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LEAH (Heb. לֵאָה), elder daughter of Laban and wife of Jacob.

Biblical Depiction

Leah was married to Jacob as a result of Laban's trickery in substituting her for her sister Rachel on the night of the marriage (Gen. 29:23–25). She gave birth to six sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun – and one daughter – Dinah (Gen. 29:32–35; 30:14–21). Her maid-servant Zilpah whom she gave to Jacob bore him another two sons – Gad and Asher (30:9–13).

Leah is described as having had eyes that were rakkot, often taken to mean "weak eyes" (29:17), an expression that may be taken to mean that her eyes lacked luster, the eastern woman's distinguishing mark of beauty. But rakkot has also been taken as "tender," that is, her eyes are an attractive feature (Speiser, a.l.; Yee). This would be in harmony with the etymology of her name from Akkadian lītu, "cow" (von Soden, ahw, 557–58). Unfortunately, her sister *Rachel, "ewe," is comely of both form and face. Leah is also said to have been "unloved" (29:30–31), and she had to fight for Jacob's affection, as is evidenced by the symbolic names of her sons and the mandrakes she had to give to Rachel in return for conjugal rights (30:14–16). Because of her miserable state, God rewarded her with children (29:31). This is a motif that recurs in the story of Hannah and Peninah (i Sam. 1:1–20).

Together with her sister, Leah stood by Jacob in his quarrel with Laban and joined him in his flight from her father (Gen. 31:1–18). She is again mentioned in Laban's search of Jacob's effects (31:33) and in connection with the encounter with Esau (33:1–7). While her death is not specifically recorded, she is mentioned as having been buried in the cave of Machpelah (49:31). Together with Rachel, Leah was esteemed as one of the mothers of the nation who "built up the House of Israel," and her name was invoked in the blessing of a bride (Ruth 4:11).

The sons of Leah were regarded as the progenitors of six of the 12 tribes of Israel, and the two hereditary national institutions, the priesthood and the monarchy, are traced back to her sons Levi and Judah. Since according to the narrative the birth of the Leah tribes antedates the appearance of those derived from Rachel, it is possible that the former represented an earlier Israelite confederacy which was only later joined by the Rachel tribes. In addition, the stories perhaps follow a literary paradigm in which rival wives possess different strengths.

[Nili Shupak]

In the Aggadah

Leah was as beautiful as her sister Rachel; her only defect was that her eyes were weak from the many tears she shed because she thought she would be given in marriage to Esau, it having been arranged that she should marry the elder son of Isaac, and Rachel the younger. Informed of his bad character, she wept so copiously that her eyelashes were detached from her eyes (Tanḥ. B., Gen. 152). During the nuptial night, Leah responded whenever Jacob called Rachel. When daylight came, Jacob reproached her, saying, "O thou deceiver, daughter of a deceiver, why did you answer me when I called Rachel's name?" Leah responded, "Is there a teacher without a pupil? I learned from your example. Did you not answer your father when he called Esau?" (Gen. R. 70:19). Upon the birth of her fourth son, she became the first person since the time of creation to praise the Lord (Gen. 29:35; Ber. 7b). Since God knew that Leah's intentions were honorable in requesting Jacob's affection in return for the mandrakes (Gen. 30:16), she was blessed with two additional sons, Issachar and Zebulun (Gen. R. 72:5). Her seventh child was also destined to be a son but the embryo was changed into a female because of Leah's prayers. Knowing that Jacob was destined to have 12 sons, she prayed that Rachel be granted a second son so that she would at least be equal to the handmaids who each bore two sons (Ber. 60a). Since Leah was the eldest daughter, she received the more desirable inheritance. Both the priesthood and royalty (Aaron and David) were descended from her.


C.H. Gordon, in: rb, 44 (1935), 34–41; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), 194–200. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 1 (1942), 354–69; 5 (1947), 294–300. add. bibliography: E.A. Speiser, Genesis (ab; 1965); G. Yee, in: abd, 4:268, incl. bibl.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Leah in the Bible, the eldest daughter of Laban and sister of Rachel, who by a trick became the first wife of Jacob.

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