“And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean on not telling him that he was fleeing” Genesis 31:20


This unusual verse follows another, more famous, theft. Immediately before we read the strange expression that Jacob “stole the heart” of Laban, we read how Rachel stole her father Laban’s idols while he was off shearing the sheep. 

Stealing idols is understandable; we can imagine the scene, Rachel secretly tucking Laban’s pagan statues into her bags and the folds of her cloak. Yet, what do we imagine when we read that Jacob stole Laban’s heart?  

In English, “stealing one’s heart” has a romantic sensibility. That is for a very good, and interesting, reason. Our Western culture largely derives its conceptions of the body from the Roman interpreter and inheritor of Greek medical traditions, Galen. 

Galen suggested that rational thought emerged from the brain and that emotional feelings emerged from the heart. We as a culture have preserved the inaccurate Galenic notion of the heart as the seat of emotions. One look at a display of Valentine’s Day cards is enough to remind us how absurd it is that a blood-pumping muscle has become our totem of affection. 

The ancient near-Eastern cultures, in a different approach from the Greeks, assigned different faculties to the body. For the Torah then, the kidneys are the seat of emotion (imagine that card!), the lungs serve to prevent the heart from overheating and the heart itself is actually where thought occurs. 

Contrary to our current Western conception, in the Hebrew imagination the heart is where the mind is. The Midrash actually makes a list of all the verses of the Torah that describe what the heart does, some of which include speaking, inventing, criticising, erring, writing words and planning (Kohelet Rabbah 1:36).

Thus if we understand the heart-equals-mind paradigm of the Torah’s language, we can better understand not just this passage where Jacob tricks Laban (steals his mind) but also the hundreds of other places in the Torah and the siddur where we discuss all the things our “heart” can do. The only question we then face is: do we have the “heart” to understand it better? 

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