Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How shall we understand the mandrakes?

Summary: According to Radak, Ibn Caspi, and Shadal. And more thoughts.

Post: Michlal Yofi
"דודאים -- they are the root of an herb in the shape of a human, male and female -- mandragur in foreign tongue. (In German, אלרויען, alraun.) 

{Then, citing Radak, as Michlal Yofi often does:}
Perhaps Reuven heard that which the common folk said, that they helped for a woman's conception, and since his mother had stopped from giving birth, he brought them to her. But this thing, [the efficacy of mandrake root,] is not true. For if it were so, why did Rachel not conceive, for she took from them? And Leah as well did not conceive because of them, for behold it says וישמע אלקים את לאה, that Hashem heard Leah."

Ibn Caspi:

"Though mandrakes don't have any segulah for conception nor to a matter of [love] at all, why should we struggle with this, after the Torah did not explain it, just as it does not explain many causes without number. And perhaps they have to benefit {segulah} at all, but the Giver of the Torah wrote this for whatever reason He wished, for many purposes, to write the matter of the striving of Rachel and Leah in this, and all attached to this, as I will write in the sefer Tiras Kesef. And Rachel desired these mandrakes for the sake of the pleasure of their form {? }, just as she desired many other forms, or to eat figs and grapes. 

And behold, Rachel was not Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon and Moshe. All the more so that she would desire them for one of the segulot that Ibn Sina {+Avicenna} mentioned. All the more so that perhaps the Giver of the Torah knew that they had a segulah for conception, of that the women of that time thought so, such that their form was about the connection between the male and the female. Perhaps from this, when they looked upon them, or suspended them from the neck, the woman would be aroused and go into heat, and in general these matters are revealed to those who have eyes."

To summarize: It does not matter; perhaps it is written for some other purpose; and maybe it does not work -- don't put too much stock in the desires of a non-prophetess. Also, maybe it does work, or would work via the placebo effect or some other psychological effect.

It is a noteworthy chiddush that we don't have to assume that they actually work, even if the Imahos thought that they did work.

One can see what Avicenna writes about mandrakes here, put into wine and administered as an anaesthetic. Also ascribed to Avicenna but not necessarily stated by him is an origin of mandrakes from the sperm from a thief hung upon the gallows. See here.


"The Alexandrian translator translated mandragorae, and so does Onkelos translate יברוחין, which is in the Arabic language as well the mandragorae. And the kadmonim made from them witchcraft (filtra) to induce love in the heart of their partner. And therefore (according to the testimony of Dioscorides) they called them Circaeae, based on the name Circe, and they said that דודאים is based on the word דודים whose import is love.

And all this is extremely unlikely in my eyes, for Rachel did not need witchcraft to make her husband love her, for he already loved her most of all his wives, such that Leah said to her, 'is is not enough that you have taken my husband?' Also, this is not mentioned at all that Yaakov was given to drink of the juice of these mandrakes.

And Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra mentions that there are those who say that they benefit conception, and he says that this is the opposite of their nature, which is cold.

And Ramban wrote that men say that the root of the mandrakes aid conception, but Reuven did not bring the root but rather the flowers. And he says that Leah desired the mandrakes to be entertained thereby and to enjoy their scent (as is written in Shir HaShirim 7:14, 'the mandrakes give forth their scent'.) Amd to this my mind inclines. 

And we don't know which flower is the dudaim. And Clericus says that if we come to estimate which flower it was, it is possible to say that it is what is called Amomo, whose scent is good, and its fruit is similar in form to grapes, as well as to baskets, which are called dudaim. (See Yirmeyahu 24:1.)"

An interesting idea here by JG Frazer -- that Leah's conception and birth of Yissachar, Zevulun, and Dina form an interjection, and thus a moving away from an original story in which it was Yosef's birth caused by the dudaim. And the purpose of the interjection is to move away, by a pious editor, from 'this crude boorish superstition in the patriarchal narrative'. (One might also point out the dual etymology of Yissachar to bolster this idea.)

Name-calling aside, the idea that this might be a deliberate interjection (even not by a separate editor) is remotely plausible. If so, there might be other reasons (or the same reason) to introduce this long pause between cause and effect; emphasizing God's role, over that of witchcraft.

But I don't buy it. This is simply speculation, with no real supporting evidence. And indeed, there is an etymology linking Yissachar to the dudaim. And Yosef has two etymologies, neither of which is linked to the dudaim, something we would expect if it were the original conclusion. And it is Reuven as actor, bringing the dudaim, in a way that ultimately benefited his mother. Thus, the narrative reads rather nicely as it stands, with Rachel either going for a trinket over her husband, or seeking medical / superstitional aid, with Hashem as the ultimate arbiter of who gets what.

1 comment:

Menachem said...

you may be interested by our site on Dudaim:


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