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Want to be Machmir? Not on the expense of others
(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 5 2nd Sicha)
This week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayeitzei, discusses the marriage of Yaakov to the four sisters, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, and the subsequent birth of the 12 tribes. While in today’s times, polygamy is illegal in most countries and has been outlawed amongst Ashkenazi [and also many Sephardic] communities since the 11th century, nonetheless, in previous times it was allowed and was practiced. Thus, while there not being an intrinsic issue with Yaakov marrying four wives, what is puzzling is the fact that he married four sisters, something that is completely prohibited according to Judaism. Now, although the Torah had yet to be given in the times of Yaakov, nonetheless, as we know, our forefathers carefully guarded the entire Torah even prior to its being given. Hence, it is quite puzzling that Yaakov would transgress a most basic command that all of his descendants keep till this very day, and that specifically from the offspring of this “transgression” should come the Jewish nation. The commentators on the Torah all deal with this basic question and offer various answers. The Rebbe records the explanations of the commentators and questions them, concluding with a new and revolutionary understanding in the story, which leaves us with a great lesson in how to balance our stringencies in religious observance together with our interaction with others.
Explorations of the Sicha:
1. How was Yaakov allowed to marry four sister wives?
2. Under which circumstances did our forefathers keep the Torah before it was given?
3. Should we keep religious stringencies even on the expense of offending another?
1. The question:
In this week’s Parsha, the marriage of Yaakov to Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, who were all the daughters of Lavan, is discussed. Now, although the Torah had yet to be given in the times of Yaakov, nonetheless, the sages state that our forefathers carefully guarded the entire Torah even prior to its being given. This is especially emphasized regarding our forefather Yaakov. In Parshas Vayishlach, Yaakov sent a message to his brother Esav, telling him that he had lived with Lavan. The sages state, as Rashi records in his commentary, that Yaakov was not superfluously informing his brother of information that he was already aware of, but was hinting to him that despite him living with his uncle Lavan he had carefully observed all the 613 commands, as the word “Garti/lived” can be interpreted to mean “Taryag” which represents the 613 commands. Hence, it is most puzzling that specifically Yaakov allowed himself to marry four sisters, a matter which is completely prohibited according to Torah and listed as one of the 613 commands, and 365 negative commands, as it states in Scripture, “One shall not take a sister as a wife.” At the very least, he should not have been as brazen as to brag to his brother and say that he guarded all the commands when he was by his uncle, when in fact he married all four of his uncle’s daughters. [In fact, the Talmud states that in the future when Yaakov will be offered by G-d to perform Kos Shel Bracha by the grace of meals in the times of the redemption, he will refuse to do so due to the fact that he married two sisters which is prohibited by the Torah. Hence, we see Yaakov was fully aware of the prohibitory status of his marriage.]
The opinion of Rashi: The above most perplexing matter is raised by many of the commentators on Scripture. However, strangely, Rashi the great commentator of Scripture makes no mention of this question and gives no comment to help resolve it, and rather leaves it as if it’s accepted and valid for one to marry four sisters. Whenever a question is raised on understanding Scripture, Rashi is there to comment for us, and even when he does not have an explanation, he informs us that he doesn’t know the answer. So why here does Rashi remain silent? One must thus conclude, then according to Rashi, the answer is so simple that it does not even require an explanation or comment at all. We will now begin the journey to try to understand Rashi’s way of thinking and why, in his opinion, this is not even a question to begin with. To do so, we must first introduce the various explanations given by the other commentators and analyze what Rashi’s position would be regarding them, and if their answers are acceptable to the reader as a matter of fact without needing to even be explicitly mentioned.
2. The answer in Mefarshim
- Ramban-Our forefathers only observed of the Torah while they were in the land of Israel: The Rambam explains in answer to the above question that our forefathers only guarded Torah and Mitzvos while they lived in the land of Israel. Hence, there was no issue with Yaakov marrying four sisters while he was in the Diaspora in the city of Haran. The question, however, on this explanation is that Rashi explains [as stated above] that Yaakov kept all the 613 commands even when he was by Lavan, hence negating the above novelty of the Ramban. Now, although one can conclude that the Ramban indeed argues on the commentary on Rashi, certainly this answer would not be acceptable upon Rashi.
- Parshas Derachim-Hashem commanded Yaakov to marry the sisters: The Parshas Derachim explains that Yaakov was justified in his marriage to the four sisters, as G-d had directly commanded him to do so in order so he have 12 sons born to him to establish the 12 tribes. Hence, he viewed his marriage to the four sisters as a G-d-given directive which must override the prohibition of marrying sisters which anyways only truly became obligatory after the Torah was given. The pushback against this explanation is the fact that we do not find anywhere in Scripture that such a command was given to Yaakov from G-d, and on the contrary, from Scripture it seems that all the subsequent marriages to the sisters after Yaakov married Leah, were done out of his own free will and voluntarily. Certainly, there is no room to accept that according to Rashi it is obvious that G-d commanded him to do so when no mention is made anywhere of such a command.
- The sisters were considered converts and were hence no longer considered to be biologically related: It is a well-known law that one who converts is considered like a newborn child, and Biblically is even permitted in marriage to his previous relatives if they too convert to Judaism. Hence, some explain that since the four sisters all converted to Judaism, they all lost their biological relations, and were viewed as if they are no longer sisters, hence dismissing any prohibition from Yaakov in marrying all of them together. The pushback against this explanation is the fact that in truth the concept of conversion did not yet apply prior to the giving of the Torah, and the entire concept of “conversion” by our forefathers to start observing the commands was a mere stringency and did not hold any legal weight. Hence, how can we use this artificial concept of conversion, of which its purpose was to show one’s stringency in keeping the laws, to then be lenient and say that due to it the sisters lost their biological relations, which is something that’s completely inapplicable to Gentiles. All this is in addition to the fact that we don’t find anywhere in Scripture the concept of nullification of biological relations as a result of conversion, and hence if this were to be the correct explanation, it would be deserving of Rashi to explicitly mention it.
- Only Paternal sisters: Some explain that the four sisters whom Yaakov married were only paternal sisters, each having a different mother. Now, since there is no paternal lineage for a Gentile, and prior to the giving of the Torah everyone was considered like a Gentile, therefore it is not considered at all as if they are sisters in regards to the prohibition against marrying two sisters. However, this answer is difficult to accept being that the entire reason the Torah prohibits marrying two sisters is because of the enmity that it can cause between them, and there is no reason to assume that there would be any difference in this matter between paternal or maternal sisters. [In other words, the assumption that the prohibition would not apply to paternal sisters is possibly incorrect.]
- Other answers: Several other answers are mentioned in other Mefarshim, but not recorded in the actual Sicha of the Rebbe. Amongst these we find: 1) Daas Zekeinim who explains that the matter of not marrying the sisters was a mere stringency which Yaakov could choose to disregard. 2) The Yalkut Reuveini explains that Yaakov was already considered married to Rachel through his work of seven years, and hence the entire initial marriage to the second sister, Leah, was an error and against his will. 3) Leah and Rachel were reincarnations of the twins of Hevel, and Yaakov was the mystical representation of Hevel and hence needed to marry the two sisters.
3. The Rebbe’s proposed answers:
Unlike the above answers, the following additional explanations that we will now present can be accepted also according to the simple understanding of the common reader, hence relieving Rashi of the duty of explicitly stating it:
- The entire reason behind the prohibition against marrying two sisters is because of the enmity that it can cause between them. However, in our case we know that Rachel personally gave over the secret passcode of marriage that she received from Yaakov to her sister Leah, hence proving that she did not find any issue with sharing her husband in marriage with her sister.
- Yaakov had promised Rachel that he would marry her, and hence due to this he could no longer be stringent against marrying Rachel even after he already accidentally married Leah. We will now elaborate on this second explanation.
4. A stringency may not override an obligation:
The entire concept that our forefathers accepted upon themselves to guard Torah and Mitzvos even prior to it being given, is a mere stringency and matter of scrupulousness which was a result of their righteous behavior. However, under no circumstances was this an obligation. Accordingly, it’s clearly understood that these stringencies [of keeping the 613 commands] may only be kept and guarded if they do not contradict any direct commands or prohibitions that they are already obligated in, as certainly a mere stringency cannot override an obligation.
An example regarding Avraham’s circumcision: This is one of the explanations behind why Avraham did not circumcise himself until he was directly commanded by G-d to do so, despite it being claimed that he kept all the Mitzvos prior to them being given. The reason for this is because it is an absolute prohibition under the seven Noahide laws for one to injure himself and spill his own blood. Hence, Avraham had to wait for a direct command from G-d to do so and override the general prohibition that he was obligated in under the seven Noahide laws, and could not choose to do so himself.
Moral edicts accepted by the nations have Biblical status: Although in general there are only seven Noahide laws, in truth there are many other laws that are obligatory upon Gentiles, including laws that were not ordained to them from G-d but were accepted upon themselves as a society. Thus, for example, we find that Rashi mentions that after the flood, the nations of the world distanced themselves from relations with certain relatives, such as a daughter, even when technically permitted. We also find that Rashi mentions the concept of the command of honoring one’s parents in relation to Avraham and the Gentile nations, even though this was not one of the seven Noahide commands, being that even Gentiles accepted upon themselves to honor their parents. We then find that Yaakov was severely punished by G-d for not honoring his parents enough. From this it’s understood that matters of moral observance that the Gentiles accepted upon themselves as a society have Biblical status similar to that of the seven Noahide laws. Accordingly, it would be forbidden for Yaakov to override a moral edict that has the status of a Biblical Noahide law, due to a desire to keep a personal stringency, such as the guarding of the 613 Mitzvos prior to the giving of the Torah. We will now explain how Yaakov’s marriage to Rachel was the fulfillment of an absolute obligation which hence warranted him to override the stringency of not marrying two sisters.
Yaakov was obligated under the Noahide laws to marry Rachel: One of the laws of moral conduct which the Gentile nations accepted upon themselves for the sake of the function of a society was not to cheat and lie. Hence, we find that Yaakov confronted Lavan for cheating and tricking him to marry Leah and forced Lavan to provide an excuse for doing so. Thus, it can now be understood why Yaakov was obligated to marry Rachel as he had already given his word to her that he would marry her. Once he made this promise to Rachel, owning up to his promise became a Biblical obligation of proportion to the seven Noahide laws. Accordingly, even after he was tricked into marrying Leah he could still no longer back out from his promise, as abstaining from marrying two sisters is a mere stringency and not forbidden upon him from the letter of the law, in contrast to the prohibition of breaking his promise. Thus, despite the fact that he married two sisters, he retained the right to say that he did all in his power to guard the 613 commands while he stayed by Lavan. Meaning to say, that he guarded them to the best of his ability whenever he was legally able to, and Halachically permitted to do so.
5. Yaakov’s marriage to Bilhah and Zilpah:
While the above explanation can suffice to explain the allowance for Yaakov to marry Rachel and Leah, it does not suffice to explain or justify his marriage to the additional two sisters, Bilhah and Zilpah. While not addressed in this specific talk, the Rebbe does address it in another talk, explaining there that since they were maidservants, they had the status of slaves regarding whom the Torah rules that they do not have any lineage, and hence are not considered biological sisters. This talk has been brought in our Sicha for Parshas Vayigash.
6. The Lesson-Not being Machmir in another’s expense:
One of the great lessons that each and every Jew can derive from the above talk is in regard to how to navigate his desire to be stringent in his religiosity in face of potential conflict with the feelings of another. From the behavior of Yaakov, we can learn that whenever one desires to guard a personal stringency, it should never be on the expense of another individual. If a personal stringency can come to harm another Jew either physically or emotionally, then it should not be guarded. This does not only apply regarding physical matters and emotional hurts but also regarding spiritual matters. If keeping a personal stringency will come to compromise on the religious observance of another Jew, then it is better to ignore the stringency and focus on bettering the other Jews religious observance. For example, a Jew may desire to spend all of his time in the study hall immersed in the depths of the sea of Torah and service of G-d, and not bother himself with taking out the time to teach simple Jews Torah and the way of G-d. From the above lesson we learn that one is not allowed to be stringent in his religious observance in expense of the basic religious observance of another.
A practical lesson for today:
The lesson discussed above is one of great pertinence to our social behavior with family, friends, and communities. It is not uncommon for a rift between family, friends, or community members to erupt due to matters relating to religious observance. People naturally feel that their rights, especially their personal religious rights and beliefs, are sacred and to be held onto irrelevant of anyone who may get run over as a result. However, in Judaism we learn that at times what is required to give up his zealous hold of a religious custom for the sake of peace and not offending another. This depends on the severity of the religious duty and if it is an obligation, in which case it is forbidden to compromise on, irrelevant of the possible damage that it can cause in the relationship with others, versus if it is a mere non-obligatory stringency and custom, in which case the ruling is that for the sake of peace one is to let go of fulfilling his stringency. See the following articles in the links below which deal with the specifics of the laws relating to this matter.
 Rashi 32:5
 Acharei Mos 18:18
 Pesachim 119b
 See Toldos 25:5
 Toldos 25:5
 Derech Hasarim Derush Rishon in name of Maharsh Yafo
 See Yevamos 22a
 Chizkuni 29:29
 Chizkuni 29:29
 Parshas Vayeishev
 Yalkut Reuveini Vayeitzei
 Rashi Vayishlach 34:7
 End of Parshas Noach
 Likkutei Sichos Vol. 5 p. 230