Sisters and Aphrodisiacs

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated R

In this week’s Parshah, Vayeitzei, the third and final of the patriarchs, Jacob, marries the third and fourth of the matriarchs, Rachel and Leah.

Rachel and Leah were sisters, the daughters of Laban, Jacob’s maternal uncle. The Parshah relates that it had been Jacob’s intention to marry only Rachel, the younger of the two sisters. He had fallen in love with Rachel, and worked for seven long years to earn her hand in marriage. However, on the wedding night, Laban did a bait-and-switch, and Jacob ended up marrying the older sister Leah instead.

At that point, Jacob had a choice; he could have resigned himself to a life with the sister he did not wish to marry and whom he did not love; or he could marry Rachel in addition to Leah, and thus marry two sisters. He chose the latter, and became the only one in recorded biblical history to marry sisters.

Indeed, hundreds of years later, in Leviticus (18:18), G-d would forbid the Jewish people from the precise thing that Jacob did – the marrying of two sisters. Interestingly, the reason that the Torah gives for the prohibition of marrying two sisters is a concern that didn’t really appear to manifest itself in Jacob’s marriage. The Torah states: “And you shall not take a woman with her sister, to cause them to be rivals, to uncover the nakedness of one upon the other during her lifetime.” In other words, for two sisters to be sexually vulnerable and exposed to the same man would create an insurmountable barrier between the two, each of their most intimate selves now in the hands of her sister’s lover.

In the words of a very crude joke that I recently came across:

Mount her from behind, grab her hair and whisper,
“Your sister was much tighter…”
See if you can hold on for eight full seconds.

Predictably, as with most testosterone-driven taboos, the “sister-in-law” fantasy is way up there. In fact, a Jewish sister-in-law fantasy recently found its way onto Craigslist. It’s an interesting one: it is not the ordinary desire for someone new and different; rather, it is a lust for new, yet with the same genes. For a different version of what he already has. And it is not incest, per se, but it does add a taboo and forbidden element not present in other extramarital relationships. Getting to the bottom of the sister-in-law fantasy is beyond the scope of this essay, but is well-treated in books such as In Scripture: The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities, by Lori Hope Lefkovitz.

With Rachel and Leah, however, one doesn’t get the impression that it was simply sharing Jacob’s sex that created the issue between the two sisters. Rather, Leah craved Jacob’s affections, which she knew – and had always known – lay with her sister, Rachel. Leah’s ongoing anguish at being the unloved wife is reflected in the names that she gave to her many children. However, there is only one instance in which Leah’s jealously of Rachel’s marriage gave way to a pained and emotional outburst.

And Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found “dudaim” in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother. And Rachel said to Leah, “please give me some of your son’s dudaim.” And she said to her, “is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, and you also seek to take my son’s dudaim?” And Rachel said, “therefore shall [Jacob] sleep with you tonight, in exchange for your son’s dudaim.”

Genesis, 30:14-15.

Leah took the deal. This in and of itself is somewhat surprising, for one might have expected Rachel’s offer to sting Leah to distraction, in the easy way with which Rachel was able to barter the sex life of the husband for whose attentions Leah so hungered. Perhaps Leah was so hungry for Jacob, however, that she was willing to ignore the indignity of having to purchase marital intimacy with her own husband from her rival. Indeed, the Midrash frowns on what it sees as Rachel’s flippant approach to her husband’s bedding, and concludes that, by failing to value the merit of lying with Jacob that night, Rachel lost the privilege of lying with him for eternity, and did not merit to be buried with him. See Genesis Rabba, 72:3.

What were the “dudaim” that Reuven found with which Leah bought an extra night with Jacob?

According to Rashi, the dudaim were jasmine – and most commentaries agree that whatever Reuven brought had an aromatic scent.

Other commentaries argue that dudaim were not jasmine, which was not in season during “the days of the wheat harvest,” but mandrakes. Mandrakes have several unique properties. The branches of the mandrake resemble apples and have a pleasant fragrance. The stems of the mandrake, however, is shaped in the form of a human head and hands (hence the appeal in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and is said to be an aid to pregnancy. See Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Or Hachayim. Those commentaries, however, agree that Reuven did not bring the stems of the mandrakes to Leah, but only their branches, intending that she would simply enjoy – and perhaps to perfume the space that she shared with Jacob. Was Rachel aware of the mandrake’s properties? Did she know that the fertility-enhancing properties were only in the stems, and not in the branches? We can only speculate, but it might explain why Rachel was willing to forgo a night with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes, if she thought that the mandrakes might aid a future pregnancy.

There is a third view that the dudaim were a certain kind of herb that not only enhances fertility, with properties similar to garlic (but with a much better smell), but that also act as an aphrodisiac, enhancing sexual desire. This is hinted in the Hebrew name dudaim itself, as the root “dodim” means lovers. The Seforno concludes that this gives us an indication of Reuven’s early righteousness, cleverness and resourcefulness, in recognizing herbs that his mother might be able to use to enhance Jacob’s disposition and desire towards her. This, too, would explain Rachel’s interest in the herbs, for, whereas Leah would have wanted them for their aphrodisiac properties, Rachel would have desired them for their fertility-enhancing features.

At the end of the day, Leah, who gave up the dudaim to Rachel, conceived her fifth child Issachar that night. Rachel, who presumably made full use of the dudaim that she had acquired, remained barren as Leah went on to give birth to Zebulun and then her daughter Dinah. It was not until after Dinah’s birth that “G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d listened to her, and he opened her womb.” She gave birth to Joseph, and about six years later, to Benjamin.

Thus, whether the dudaim were ever effective as either fertility-boosters or aphrodisiacs we will never know, as G-d clearly had his own plans for Rachel and Leah that would not be circumvented by any herb or artifice. As we discussed here, our fecundity – and the timing of it – is sometimes part of a much loftier divine plan that won’t allow itself to be affected or upset by our mundane machinations and efforts; we simply need to trust G-d that He knows what He’s doing and that He has a plan; or we need to pray to Him – as did Rebecca and Rachel – to alter His original plan and come up with a new one, in which our most fervent dreams are in the cards.

Shabbat shalom!