Spiritual & Religious Leaders
Famous as: Daughter of Laban
children: Dinah, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun
Leah, according to the ‘Hebrew Bible,’ was the daughter of Laban. She and her younger sister, Rachel, were both wives of Hebrew patriarch Jacob. She bore Jacob six sons, whose descendants gave rise to six of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. She had a daughter named Dinah, too. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah, Judah, was the founder of the Tribe of Judah. The ‘New Testament’ mentions that Jesus belonged to the Tribe of Judah. Leah was married off to Jacob by his father through deception. It is believed Laban had initially agreed to Jacob’s alliance with his younger daughter, Rachel. However, he later switched Rachel with Leah, without Jacob’s knowledge. Rachel, too, got married to Jacob later. Thus, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel created a biblical love triangle. Rachel was said to be physically more attractive than Leah. However, the fact that Leah bore a son who was the antecedent of Jesus Christ is believed to be symbolic of the fact that inner beauty eventually wins over superficial attractiveness. In medieval Christian symbolism, Leah is considered to be the symbol of non-monastic life.
The ‘Torah’ describes Leah with the words: "Leah had tender eyes." The fact that she was “tender eyed” (‘Genesis’ 29:17), could mean that she had weak eyesight or that her eyes lacked the feminine brightness that Rachel, her sister, who has been described as “beautiful and well-favoured,” possessed.
There are other interpretations of her name. Some believe it meant “wearied” or “faint from sickness,” probably referring to her sickly condition at birth. Other sources mention her name could mean “married” or “mistress.”
Medieval French rabbi Rashi offered a Rabbinic interpretation of how Leah's eyes had turned weak. According to his narration, Leah was supposed to get married to Jacob's older twin brother, Esau. However, the two brothers were polar opposites. While Jacob was a scholar, Esau was an adulterous hunter.
However, people began saying since Laban had two daughters and Rebekah had two sons, the older daughter (Leah) should marry the older son (Esau) and the younger daughter (Rachel) should marry the younger son (Jacob). As a result, Leah wept a lot and prayed to God that her mate be changed. Thus, according to the ‘Torah,’ she developed "soft" eyes from weeping. Eventually, God responded to Leah's tears and let her marry Jacob before Rachel was able to do so.
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According to the ‘Bible,’ Leah became Jacob's wife through a trickery of her father, Laban. Jacob was dispatched to Laban’s hometown to escape being killed by his brother, Esau, and also to look for a wife. Laban was the brother of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah.
When Jacob reached Laban’s well, he saw Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, who was drawing water for her father’s sheep. He immediately decided to marry her. Laban agreed to give Rachel's hand in marriage to Jacob if he agreed to work for 7 years for him.
After fulfilling his part of the deal, Jacob was about to get married to Rachel. However, on the wedding night, Laban exchanged Leah for Rachel. Thus, Jacob and Leah were married by deception, without the former’s knowledge.
Later, Laban defended his action by stating that it was uncustomary to marry off the younger daughter before the older one (‘Genesis’ 29:16-30). Laban then offered to allow Jacob to marry Rachel in exchange for another 7 years of work (‘Genesis’ 29:27). Jacob, being wholeheartedly in love with Rachel, agreed to the offer. He married Rachel soon after the celebration of his marriage to Leah.
Leah bore Jacob six sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.
Rachel, however, was unable to conceive and thus offered her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob. Bilhah bore two sons. They were named Dan and Naphtali and raised by Rachel.
Leah then offered her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob. The union resulted in two sons, Gad and Asher. According to some sources, Bilhah and Zilpah were half-sisters of Leah and Rachel.
It is said that Leah's first-born son, Reuben, once returned from the field with mandrakes for Leah. Leah had not conceived for a while. Mandrakes, whose roots are similar to the human body, were thought to increase fertility. Meanwhile, Rachel was not able to conceive at all. She thus decided to let Leah sleep with Jacob for one night in exchange for the mandrakes. Leah agreed and slept with Jacob that night. The result of the union was Issachar. Later, Leah gave birth to Zebulun and to Dinah. Soon, God gave Rachel two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.
Leah’s six sons were the antecedents of six of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The names Leah chose for her sons showcased her piety and her loyalty to the Lord.
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“Reuben” meant “behold a son.” Leah thus praised the Lord for being kind to her. “Simeon” meant “hearing.” Leah had chosen this name for her second-born son since God had heard her cry because of Rachel’s jealousy and hatred.
“Levi,” the name of Leah’s third son, meant “joined.” Leah chose this name to imply that she would develop a better bond with her husband after his birth.
“Judah,” meaning “praise,” was the name of Leah’s fourth son. The name was chosen by Leah because she thought by then Jacob must have become a little more affectionate toward her.
Leah was not as attractive as her sister, Rachel, but was immensely loyal to Jacob and a devoted mother to their children.
Rivalry with Rachel
The Chassidic texts describe the rivalry between Leah and Rachel as more than marital jealousy. It is believed that both wished to grow spiritually in their respective “avodat HaShem” (“service of God”). Thus, both of them desired to be close to the “tzadik” (Jacob), who was God's own emissary to the world.
It was believed that whoever succeeded in marrying Jacob and bearing his sons, would carry forth his mission into the next generation and would thus develop a stronger bond with God. Therefore, both Leah and Rachel wished to have as many sons as possible, even if that required offering their handmaids to Jacob.
Rachel was jealous of Leah's tears and prayers, by which she was able to marry Jacob and bear him six sons. According to the ‘Talmud’ (‘Megillah’ 13b), Rachel once told Leah about the secret signs Jacob and she had come up with to identify the veiled bride on the wedding night, as they had suspected Laban would deceive them.
Death & Burial
According to ‘Genesis’ 49:31, Leah passed away sometime before Jacob. She is believed to be buried beside Jacob, in the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’ in Hebron. The graves of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah can be found in the same cave.
According to medieval Christian symbolism, Rachel was considered a symbol of monastic Christian life, whereas Leah was considered a symbol of non-monastic life.
Italian poet Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ mentioned a dream of Rachel and Leah, which later inspired illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other artists.
A lesson that Leah’s life imparts is that the important choices in one’s life should not be based upon external appearances. Rachel was extremely beautiful and Jacob had fallen for her the moment he had seen her. However, Leah, the less attractive of the two sisters, had given birth to Judah, who had ultimately given rise to the Tribe of Judah, a lineage that eventually produced Jesus Christ.