The question is asked: How do we know that Yaakov Avinu (the patriarch Jacob) wore a kipah (or shtrayml, or black hat, or baseball hat, for that matter)?
And it is answered with the verse that opens this week’s parsha: ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע — Jacob left from Beersheva — how could he leave his house without wearing his [choose the hat]?! And so the verse teaches us…
It’s an old joke. You may chuckle or groan, or even roll your eyes (I do), but part of why it works is the intuitive sense that the norms of dress in the times of the Patriarchs were different from our norms today, and a tacit, sometimes reluctant, awareness that a kipah or a shtrayml is no less anachronistic from the time of Jacob than a baseball hat.
We often lack that sense, however, when it comes to other areas of conduct in the Torah, and that puts us at risk of reading the biblical text through the lenses of our modern eyes. Which in turn puts us at risk of missing what is really going on.
When Reuven brings his mother the “duda’im” — mandrakes, one might think them the sweet offering of a child. When Rachel wants the flowers, one might think she’s a jealous sister, as she has no children of her own to bring her flowers. These initial assumptions might reveal a fair deal about Reuven, Rachel, and our perceptions of them. But we’re still left wondering what is significant about this plant, to the extent that the Torah elaborates on the narrative, rather than treating it as a child’s gift.
When we focus on Rachel’s trade for the mandrakes, the text becomes even more challenging. She trades her night with Jacob for the flowers — and one might be forgiven for drawing the comparison to Esau, who trades his birthright for some soup. Indeed, they both seem to focus on the lesser concern and give the greater concern short-shrift.
For the mandrakes were considered potent in the ancient world (perhaps today too, as the root of the plant is both narcotic and hallucinogenic). It was used medicinally, as well as thought to be a love charm, or, more aptly for Rachel, a fertility charm. The roots of the plant resemble a baby (or sometimes a small man), and one superstition warned those who would seek its powers that the root itself would scream upon being harvested, perhaps even killing those who heard the scream. As a safeguard, animals were used to yank the roots instead. Imagine Rachel’s delight at the possibility of access to the fertility charm, without putting herself at risk — because Reuven had apparently already done so.
But our modern sensibilities reject Rachel’s thinking. We know how babies are made, and trading a night of conjugal rights for a fertility charm would seem to undermine the efficacy of the charm.
Indeed, one might infer that God Himself rejects her efforts to game the system, as it were. Leah, who has suffered secondary infertility, conceives on the night of the trade. And Rachel doesn’t conceive until long after any positive influence from the duda’im could have been credited.
If Reuven was trying to assuage his mother’s desire for a child, he succeeded. But only exactly opposite of what he had intended, for she trades the charm away and nonetheless conceives. Whether the mandrakes had a medicinal value with regard to fertility or were merely effective as far as the superstition was concerned, the respective conceptions by both Leah and Rachel (eventually) that took place independent of the plant make it clear that “science” would not push God’s hand, as it were. If anything, He plays the mandrake for a foolish cure, directing the matriarchs’ attention instead to the real Bringer of children.