4 Sons & Sons

A discussion of Pesah/Passover generally and the Hagadah specifically. Please comment and contribute!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Four are the Mamas

The last part of the seder involves the singing of various songs of comparatively late origin. One of these is "Ehad mi yode'a?" "Who knows one?" In later posts, I'll deal with the scholarly debate over its origins as well as the English version that my family and I'm sure many others sing. But for now, let's discuss the number four, which in and of itself will be a topic that we'll return to.

Arba imahot, four mothers, sheloshah avot, three fathers. The three fathers are easy. The patriarchs, Avraham, Yitshak and Yaakov. How many matriarchs are there? I never gave this much thought until a few years ago. Take a moment to count them. Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Most people agree that the 4 matriarchs are the first four women mentioned. The reason being that Bilhah and Zilpah were concubines and not full wives. I believe this is in a Gemara in Berakhot. I have a lot of trouble accepting this answer, especially in the context of the seder night.

The commentators debate as to what the purpose of the Israelite's servitude was. Perhaps the most common suggestion I've seen is that the children of Rahel and Leah either did or could potentially look down on the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. Putting the entire nation through the humiliation of slavery puts everyone at the same level. No one could look down on another (if only this were the case) since we all came from the same humble origins. That is why the idea of only four matriarchs grates on my nerves.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his Haggadah, said that the four, in fact, were Rahel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, but he did not cite any sources and I haven't seen that anywhere else.

Shabat Shalom.

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