Are Bilha and Zilpa Considered Our Imahot (Matriarchs)?
In Parshat Vayishlach, as Yaakov was about to meet Esav (Breisheet 33:2) “He (Yaakov) placed the handmaids (shfachot) and their children in the front, Leah and her sons behind them and Rachel and Yosef in the back”.


The handmaids were Bilha and Zilpa.


The first time that we hear of Zilpa is in Breisheet 29:24, when Leah marries Yaakov: “Lavan gave Zilpa his servant to her, to Leah, his daughter as a handmaid.”


Bilha is mentioned in Breisheet 29:29, when Rachel and Yaakov finally get married: “To his daughter Rachel, Lavan gave his servant Bilha to be her handmaid.”


When Rachel had difficulty getting pregnant, she gave Bilha to Yaakov (Breisheet 30:3-4): “She (Rachel) said: Here is my handmaid Bilha, consummate a marriage with her. Let her give birth upon my knees and I too will have a son through her. She gave him Bilha, her handmaid as a wife and Yaakov consummated the marriage with her.”


Bilha gave birth to two children and Rachel named them Dan and Naftali. The children of Rachel’s handmaid were considered as if they were Rachel’s own children.


After having four children, Leah gave her handmaid to Yaakov as well in Breisheet 30:9-10: “Leah realized that she was no longer bearing children. She therefore took Zilpa her handmaid and gave her to Yaakov as a wife.”


Zilpa gave birth to two sons and Leah named them Gad and Asher.


Lekach Tov points out that Yaakov did not just take Bilha and Zilpa as concubines. It is very clear from the text that he married them.


Chizkuni adds that they were married with a Ketuba (marriage contract) and Kidushin (full marriage ceremony). All twelve tribes were therefore children of Yaakov’s wives (not children of concubines).


At the time that Yaakov and his family were parting from Lavan (Breisheet 31:43), “Lavan said to Yaakov: The daughters are my daughters (HaBanot Bnotai), the sons are my sons and these flocks are my flocks. All that you see is mine. What can I do this day for these my daughters (vili’vnotai), or for their children whom they have born?”


According to Midrash Raba 74:14, all four of Yaakov’s wives were Lavan’s daughters. When he mentions daughters (bnotai) the first time he is referring to Rachel and Leah, daughters of his wife and when he says daughters (vnotai) the second time he is referring to Bilha and Zilpa, daughters of his concubine.


This idea is further reinforced in Breisheet 31:50, when Lavan told Yaakov not to marry other wives “in addition to my daughters.”


If all four women were Yaakov’s wives, then why did he decide to put Bilha and Zilpa and their children first (what seemed to be the most dangerous spot) when greeting Esav?


Midrash HaBiur which is quoted in Torah Shlema explains that Yaakov knew that if Esav was going to hurt anyone it would be Rachel and Yosef and therefore he kept them hidden in the back. It was not because his other wives and children were inferior.


Bilha and Zilpa were the mothers of Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher. Should they count as our Matriarchs?


The Midrash in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) Raba 6:4:2 teaches: The number six corresponds to the six Imahot (Matriarchs): Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Bilha and Zilpa.


However, the Gemara in Brachot 16b states: We do not call anyone Matriarchs of the Jews except for four individuals who according to Rashi are Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.


Rav Hai Gaon explains that only these four women were worthy of the title “Imenu”, “Our Mother.”


Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were the only ones who had the title of “Avinu”, “Our Father.” That does not mean that the Twelve Tribes were not important, it just means that they do not receive the same level of honor. So too, just because Bilha and Zilpa were not described as “Matriarchs” in the Talmud doesn’t mean that they did not make a huge contribution to the birth of the Jewish nation.