Why Did Hagar Have to Be Sarah Imeinu’s Handmaid?

Dear Rabanit Cohen,
I would like to know how Sarah Imeinu felt she could ask her handmaid to cohabitate with Avraham Avinu.
Was she giving up on Hashem and thinking that she will not have a chance of having a child? Or was Sarah Imeinu not selfish at all. Please enlighten me.

Naämah Agnes, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Dear Naämah,
What an amazing question this is that requires some analyzing and historic background information. So before exploring the idea of a handmaid/concubine, we should first set up the entire picture of Hagar in the background and proceed from there.

The Rabanim present Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, as an Egyptian princess whom Paroh king of Egypt gave to Sarah as a gift. She grew up in the home of Avraham and Sarah, and eventually converted. Sarah initially had to persuade Hagar to marry Avraham in order to compensate for her own barrenness. This is something that the chachamim do not take lightly.  A handmaid in the Torah has great meaning and it is not a mere physical compensation but rather a spiritual rectification and mission is taking place. (Listen to the following shiurim for more details: Parshat Ki Tetze “Preparation & Tefilah” and Parshat Lech Lecha Titled “Can A Sin Be Kosher?”).

Following Hagar’s “marriage” to Avraham, she quickly became accustomed to her new status, taking advantage of it in order to vex Sarah and disparage her in the eyes of others. The Midrash tells that Avraham grew close to Hagar and stopped seing her as a handmaid. Although he listened to Sarah with regards to Hagar, he also made sure not to harm her.

Hagar is depicted by the Rabbis as being strongly influenced by the atmosphere in the house of Avraham and Sarah – this was the spiritual necessity. She became accustomed to seeing angels and therefore was not alarmed when an angel revealed himself to her in the desert. The spiritual level of Sarah’s handmaid was higher than that of people from later generations.

Hagar’s expulsion was a consequence of the fear of Yishmael’s negative influence on Yitzchak. Although some Rabanim depict this separation as a “divorce,” Avraham nevertheless maintained contact with Hagar and her son, and came to visit them in their home a number of times. Although they never met again face-to-face, Avraham continued to be involved in their lives, and to guide and educate Yishmael, from a distance. In some Midrashim, we find Hagar observing the mitzvot and engaged in good deeds and was thus fit to be Avraham’s wife. These traditions identify Hagar with Keturah, who, in Sefer Breishit (25:1) was taken as a wife by Avraham. After Sarah’s death Avraham brought his divorcée back and she bore him additional children. Despite her divorce, Hagar’s purity was not suspect, and she remained faithful until Avraham brought her back.

Hagar, an Egyptian Princess
Hagar is first mentioned in Sefer Breishit (16:1): “Sarai, Avram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.” The Torah does not explain how Sarah came to have an Egyptian handmaid, nor does it specify how many years she was with her mistress before she was given to Avraham. The Rabanim connected Avraham and Sarah’s stay in Egypt during the years of famine with the Egyptian handmaid joining their family. In Sefer Breishit we are told that when Avraham and Sarah went down to Egypt, Sarah was captured and forcibly taken to the house of Paroh. In response to this vile act, Hashem afflicted Paroh and his entire household with a terrible plague. The Midrash informs us that when Paroh saw the miracles that were performed for Sarah in his palace, he gave her his daughter Hagar as a handmaid.

He said: “It would be better for my daughter to be a handmaid in this house [Sarah’s] than a noblewoman in another [in the palace in Egypt].” In Pirkei De’Rabee Eliezer, Rabee Eliezer ben Horkenus (a”h) explains that Hagar was born to Paroh from one of his concubines. When Paroh took Sarah as a wife, in her marriage contract he gave over to her all his property: gold, silver, slaves and lands, and Hagar was as well included in Sarah’s marriage contract. All these Midrashim present Hagar as someone who was worthy to live in Avraham and Sarah’s house because her father acknowledged the existence of Hashem. Hagar, who would bear children to Avraham, was herself a princess, and was a fitting match for the father of Jewish nation. She likewise was suited to be the mother of Yishmael, from whom twelve chieftains would issue in accordance with Hashem’s promise in Sefer Breishit (17:20).

Hagar is Given to Avraham
When Sarah saw that they had lived in Canaan for ten years and she was still barren, she told Avraham (Sefer Breishit 16:2): “Consort with my handmaid; perhaps I shall have a son [I shall be built up] through her.” The Rabanaim deduced from this statement that anyone who is childless is like a ruined structure that must be rebuilt. Avraham listened to Sarah (Sarah was considered a prophetess) and her spirit of divine inspiration was on a higher level than that of Avraham’s. The Midrash of Tehilim characterizes Avraham’s marriage to Hagar as one of the ten tests that Hashem subjected him to. In the Midrash of Breishit Rabbah we are told that when the pasuk in Sefer Breishit states that Sarah took Hagar and gave her to Avraham, it is implying that Sarah seduced her with words. Sarah told Hagar: “Happy are you, in that you will cleave to a holy body [Avraham].” Sarah gave her to Avraham, not to another, and to be a wife, not a concubine.

Hagar—Sarah’s Rival Wife
The Midrash of Breishit Rabah informs us that the Torah’s description of Hagar’s impregnation implies that she immediately conceived following her first act of intercourse. This is taught to us in order to present the relationship between Avraham and Hagar as having a defined purpose: the producing of offspring. Everything our fathers did was done with a spiritual intent and purpose. Our sages ask: how is it possible that Sarah did not conceive from Avraham all those years, while Hagar became pregnant immediately?

The Rabanim answer with the following parable: Imagine a field, thorns, and wheat. The field is neither plowed nor sown nevertheless has thorns that rise up by themselves. However, in order to grow wheat in this field, much suffering has to be endured and much toil invested until it sprouts. This parable explains the swiftness of Hagar’s pregnancy, in contrast with the difficulty encountered by Sarah. Both women are compared to a field. Hagar gave birth to Yishmael, who is like thorns that sprout so effortlessly, but are completely worthless. This was in sharp contrast to Sarah, who would give birth to Yitzchak, Avraham’s rightful heir. Yitzchak is compared to wheat, from which bread is prepared and therefore his conception required more effort. Sarah’s difficulty in becoming pregnant attests to the quality of the offspring that she would eventually produce.

In addition, the Midrash of Breishit Rabah relates that when noblewomen came to inquire about Sarah’s well-being and Sarah replied, “Go and inquire about the well-being of that sorry woman [Hagar].” Why did she reply in this manner?

Apparently, Hagar would speak to the noblewomen and say, “My mistress Sarah’s inner nature is not like her revealed side. She seems to be righteous, but she is not. If she were a righteous woman, would she be barren? How many years is she without a child, while I became pregnant in a single night!”

When Sarah heard Hagar’s words she would say to herself, “Should I pay any attention to the words of that sorry one, and engage in discourse with her? Rather, I will engage in discourse with her master!” She immediately approached Avraham and said (Sefer Breishit 16:5): “The wrong done me is your fault!“

The Midrash judges Hagar severely because of her harsh words against Sarah. When Hagar saw that Sarah was not conceiving, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. She began to disrespect Sarah and denigrate her to other noblewomen. She took advantage of her pregnancy in an attempt to soil Sarah’s good name. But Sarah is named, Sarah because indeed she is a noble princess. She was well aware of her station and she had no intention of descending to the level of her handmaid. The fact that Sarah did not argue with Hagar emphasizes the lesson and teaches us the difference between them.

The Son of Hagar and the Son of Sarah
Sefer Breishit relates that after the birth of Yitzchak, Sarah feared that Yishmael would be a negative influence on her son. She saw in Yishmael a gentile nature that was inappropriate in the house of Avraham. One commentary states that Yishmael engaged in idolatry and Sarah saw him building pagan altars. According to a second opinion, he engaged in immoral acts of sexuality. And a third Rabinic opinion states that Yishmael engaged in bloodshed.

The three types of behavior depicted here are the three cardinal sins regarded by the Rabanim for which a person “should be killed rather than transgress.” We see from all the various commentaries that Yishmael’s conduct is extreme and totally unacceptable to the spirit of Judaism, the spirit in which Sarah wanted to raise her son Yitzchak.

Hagar is Keturah
In Sefer Breishit (25:1) we read that Avraham took an additional wife named, Keturah. The Tanaim disagree regarding the identity of this woman. In most of the Midrashim Keturah is identified as Hagar. The Rabanim explain that this marriage took place after Sarah’s death. One Midrash in Breishit Rabah relates that Hashem came to Avraham after Sarah’s death and commanded him to return his divorced wife Hagar. Some Rabanim interpret Keturah as another name of Hagar which reveals a positive attitude to her. In other words, she was named Keturah because she was perfumed (mekuteret) with commandments and good deeds and because her deeds were as fine as incense she was now able to return to Avraham.

Interestingly, we bless our children daughters to be like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah because they are considered the Jewish Matriarchs. The Gemara of Berachot states: “Only three are referred to as Patriarchs; and only four are referred to as Matriarchs.” The four are a reference to Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. These seven spiritual giants are considered our nation’s Avot and Imahot not so much because they are our shared biological antecedents, but primarily because they are our spiritual ancestors.

According to Sifrei Kabalah, the neshamot of the avot were the embodiment of the G‑dly attributes  that transcend creation. Avraham represented kindness; Yitzchak is represented by gevurah (strength/severity); and Yitzchak was the harmony of his two predecessors, Tiferet. The Imahot’s souls were the embodiment of four components of the Divine attribute of Royalty (Malchut). It is from them that every Jew – their “children” – inherit these spiritual abilities. For example, our capacity to selflessly love both Hashem and our fellow man is an attribute we inherited from Avraham.

Bilhah and Zilpah also had lofty neshamot, but not as lofty as the Imahot. According to mystical teachings, their neshamot were also the embodiment of Royalty, as were the Imahot, but Royalty as it descends and invests itself in creation. In Kabalistic terms this means that the Imahot were from the realm of Malchut, specifically Olam Ha’atzilut (very high realms in the heavens – while Bilhah and Zilpah were from the realm of Malchut but specifically from the world of, “Biya” – which is lower down on the heavenly ladder so to speak.

The avot and imahot were completely detached from creation, and it is from them that we receive the ability to remain unaffected by our mundane surroundings. Bilhah and Zilpah imbue every Jew with the capability to carry over the holiness we inherit from the avot and imahot into creation. This is why Bilhah and Zilpah bore these children “on behalf of” and as “the agents of” Leah and Rachel. The children they bore were even named by Leah and Rachel. Bilhah and Zilpah do not represent a unique divine attribute as do the avot and imahot – rather they are the conduit through which our forefathers and foremothers can be manifest in our reality.

A handmaid therefore was only given when there was a spiritual necessity. In Judaism continuity is one of the most valued and precious of mitzvot. A handmaid was not some random servant girl that washed your clothing in the stream. Each handmaid in Jewish history, every concubine was carefully selected to meet the spiritual mission and necessity. Our imahot as well as the righteous tzadikim had the ability to look into the souls of each of the handmaids or concubines to determine if there was some root, some spark that connected them to our side.

When Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham it was purely for the sake of building through her. There must be something in Hagar’s neshamah that connects her spiritually to Sarah in order for Sarah to have given her to Avraham. The handmaid was like an extension of the mistress in the house. She was the vehicle by which continuity would manifest itself. What is important to remember is that all parties have to consent to such a union. In our case, Avraham, Sarah and Hagar must be complying parties and from their own free will accept the unselfish act for heaven’s sake.

According to the Midrash, Hagar’s name stems from this beginning of her association with Avraham’s house. Hagar comes from the words, “Ha-Agar,” meaning, “this is the reward.” As a matter of fact as we mentioned earlier concerning the spiritual role a handmaid played, the Midrash points out that although Hagar left Avraham’s house she remained faithful to him. This is why following Sarah’s death, Yitzchak himself went to her and took her back to his father to be again his wife. It’s at this point that the Torah refers to her as, “Keturah,” which means, “tied.”

So to answer your question, no woman deep down WANTS to give her handmaid to her husband UNLESS she is unselfish enough and sees beyond the veil of this world and beyond it. Only a woman of Sarah’s stature can ask her beloved husband to continue his legacy with another woman; to build through someone else. Sarah was not asking Hagar to be intimate with her husband as a physical act but rather a spiritual necessity. A handmaid in Judaism has a connection to her master. Hagar, who became Keturah was tied to Avraham, because she kept her faithful bond to Avraham and she bore him more children.

Sarah was not giving up on Hashem but rather being a good wife to her husband. She never said the words, “I give up. I know Hashem will never give me a child.” She said (Breishit 16:1), “Behold now, Hashem has RESTRAINED me from bearing; please take my handmaid, perhaps I will build through her.”

Sarah was saying the following, “For some reason Hashem has decided that it is not yet time for me to conceive a child – but as a man who wants to see the following generations, it must pain you to know that you are getting older and do not yet have an heir. Therefore, since Hagar was given to us by Paroh that we may rectify her neshamah and bring it over to our side – you can take her, and my spiritual connection to her that started already in Egypt, will proceed on and I will build through her.”

Notice that Sarah does not say, “And YOU will build through her.” This means that Hagar and Sarah are bound the moment that Hagar agrees to be the vehicle of continuity.  And we know that as a result of the influences of Avraham’s house, Hagar became humble and pious. Indeed, few others were privileged to have an angel of G‑d speak to them twice, and produce miracles for them.