Keeping Wives Satisfied

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 PG-13

Rarely has such documented attention been afforded a woman’s sexual and romantic satisfaction as with out matriarchs, Rachel and Leah.

In fact, this week’s entire ParshahVayeitzei — is replete with uncharacteristic soap-opera-style anecdotes about the sex lives of Jacob’s two wives.

Right from the start, the Torah paints a vivid contrast between Rachel and Leah: “Leah’s eyes were weak, and Rachel was endowed with beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.”[1] Why were Leah’s eyes weak? According to Rashi, this is because it was common knowledge within the family that the two sons born to Rebecca would end up marrying the two daughters born to her brother, Laban; and that the oldest son, Esau, would marry the eldest daughter, Leah, and the younger son, Jacob, would marry the younger daughter, Rachel. Because Esau’s wicked reputation preceded him, Leah spent much of her time crying that she might be intended for such a man — hence her weak eyes.

Jacob, on the other hand, only has eyes for Rachel, from the moment that he sees her and kisses her; and he agrees to spend first seven years laboring for Laban in exchange for her hand, and then another seven years after Laban tricks him and forces him to marry Leah first. Even after Leah becomes Jacob’s wife, the rest of her life appears to be spent in a fruitless quest for her husband’s love and affection. Indeed, she names her firstborn son Reuben, “because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.”[2] Her second child, she calls Shimon, “since the Lord has heard that I am hated [by my husband], He gave me this one too.”[3] Her third son is called Levi, in the hope that “this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.”[4] And so on.

Then there is the story instigated by Jacob’s first born son, Reuben.

And Reuben 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.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah came forth toward him, and she said, “You shall come to me, because I have hired you with my son’s dudaim,” and he slept with her on that night.[5]

In this anecdote, Reuben demonstrates a mature wisdom and sensitivity to his mother’s sexual needs. As we discussed here, some commentaries believe the “dudaim” that Reuben brought Leah to have been known aphrodisiacs, suggesting that Reuben was aware of Leah’s desperate need to entice Jacob to her bed. However, when Rachel agrees to exchange her night with Jacob for the dudaim, Leah gladly surrenders this marital aid in favor of an actual night with Jacob.

This is not the last time that Reuben will act protectively with respect to his mother’s conjugal rights. In next week’s Parshah, Vayishlach, the Torah relates that “it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.”[6]

Many commentaries understand Reuben’s crime to be quite different than a literal reading of the verse suggests.[7] The Talmud states that what Reuben actually did was to move Jacob’s bed from the tent of Bilhah to Leah’s tent. Why? The Talmud explains that when Rachel died, Jacob took his bed, which had been regularly placed in the tent of Rachel, his most beloved wife, and moved it into the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s handmaid. Reuben could not endure this humiliation to his mother. “If my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, should my mother’s sister’s handmaid now also be a rival to my mother?”[8] So he took action, and moved Jacob’s bed into his mother’s tent, to ensure that Leah would receive her sexual dues.

Yet Reuben was not the only one looking out for his mother. Laban, too, showed an uncharacteristic concern that both his daughters be romantically and sexually fulfilled.

We see this initially when Laban tricks Jacob, and sends Leah to his wedding bed instead of Rachel. When a distraught Jacob confronts him the next morning, Laban justifies his actions by telling him: “It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn. Complete the wedding week of this one, and we will give you this one too, for the work that you will render me for another seven years.”[9]

Does it sound like a fishy excuse? Of course. Why did Laban not share that custom with Jacob in advance? On the other hand, why did Laban trick Jacob? Didn’t he get the memo that Leah was intended for Esau? Why not simply tell Jacob that he had to wait until Leah was married?

Clearly, Laban wanted both of his daughters to have Jacob as their husband. As he said earlier in response to Jacob’s request for Rachel’s hand: “It is better that I give her to you than I should give her to another man.”[10] Whatever animosity may have resulted from their future business dealings, and despite the fact that Jacob arrived penniless at Laban’s door, Laban must have had great respect for Jacob, and wanted him as a son-in-law — not just for one, but for both of his daughters — and was willing to go to great lengths to orchestrate this unconventional union.[11]

Finally, at the conclusion of this week’s Parshah, Laban and Jacob are about to finally part ways under extremely strained circumstances. Jacob left Haran, with his family and possessions, without saying goodbye; and Laban pursued him until he finally caught up with him at Mount Gilead. It is a night of angry recriminations, and hanging over the head of Jacob and his family is an unspoken threat of violence, to the point that Laban acknowledges that: “I have the power to inflict harm upon you, but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Beware of speaking with Jacob either good or bad.’” [12] At the end of the long and harrowing day, Laban and Jacob broker an uneasy peace treaty.

What are the terms of the treaty?

Laban’s obligations are obvious: he will not harm Jacob or his family. But what are Jacob’s obligations?

In a fascinating finale to the Jacob-Laban-Leah-Rachel saga, Laban’s one demand of Jacob is that he continue to provide romantic and sexual satisfaction to his daughters.

“May the Lord look between me and you when we are hidden from each other. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters when no one is with us, behold! God is a witness between me and you.”[13]

Laban’s one concern, his one stipulation in this treaty, is not the transfer of money or property, or the return of wealth that he claimed Jacob to have spirited away from his own coffers; rather, it is that his daughters will be well taken care of, and that Jacob take no additional wives who might encroach upon Rachel and Leah’s marital prerogatives.

But Laban was even more explicit than that. What did he mean by the warning “if you afflict my daughters…”? Did Jacob have a history of spousal abuse? Remember, Jacob is a shepherd; by nature, he is “an innocent man, dwelling in tents.”[14] His reactions throughout this tail have been extraordinarily mild. Even when he finds the wrong woman in his marital bed, his only reaction is to confront Laban and say “why have you done this?”[15] This is not a violent man prone to fits of temper and abusive behavior.

The Talmud states that Laban was referring to a particular kind of “affliction”: that of withholding sex. Indeed, it is from this very verse that the Talmud derives that, when the Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur we are to “afflict ourselves,[16]” that affliction includes refraining from sexual intercourse.[17] Thus, Laban’s final demand and adjuration of Jacob is that he not deprive Leah and Rachel of their sexual satisfaction.[18]

We live in a culture in which when we think of how we were conceived (eew!), we much prefer the stork narrative; where conversations regarding sex between parents and children are often strained and awkward; and in which the question “how is your sex life” is likely to be the very last on the list of questions that we will ever ask our married children.

As always, though, our biblical origins make one wonder: Is that how things were? Is that how things should be? Should something as fundamental and vital to our happiness as sex be the source of such awkwardness?

Laban is certainly not a model parent. Nevertheless, Jacob understood and acquiesced to his final request: that Jacob fulfill the sexual needs of Laban’s daughters. The central role that Rachel and Leah’s sexual satisfaction plays in this week’s Parshah certainly provides food for thought.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 29:17.

[2] Genesis, 29:32.

[3] Genesis, 29:33.

[4] Genesis, 29:34.

[5] Genesis, 30:14-16.

[6] Genesis, 35:22.

[7] Although I have made the contrary argument here and here.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55b.

[9] Genesis, 29:26-27.

[10] Genesis, 29:19.

[11] Rachel and Leah were not impressed by Laban’s parenting, as evidenced in their later response to Jacob when he advised them of his plans to return to the Land of Canaan:”Are we not considered by him as strangers, for he sold us, and also consumed our money?” Genesis, 31:15.

[12] Genesis, 31:29.

[13] Genesis, 31:49-50.

[14] Genesis, 25:27.

[15] See Genesis, 29:25.

[16] See Leviticus, 23:27.

[17] See Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 77a-b.

[18] Just for context, according to many opinions, Jacob was now a man of 97 years old.