In this week’s portion Jacob is on his way to Uncle Laban’s and on his first night out has a dream telling him everything will be all right. He reaches Laban’s lands, falls in love with his cousin Rachel, but is tricked into marrying his cousin Leah first. While not desired by Jacob, Leah apparently is far more fertile than her sister Rachel. So the two sisters begin a furious battle with themselves and their concubines trying to chunk out the kids leading to twelve boys and one girl. Rachel is barren though much of this, and halfway through this battle we have an interesting incident involving Leah oldest son Ruben.
14. And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found duda-im in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I beg you, of your son’s duda-im. 15. And she said to her, Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband? and would you take away my son’s duda-im also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with you to night for your son’s duda-im. 16. And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’sduda-im. And he lay with her that night.[Genesis 30]
Leah apparently gets pregnant from this and Issachar is born, followed by Zebulon and finally Dinah. Rachel remains barren until she give birth to Joseph, At the core of this story is the Duda-im, mentioned only one other place in the text
The duda-im give forth fragrance, and at our gates are all kinds of choice fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.[Song of Songs 7:14]
The imagery of 7:11-14 is of two lovers running away to a storage shed full of harvested fruits, which the duda-im give forth fragrance. By rabbinic times there was a debate as to what the duda-im were. Sanhedrin 99b has duda-im as mandrakes, violets, or mandrake flowers, which also are purplish in color. The targums all agree it is a mandrake. Taking apart the word duda-im, we have a root of “DVD” which mean beloved or loving. The –im ending indicates a masculine plural. While the Greeks translated it into “love apples” it may be better described as “Male lovings,” referring to the way the roots of the mandrake split into different parts. Many have noted this tendency and the roots tendency to split into what looks like arms and legs, giving the impression of a human being or small child. Legends that go back at least to Josephus tell of the scream of the Mandrake when harvested which could kill a man if he was too close and that mandrakes were harvested by tying them to a dog and having the dog pull them, though this kills the dog.
However the Josephus legend, further spread by the Harry Potter books, may be partially true, though not of sound but of smell. As the Song of Songs indicates the mandrake gives off a smell, The word in Aramic Yavruchin also has the word for smell as its root. Genesis 30, many legends and herbal medicine all describe the mandrake as an aphrodisiac, and there is some evidence to that. However, freshly pulled root might just give off enough aromatic chemicals to kill someone or seriously injure them in an overdose.
What those chemicals are not only give evidence of an aphrodisiac, but a very dark one. In the mandrake root, there are high, and sometimes lethal amounts of Atropine,Hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, all part of the family of Anticholinergics. While in small dosages these are well known pharmaceuticals for a variety of illnesses and conditions, including gastrointestinal illness and seasickness. In larger quantities they can cause an increased heart rate, dementia and hallucinations. It is this overdose that might be the reason mandrakes are aphrodisiacs, but a very dark one. So dark, Arabs called them the Devils apples. Scopolamine in particular has had a rather dark reputation as both a truth serum and as a date rape drug. Finding Mandrakes in someone’s cupboard in the middle ages was enough to get them burned as a a witch. The pulling of a fresh root might have made for some legendary hallucinations and more than a few deaths when inhaled.
While it is clear that they might be one of the darker aphrodisiacs, since there is no fertility component to the mandrake, what did Rachel want them so desperately for? Was it for her own consumption or someone else’s? I’m still not sure. The rabbinic take on the story is that Leah got the kids out of the deal, and Rachel the mandrake. Rachel however remained barren, and as Rachel says herself when Joseph is born “God has taken away my reproach”[Gen 30:23] It was God that did all this, and none of her badgering or cures could change things. The context of the story was fertility, Jacob’s fertility was obviously not in doubt, but hers was. A psychotropic drug for Jacob to love Rachel doesn’t make sense either, he loved Rachel far more than Leah. Several medieval commentaries out of Spain note that Rueben intended them for his Mother’s use to increase her fertility. Maybe Rachel was not only planning to use then herself but prevent Leah form using them, A plan which obviously backfired.
Knowing how a mandrake works and its possibility of being a date rape drug at its darkest use left me with speculation, imagination and not any good answers. Was Rachel, known for her impulsiveness and lack of good behavior also a drug addict, addicted to the scopolamine ? Was she going to use the mandrakes on someone to do something? Was this witchcraft — mind control of someone to do something? Was Reuben’s mistake that lost him the birthright really his doing or a mandrake potion? Was Leah going to try to win the love of her husband through a love potion and gain a unfair advantage over here sister? Or was it the simple explanation that while mandrakes do not increase fertility, she believed they did.
I leave it to you to think about.