Parashah of the Week: Vayetze

“In the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben went out and found mandrakes” Genesis 30:14


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

It is not always easy to translate a word of Torah, especially if it appears only once or twice in Tanach. The identification of a particular plant, bird or animal is particularly fraught with difficulties as the biblical authors were not familiar with the sciences of fauna and flora.

Parashat Vayetze is one of two places in Tanach where what comes to be translated as “mandrake” appears. The second example is found in Song of Songs 13:7.

Medical or botanical dictionaries define mandrake thus: “a Mediterranean solanaceous herb of the genus Mandragora (M. officinarum) that has greenish yellow or purple flowers, globose yellow fruits formerly supposed to have aphrodisiac properties, and a large usually forked root resembling a human in form and formerly credited with magical properties”.

The mandrake of Parashat Vayetze is not described in detail but, found by Reuben (Jacob and Leah’s firstborn), it is the subject of sisterly rivalry between Leah and Rachel.

The result of the mandrake appears rather dramatic for Leah, whose fertility had appeared to come to an end a short while before, bears Issachar, Zebulun and the family’s only daughter, Dinah, in quick succession.

The challenge of infertility is, of course, known from the previous story of Abraham and Sarah. In Parashat Vayetze too, Rachel expresses her anguish: “Give me children or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1).

While the declaration has a context and many interpretations, it goes to the heart of the assumed Jewish duty to have children, arising from God’s instruction to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:26 and the legendary strength of Jewish family life.

Indeed procreation is a Divine desire as the prophet Isaiah (45:18) reminds the listener: “God did not create [the world] a waste; but formed it for habitation.”

In a poll by Study Fields of a thousand Londoners aged between 18 and 34, it was reported that a quarter of them had decided against ever having children. The reasons included fears about the state of the world and its growing population as well as concerns for self and for financial capacity.

Often when I have the privilege to conduct a chupah, I remark that the wedding is merely the beginning of a marital journey which is an affirmation of faith in the future. The decision to have children is a similar gesture but as the father of four and the grandfather of seven (soon to be eight), I thoroughly recommend it.

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