The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were not alone in founding the religion now known as Judaism. At their side at all times were their wives, the Matriarchs, supporting them, bearing their children, and often knowing better than the men what needed to be done.
As with the Patriarchs, it is technically incorrect to refer to these women as Jews, because the terms "Jew" and "Judaism" were not used generally to refer to this nation until hundreds of years after their time; nevertheless, for convenience and in accordance with common practice, I will use these terms.
The stories below are derived from written Torah, Talmud, Midrash and other sources. They are not modern feminist reinterpretations but are genuine traditional Jewish understandings that are more positive toward women than many people expect. Modern scholars question the historical accuracy of this information; however, it is worth noting that scholars also questioned the existence of Babylonia and Troy... until archaeologists found them.
Sarah was the first Jewish woman. She was born with the name Sarai (My Princess). Torah seems to say that she is the daughter of Terach and is the half-sister of her husband Abram (Gen. 20:12), but tradition teaches that she is actually his niece, the daughter of his brother Haran, called Iscah (Gen. 11:29; Sanhedrin 69b:13). Torah commonly uses the same term for children, grandchildren and any descendants. Abram often identified Sarai as his sister, rather than his wife, because he was worried that others would murder him to take this wonderful woman if they knew she was his wife.
Sarai was infertile, unable to bear Abram children, though this did not make him love her any less. Nevertheless, Sarai wanted Abram to have children so she encouraged him to have children with her maidservant Hagar as a concubine, again a common thing in those times. Hagar was an Egyptian and was one of the maidservants given to Sarah by Pharaoh. In fact, she was a daughter of Pharaoh. Hagar promptly became pregnant and bore a son for Abram, Ishmael. Abram was 86 when Ishmael was born (Gen. 16:16).
When Abram was 99, G-d made a covenant with him and changed his name to Abraham and Sarai's to Sarah (Princess). G-d assured Abraham that Sarah, who was 90 by that time, would bear him children. Abraham and Sarah, not surprisingly, doubted this, but sometime later, Sarah bore Abraham's son Isaac.
On the festive day when Isaac was weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael "m'tzacheik" (מְצַחֵק), usually translated as "mocking" or "fooling around," and she demanded that Ishmael and his mother be removed from the household. It's easy to see Sarah as shallow and jealous here, but G-d Himself told Abraham that Sarah was right and Ishmael and Hagar should be cast out. (Gen. 21:12). Traditional commentators identified Sarah as a prophet because of this incident, one of the seven female prophets of Jewish tradition, and in fact teach that Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy. So what was this terrible thing that Ishmael did? Traditional sources usually say it was idolatry, but I have seen sources saying that Ishmael sexually molested Isaac on that feast day. There are only two other places in the Bible where the word m'tzacheik is used: first, in Sodom (Gen. 19:14) ('nuff said) and second, describing what Isaac was doing with Rebecca that made Avimelekh realize they were husband and wife (Gen. 26:8).
It's worth noting that Ishmael was not a toddler at the time this happened. It certainly sounds that way (Gen. 21:14-16), but don't all mothers view their children that way at any age? Ishmael was actually about 16 years old. He was circumcised at 13 before Sarah was even pregnant with Isaac (Gen. 17:19; Gen. 17:25), and was cast out when Isaac was weaned, which usually happened at 2 or 3 years old.
Sarah died at 127 years old in Hebron. Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah and buried her there. Abraham and most of the patriarchs and matriarchs were later buried there with her.
Rebecca was the daughter of Bethuel, who was Abraham's nephew. One day, when she was doing her housework filling a water pitcher from a nearby spring, a man came up and asked her for a sip. She was kind enough to give him some water and saw that he had ten thirsty camels so she gave them water too without him even asking. As it turned out, the man seeking water was a servant of Abraham, who had sent him to find a wife for his son Isaac. In fact, the servant had just finished asking G-d to identify the right bride for Isaac by having her give water to him and his camels when Rebecca came out and did so! Her father and brother asked Rebecca if she would go with this man and she said that she would, the first biblical example of a woman deciding for herself whether she wanted to marry a man, albeit agreeing before she met Isaac in person.
Rebecca and Isaac were a true love story. She loved him from the time she first saw him in the field as Abraham's servant was bringing her home. (Gen. 24:64) Rebecca was the only wife Isaac ever had, the only woman he ever had children with. Isaac was the only patriarch who never had any other wife or concubine. They were first cousins once removed, her father being Isaac's first cousin, but that sort of marriage was never forbidden in Jewish law and was actually quite common as recently as the 1800s.
Rebecca did not have children for a long time, but when she finally became pregnant it was with fraternal twins: hairy, red-skinned Esau who grew up to be a skillful hunter, and Jacob grasping his heel at birth who grew up to be an expert at animal husbandry. Jacob was Rebecca's favorite, though they were both equally her sons. Esau was Isaac's favorite because Isaac liked the tasty meat that Esau hunted and brought home.
Rebecca knew that Jacob, not Esau, was the future of G-d's people, so she tricked Isaac into giving his final blessing to Jacob, making some fine meat, dressing Jacob up in Esau's clothes and putting hairy goat skins on the bare parts of Jacob's skin to seem more like the hairy Esau. Isaac wasn't entirely convinced but gave Jacob the blessing. When Esau learned of this, he hated his brother for it and planned to kill him after their father died.
Rebecca knew of Esau's plans and arranged for Isaac to send Jacob to find a wife from the daughters of her brother Lavan. Rebecca never saw Jacob again. Her death is not mentioned in scripture but it is understood that she passed before Jacob and Esau were reunited. Scriptures only say that she and Isaac were buried in the cave of Machpelah with Abraham and Sarah.
Rachel was the daughter of Lavan, Rebecca's brother. She was a shepherd, caring for her father's sheep. Jacob was madly in love with Rachel from the moment he first saw her. He lifted a stone from a well, a task that normally required several men, to provide her flock with water. Lavan offered Jacob wages to work for him, but Jacob wanted only one thing: Rachel. Jacob worked for Lavan for seven years to marry Rachel but it seemed to him like no time at all because he was so much in love.
When the time came for Jacob to marry Rachel ... he was tricked into marrying her older sister Leah! Tradition teaches that Rachel participated in this trick because she knew that her sister was older and not very attractive and might never attract a man. Jacob was allowed to marry Rachel a week later but had to work an additional seven years for her. Marrying two sisters is forbidden by Torah to avoid rivalry between the sisters but that law had not been given yet.
Like Rebecca and Sarah before her, Rachel was infertile and could not bear children for Jacob, though her sister Leah and two maidservants bore many. Finally, after the other wives had given Jacob 10 sons, Rachel gave birth to Joseph. Joseph became Jacob's favorite because he was Rachel's son, which caused some problems and jealousy among the other brothers.
When Jacob left Lavan's household with his wives and children, Lavan had fallen back into idolatry. Rachel took Lavan's idols so he wouldn't be able to worship them any more. She hid them in her camel's pack and sat on them. When Lavan wanted to search the pack, Rachel claimed that she couldn't get up because she had her period. As has always been the case with men, he didn't want to go anywhere near that, so he left her pack untouched.
Rachel gave Jacob one last son, Benjamin, but she had a very difficult labor with him and died during childbirth. They buried her at that location in Ephrat, left a pillar and journeyed on. A well-known passage in Jeremiah speaks of Rachel in her desert grave weeping for her children as they are led off into exile (Jer. 31:15).
Leah was the daughter of Lavan, Rebecca's brother, and was the older sister of Rachel. Torah tells us that her eyes were weak, but what does this mean? Some sources say that she cried all the time because she feared that she would have to marry the older brother Esau while Rachel married the younger brother Jacob, and she heard such horrible things about Esau. Leah is contrasted with Rachel, who is described as shapely and beautiful.
Leah was still unmarried after Jacob worked for seven years to win Rachel, and there was concern that she would never marry, so Lavan (possibly in coordination with Rachel) tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. This trick did not go well for her, because Jacob did not love Leah. The Torah even says that she was hated (Gen. 29:31), though tradition teaches that this "hatred" was only how she felt relative to how much Jacob loved Rachel.
Unlike most of the matriarchs, Leah was very fertile, and bore Jacob some of his most important sons. She bore Reuben (Jacob's firstborn), Simeon, Levi (the ancestor of Moses and of the kohanim and Levites), Judah (ancestor of King David), Issachar and Zebulun. She also bore him Dinah, one of the few female children mentioned in the Bible, mentioned because she appears later when she is raped by a prince of another land leading to ugly revenge.
Leah died at some point before the Jacob's family went to Egypt and was buried in the cave of Machpelah with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca.
Bilhah and Zilpah are not normally considered matriarchs but they both had sons with Jacob whose descendants became tribes so they are worth mentioning here. Sources say that Bilhah and Zilpah were actually daughters of Lavan by concubines, so they were actually half-sisters of Rachel and Leah.
Bilhah was Rachel's maidservant. When Rachel found herself infertile while her sister Leah had four sons, she gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine, feeling that the sons Bilhah would bear would be like her own. Bilhah bore Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali, but Rachel never really gave up her longing for a child of her own.
Zilpah was Leah's maidservant. When Leah reached menopause, she thought she could no longer give Jacob sons so she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a concubine, and Zilpah bore him two more sons, Gad and Asher. But actually, Leah bore Jacob two more sons after Zilpah's two sons.
Bilhah and Zilpah were apparently not buried at the cave of Machpelah like the matriarchs were.