In Parshat Veyetzei, Breisheet 29:9 we read “…Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess.”
According to Ramban, Lavan did not have any other shepherds aside from Rachel, his daughter.”
How did Rachel end up being in charge of all of Lavan’s sheep?
Ramban presents two opinions as to why Leah, Rachel’s older sister was not able to be a shepherdess:
- “Leah’s eyes were tender”, the strong sun would have hurt her tender eyes and therefore she would not have been able to handle staying outside in the sun for long periods of time.
- Leah was of marriageable age and it would not have been befitting for her to be working with men who may try to take advantage of her.
Rachel was permitted to be a shepherdess as she was still a young girl so Lavan wasn’t worried about the men bothering her.
All seven of Yitro’s daughters were also shepherdesses as he didn’t have any sons.
Why wasn’t Yitro concerned about Tziporah and her sisters, who were of marriageable age, having to encounter the shepherds each time that they went to the well?
Ramban explains that since Yitro was the Kohen (Priest) of Midian, he was well respected so he was sure that the men wouldn’t cause his daughters any trouble.
How did it happen then that the day that Moshe arrived at the well (Shmot 2:16-17) the shepherds chased Yitro’s daughters away and Moshe had to come to help them?
According to Rashi, Yitro abandoned idol worship and therefore the Midianites lost their respect for him and shunned him and his family.
When Moshe married Tziporah, he took over the job of being the shepherd as we see in Shmot 3:1: “Moshe tended to the sheep of his father-in-law Yitro…”
Once Yaakov began to live with Lavan’s family, he started to work as a shepherd for Lavan right away. Yaakov took over the job as shepherd from Rachel.
In Yaakov’s case as well as in Moshe’s, the women only worked as shepherdesses until there was a man available to take over the job.
What is the reason for this?
Midrash Yelamdenu teaches that God miraculously watched out for the women who would end up marrying righteous men and kept them safe from harm as it says in Tehilim 34:8: “ The angel of God encamps round about those who fear him and he delivers them.”
We see from here that the women only worked as shepherdesses when there was no other choice as it was a dangerous job. As soon as a man was available to take over for her she was relieved of her duties.
Rachel was unique as she tended all of the sheep on her own. The name Rachel actually means ewe or sheep. We see Yaakov use the word later in our Parsha while speaking to Lavan (Breisheet 31:38) “For these twenty years that I was with you, your ewes (rechelecha) and she goats never miscarried…” We also find the word in the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach as part of the gift that Yaakov is preparing for Esav, (Breisheet 32:15) “Two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes (richelim) and twenty rams.”
I have a student named Hillel who lives at the Beit Sababa nursing home at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Hillel was a shepherd for many years in the Lower Galilee. He told me that it is an extremely difficult job for one person to be able to handle all of the sheep by themselves.
Rachel’s difficult work as a shepherdess may have helped her prepare for the difficult life that lay ahead.