How long was Jacob married to Leah before he also married Rachel? [slightly updated 2019]
This question came up in discussion at Temple Micah some years ago. We were confused, since participants had been taught different basic facts: Some remembered clearly being taught as children that Laban demanded seven more years of work before Jacob was allowed, finally, to marry Rachel; others could quote easily, “just complete the bridal week of this one” and were sure Jacob married Rachel a week after marrying Leah. Why this discrepancy?
With a little research, we eventually learned more about the discrepancy and its textual base. What we did not learn was why recent Reform translations — and perhaps those used in religious schools of decades past — view Jacob’s marriage chronology differently than so many others.
Here are some current translations for Genesis/Breishit 29:27-28.
A Range of Current Translators
Robert Alter * translates: “…Finish out the bridal week of this one [malei shevua zot] and we shall give you the other as well for the service you render me for still another seven years.” And so Jacob did. And when he finished out the bridal week of the one, he gave him Rachel his daughter as wife.
Everett Fox* translates: “…just fill out the bridal-week for this one, then we shall give you that one also, for the service which you will serve me for yet another seven years. Yaakov did so–he fulfilled the bridal-week for this one, and then he gave him Rahel his daughter as a wife.
Stone (Artscroll)* translates: “…Complete the week of this one and we will give you the other one too, for the work which you will perform for me yet another seven years.” So Jacob did so and he completed the week for her; and he gave him Rachel his daughter to him as a wife.
Jewish Publication Society* (1999) translates: “…Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.” Jacob did so: he waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife.
Onkelos* has this translation and note: “…Finish the week of this one and we will give that one too in return for work that you will work for me for another seven years.” Jacob did so. He finished the week of this one, whereupon he gave him Rachel his daughter for a wife.
The week of this one. Scripture’s shevua zot can mean “this week” or “the week of this one” (referring to Leah). By adding the prefix d-, “of,” our targumist shows he clearly believed that it refers to the seven feast days for the marriage to Leah. Pseudo-Jonathan, Rashi, Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and Radak are of the same opinion. The number seven reoccurs several times in this narrative: the word “serve” is ironically repeated seven times; Jacob needs to work two periods of seven years, and he must work through the seven days of this bridal week.
Reform Translation and Commentary
The 1981 edition of the Plaut (Reform) commentary* is identical to the JPS quoted above and without comment. The 2005 edition of The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Plaut/Stein)* takes a different tack in translation but includes a note on the issue of “malei shevua zot“:
“…Fulfill this [additional] seven years term, and that one, too, will be given you in exchange for the additional seven years of work that you will do for me.” Jacob did so; he fulfilled this [additional] term of seven years; whereupon [Laban] gave him his daughter Rachel as wife.
The [additional] seven-year term. Understanding shin-bet-ayin (sh’vua, usually denoting seven days) to mean seven years (as in Daniel 9:24-27). According to this translation (following Nachmanides), Jacob must first serve seven more years before he can marry Rachel. However, other medieval and modern interpreters, following Rashi and Ibn Ezra, understand Laban to stipulate that Jacob wait out “this [bridal] week” and then marry Rachel, thus obtaining his beloved “on credit” and paying it off in seven yearly installments.
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC, 2008),* no doubt assuming readers also have access to the Plaut/Stein, uses the same translation but without footnotes or commentary on these verses. The result, for our discussion, was confusion.
Without any commentary, TWC leaves the reader to assume that there is no question that Rachel waited 14 years to marry Jacob. But one of our participants wanted to know how it was that Leah did not conceive in those first seven years of marriage, when she was Jacob’s only wife. TWC does not address this, and it is not raised in the Women of Reform Judaism’s study guide (PDF)
The Plaut/Stein commentary explains that they followed Nachmanides but says nothing about why. “How does this reading help us?” one Kol Isha participant asked. None of us had an answer.
Why Don’t We Know?
If Reform scholars and teachers don’t share their thinking — as in this example from parashat Vayetzei — how can the serious student or the casual reader become informed about Reform Judaism?
Another Kol Isha participant noted how easy it is to find Chabad’s thinking about any issue of Torah when searching the internet and how scant the Reform presence on the web. Some months back, I learned to edit Wiki-pages so that I could add a few liberal Jewish sources — My Jewish Learning, e.g. — to the overwhelmingly Orthodox array previously posted. I wrote at the time about the need for more readers familiar with non-Orthodox sources to become Wiki-editors and otherwise contribute to the on-line Torah conversation. I add another plea here:
Reform Jews in the pews who have the technological access need to be more vocal on-line, sharing knowledge and perspectives on Torah. For many of us this means learning more Torah ourselves. Meanwhile, although cross-denominational study is crucial, it’s essential that Reform congregations not adopt the websites (or other materials) of Chabad and other Orthodox organizations as “default” sources without also seeking out the perspectives of other movements…including Reform!
And for this to succeed, we need Reform scholars and teachers to contribute as well.
UPDATE 2019: In the ensuing ten years since this was written, Wikipedia’s range of resources has continued to grow, and more Jews from a variety of backgrounds have continued to contribute. In addition, Sefaria.org and other non-denominational sites are now available and widely used. Still, however, Chabad is seriously Search Engine Optimized and a top result in most popular search engines. Choose carefully and contribute — your money and your research, if that applies — whenever possible to non-denominational egalitarian sites and be sure to cite those (as well as Reform sites, if appropriate).
In fact, as this portion is read at a time when many are thinking of year-end donations, think about supporting the web resources you use and hope to see grow: non-profits Wikipedia, Web Archive/Wayback Machine, Sefaria, and others; favorite individual or denominational sites; and this one, too.)
* See Source Materials for full citations and more information about translations and commentaries.
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