rachel and Leah to come to the field, to his flock.”

Rashi comments that first Rachel is mentioned and then Leah for Rachel was the principal wife. It was for her that Yaakov accepted to be related to Lavan. Even Leah’s descendents place Rachel before Leah (Boaz and his court were from the tribe of Yehuda, Leah’s son) when they say (Ruth 4:11) “…May God make the woman who is coming into your house (Ruth) like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Efrat and be famous in Bethlehem…’”

Even today, on Friday night when parents bless their daughters, they say: “May God make you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.”

Rachel was Yaakov’s chosen wife. However, there is no denying that Leah was the first one to marry Yaakov, she gave birth to six of his children and merited being buried next to him in Maarat HaMachpela (The Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs).

No matter what order you list them in, Leah and Rachel as well as Bilha and Zilpa all deserve our honor as without them the twelve tribes would not have been born and B’nei Yisrael would not have come into existence.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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