And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: ‘Give me, I pray, from your son’s mandrakes.’ And she said unto her: ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? and would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said: ‘Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ 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 surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night. And God heard Leah, and she conceived, and bore Jacob a fifth son. (Genesis 30:14-17)
The vignette is usually passed off as part of the rivalry and dysfunction between the two sister wives of Jacob, the older one less beautiful and unloved, the younger one loved but barren. Leah has possession of some mandrakes which, in the ancient world appeared to have a number of useful properties- they were prophylactic against disease, the fragrance of them was thought to be an aphrodisiac (see Song of Songs 7:13 where the word play between “duda’im” (mandrakes) and “dodim” (lovemaking) makes this point eloquently (and is presumably why Leah has them). They were thought to be an aid to fertility –which is presumably why Rachel wants them.
But it raises many questions, as well as giving us an insight into the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
Reuben brings the mandrakes to his mother, having found them in the field during the harvest. But why does he do this? It is unlikely that he is intervening in the marital problems of his parents. But the value of the plant is clear – Rachel is prepared to give Jacob up for the night to sleep with her sister and rival, in order to take possession of the mandrakes. The transaction is immortalised in the name of the child conceived that night – Issachar – “man of hire”
Humanity has used plants for our own benefit from the very beginning of biblical time. The human being is placed in a garden where almost every piece of vegetation is for their delight or use. Only two trees have fruit which must not be tasted, and interestingly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which midrash thinks of as a pomegranate and which since the vulgate translation is often thought of as an apple – is, according to one Christian myth (physiologos) a mandrake – for its associations of sexual desire.
The mandrake has a special place in myth, helped no doubt today by its appearance in the Harry Potter books where its somewhat magical –even occult – nature is explored. A member of the nightshade family, its fruit, leaves and large root have medicinal and narcotic properties. Because the root often divides and bears a likeness to torso, legs and arms, the plant is anthropomorphised, with a belief that it screams when taken from the ground and whoever hears the scream will soon die. (And so a technique was developed where it was tied to a dog who was then tempted with meat at a distance. The dog would run, the plant would be uprooted, and the human gatherer would remove their ear plugs and come to collect it from the safe distance they had been standing). It is associated with evil spirits and demons, believed to be created by the semen of hanged men.
The history of the mandrake is a paradigm from which we can learn much. It is a plant that can be both toxic and healing, is treated as being both prophylactic and promoter of fertility, has been anthropomorphosed with tales of its quasi human, quasi demonic being. While it has now pretty much disappeared from medicinal use, its legend lives on. And it is this that reminds us that we didn’t always treat vegetation as mindless and passive, to be used by us without any thought except how we could continue to use it. But bible is clear repeatedly that the vegetation of our world is to be respected and honoured. The garden of Eden was to be guarded and cared for, not ravished and run into the ground. Deuteronomy asks if fruit trees are human that we might cut them down in wartime for siege weapons, and reminds us that the tree must be protected as it cannot escape the hostilities. The book of Judges has Jotham’s parable of the trees who want to choose a king over them – and the reasons why the trees sensibly choose not to become that figure but instead allow the lowly – and treacherous bramble to take the role. The candlestick in the tent of meeting is described using botanical language, the book of Kings tells of Naboth’s vineyard which he vainly tries to protect as the inheritance of his ancestors that cannot be sold or uprooted, the rules of the sabbatical year to let the land rest…. The thread of the importance of living and sustainable vegetation that must be respected and indeed honoured, winds through Jewish texts and Jewish customs. How we care for our environment, how we think of the vegetation as well as the animals – is a powerful imperative and lesson for today.
We no longer believe mandrakes are the chosen home of demons so must be treated with care, but we do know that treating the plants – from the lowliest grasses to the loftiest trees – is an obligation for us to take seriously. Why did Reuben collect the mandrakes during the wheat harvest, and give them to his mother – we shall never know, but it is a powerful reminder that plants play a part in our narrative too, even if we barely notice them at first glance.
Drawing of mandrakes based on Codex ex Vindobonensis Graecus 1. Dioscurides Neapolitanus XC. Bibliotecca Nazionale de Napoli. Sixth/seventh century.