In this portion, Bilhah, maid to Rachel, bears Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah, maid to Leah, bears Gad and Asher. As when Sarah arranged for Abraham to father a child with her maid Hagar (Genesis/Breishit 16:2), the product of such a union was considered a child of the master-woman/wife rather than of the maid who conceived, carried, bore and nursed the baby.
In recent decades, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah have been added, in a number of non-Orthodox prayerbooks, to the first blessing of the Amidah — the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy — after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Bilhah and Zilpah did not join the list of “Matriarchs,” however, in the official prayerooks of the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements.
Jews continue to question the place of Bilhah and Zilpah in this list. Not including them gives “tacit approval to the idea that woman is property,” goes one argument. Recognizing these women as Matriachs, according to others, would do honor to the many couples — including gays and lesbians — for whom full-status marriage has not been an option. On the other hand, it is argued that it is inappropriate to include women who were not active partners with in the covenant and prophets in their own right in “the ancestors” blessing of the Amidah.
Here, for example, is question and response on this topic from the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) as the Union for Reform Judaism was preparing its relatively new (2007) Mishkan T’fillah prayerbook. Similar issues were discussed as the Reform movement in the United Kingdom prepared its new (2008) Seder Ha-T’fillot prayerbook.
Mishkan T’fillah was eventually published without Bilhah and Zilpah; I believe this is also the case with Seder Ha-T’fillot, but I have not seen the latter myself. On the other hand, Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, which arrived earlier this year, does include these mothers (congregational and ordering information). Siddur Sha’ar Zahav also provides more alternatives for the Amidah “ancestors” blessing. (congregational and ordering information).
The Jewish Women’s Archive includes an article on the maids’ place in Jewish prayer.
See Source Materials for full siddur citations.
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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.