Two back-to-back comments in Tractate Shabbos (21b; 22a) by Rav Tanchum, that on the surface appear to have no common theme, are explained by Rav S. Ganzfried in the sefer, Aperion. These two comments connect the Chanukah lights with the incident of Reuven throwing Yosef into the pit. The first statement of Rav Tanchum was that Chanukah lights placed above a height of twenty amos from the ground are invalid. Rashi explained that the goal of the Chanukah lights was to publicize the miracle. A menorah placed at a height that exceeds the vision of passersby, therefore, served no purpose. The second statement of Rav Tanchum discussed the description of the pit into which the brothers threw Yosef: “and the pit was empty, no water was in it” (Bereishis 37:24). If the pit was empty, it is implied that there was no water in it. By this redundancy of “there was no water in it,” the Torah meant to convey that although there was no water in it, unknown to the brothers, the pit was filled with snakes and scorpions. What is the connection between these two seemingly non-related expositions of Rav Tanchum?
Before explaining the connection, Rav Ganzfried noted the medrash (recorded as Medrash Shir HaShirim, but not found in our editions of the Medrash Rabbah, as noted by Rabbi Avrohom Adler), on the pasuk in Shir HaShirim (7:14), “The dudaim emit their fragrance, and on our doorways are all manner of sweet fruits.” The phrase, “The dudaim emit their fragrance phrase” refers to Reuven who brought fragrant dudaim to his mother, Leah, and the phrase, “on our door are all manner of sweet fruits” refers to the Chanukah lights. Again there is a connection between Reuven and Chanukah lights, however, now Reuven is considered “fragrant” as he saved Yosef.
Rav S. Ganzfried suggested that the commonality between these two statements, both in tractate Shabbos and in the medrash, focused on HaShem’s desire to publicize hidden miracles and privately performed good deeds. The entire Jewish people were aware of the rebellion, led by Mattisyahu and his five sons, against the Syrian-Greek army. News of the Jewish victories spread and more-and-more Jews joined the fledgling Jewish army. Approximately one to two years after the start of the revolt, Yehudah HaMaccabi and his army defeated, in part, the Syrian-Greek army and marched into Yerushalayim to cleanse the Bet HaMikdash. As the actual menorah was stolen long before, a hand-crafted menorah was constructed and there was need for uncontaminated oil. An unopened flask of oil, with the unbroken seal of a kohen gadol, was discovered, but the amount of oil it contained was sufficient only for one day of lighting. However, a miracle occurred, as when the oil was kindled to light the menorah, the flame lasted for 8 days, until ritually pure oil could be obtained. This miraculous event was viewed only by those in the Bet HaMikdash.
Whereas the victories of the Jewish army were public miracles, seen by many people and known to Jews and gentiles, the discovery of this lone flask of oil was not a public event, as it was apparent only to those Jews actually inside the Bet HaMikdash. As opposed to the victorious defeats of the Syrian-Greek army, the majority of the Jewish nation witnessed neither the discovery of the uncontaminated flask nor the burning of a 1-day supply of oil for 8 days. Today, by lighting the menorah in a place and at a height specifically visible to passersby, the private, unpublicized miracle of the oil burning for 8 days in the Bet HaMikdash is transformed into a publicized miracle for all to see.
A similar theme of HaShem’s publicizing a mitzvah done privately is seen with the events of Yosef being thrown into the pit. “And they (i.e., the brothers) said to one another, ‘Look! That dreamer (i.e., Yosef) is coming. So now, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits: and we will say, ‘A wild animal devoured him. Then we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ Reuven put forth a scheme to rescue Yosef; Reuven said, “we will not strike him mortally! Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” Parenthetically, the pasuk continues – “Reuven intended to rescue him (i.e., Yosef) from their hand, to return him to his father” (Bereishis 37: 19-22). Neither the brothers nor Reuven knew that the pit was filled with venomous creatures (Bereishis 37:24). From Reuven’s outward actions it would seem that he wanted to harm Yosef. However, everything is known and revealed to HaShem, Who clearly understood that Reuven’s strategy was to save, rather than to kill, Yosef. Reuven’s heroic intention was private, not public knowledge. As a reward, HaShem clearly spelled out Reuven’s pure intention by incorporating the phrase, “Reuven intended to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father.”
Rav Ganzfried continued his narrative, mentioning that Reuven found fragrant dudaim in the field. The aromatic berries of dudaim were used to perfume beds (Shir HaShirim 1:3). A pleasant fragrance, cannot be visualized but publicizes the object emitting the fragrance, which itself, may be hidden from view. Similarly, Reuvem’s intention of saving Yosef was hidden. His public action of throwing Yosef into the pit was a scam, so as not to reveal his private intention of saving Yosef. Rav Ganzfried made note of a similar nonpublic event regarding Yosef and Zelicha, Potiphor’s wife. Apparently, on the day of an idolatrous festival, Potiphor and his staff left the house to participate in the festivities, leaving Zelicha behind, as she claimed to be ill. Yosef arrived to encounter Zelicha in the empty house. In seclusion with Zelicha, Yosef controlled his passions and quickly left the scene, thereby sanctifying the Name of HaShem. As Yosef conquering his passion was in private, HaShem saw the need to publicize this event by adding an extra letter, a hey, to his name (see Tehillim 81:6) (Sotah 36b).
There is some disagreement on the identity of dudaim. “Reuven went out in the days of the wheat harvest; he found dudaim in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother” (Bereishis 30:14). Dudaim are a species of plant; three opinions of their identity are presented in tractate Sanhedrin (99b): (a) yavruchei – mandrakes, a plant whose roots resemble the shape of a human being (Ramban; Ibn Ezra); The Baal HaTurim noted that the gematria of the word, dudaim, is the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “like a man.” (b) siglei – violets (Rashi, in Berachos 43b); and (c) seviskei – a type of fragrant spice (Rashi; Sforno; Rokeach). Other thoughts are that dudaim are figs (Chizuki; Rashbam), barley (Bereishis Rabbah 70:2), or aromatic flowers (Torah Temimah; Rav Hirsch). The properties of dudaim were to function as an aphrodisiac (the word, dudaim, is derived from “dod” (love), as a fertility aid, and/or as a perfume. Rueven brought dudaim to his mother either to enhance Yaakov’s love for her, to aid in her conceiving, or to perfume her bed. Whatever the reason, as Reuven was between 5 and 7 years of age (Radak; Rokeach; Sforno), understanding his mother’s personal issues was much to his credit.
Upon Reuven presenting the dudaim to his mother, the ensuing verbal interchange between Leah and Rachel is presented. “Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s dudaim.’ But she (Leah) said to her (Rachel), ‘Was your taking my husband insignificant? And now to take my son’s dudaim!” Rachel said, ‘Therefore, he shall be with you tonight in return for your son’s dudaim” (Bereishis 30:14-15). Yaakov was to have stayed that night with Rachel, but she ceded that privilege to Leah in exchange for the dudaim. Rav Hirsch had a unique description of this verbal exchange between Leah and Rachel and described it as friendly bantering between sisters. “..the whole matter appears as an instance to show a state of two sisters living together in the most confidential intimacy. While Yaakov is out in the fields, the two sisters sit together. His evenings he spends alternatively with each one of the other. Reuven, who was still a little boy, brings some wild flowers home to his mother. “Give me some of them,” says Rachel. “What sauce to ask for my precious flowers, etc.” says Leah jokingly, but of cause she gives her some” “Now,” say Rachel, “because you have been so kind, he shall come to you this evening.”
The Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Rambam, all physicians, were doubtful of the ability of dudaim, the roots of mandrakes, to promote fertility. Rav Avigdor Miller’s evaluation of Rachel’s desire to eat mandrakes to induce fertility is applicable to couples today who are experiencing issues of infertility. Rav Miller (1987) said, “It is entirely immaterial whether mandrakes would today cause fertility or not. Because they were considered at that time as effective means, it was the duty of infertile women to attempt to better their lot by eating mandrakes. Even the most righteous, that pray for HaShem’s help and who trust implicitly in Him, are required to utilize the means which are considered effective by the people of their generation.”
A different twist to this incident is provided by Karnei Or, citing Rav Pe’alim, who suggested that dudaim had dual biomedical properties, as a cure for weak eyes and as a charm to facilitate pregnancy. Many explanations are offered to explain the phrase, “Leah’s eyes were tender” (Bereishis 29:17). Leah’s excessive weeping over the thought that she was destined to marry Esav, caused her eyes to be painful (Da’as Zekainim MiBa’alei HaTosafos), to appear homely (Rashi, based on Bava Basra 123a), and subsequently for her eyelashes to fall off (Rashbam). Other thoughts are that Leah’s eyes were sensitive to the wind (Rivash) or to the sun (Haamek Davar) or, simply, were weak (Ramban). According to this scenario, Karnei Or suggested that Leah desired the dudaim as an ocular remedy and Rachel desired the dudaim as a fertility-inducing agent (cited in Bereishis 1b, ArtScroll edition, 1989).
Most commentators consider dudaim to be mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum), a plant with a short stem, large leaves, pale blue or velvet flowers which yield round, succulent, orange to red berries. Mandrake has a long taproot, appearing as a parsnip but which may bifurcate, causing it to resemble a human figure. All parts of the plant have high concentration of alkaloids, causing it to be strongly sedative, naecotic, and hallucinogenic. These mind-altering properties, coupled with the root taking on a human-like figure, probably accounted for the usage of this plant in magic rituals, witchcraft, in the occult, and in the supernatural (Carter, 2003; Wikipedia, 2010). In ancient Egypt it was used in a form of shamanistic trance and in healing (Emboden, 1989).
Much research on mandrake has led to the identification of more than 80 chemical constituents, including alkaloids, volatile and odorous compounds, lipids, pigments, and coumarins (Hanus et al., 2005). The high concentrations of solanum alkaloids and tropane alkaloids in mandrake give rise to anticholinergic properties when is was consumed as a vegetable. Adverse anticholinergic properties include nausea, excessive dilation of the pupil of the eye, blurred vision, and supraventricular tachycardia (a fast heart rate). Scopolamine adversely affects the nervous system, causing an excited or agitated delirium possibly associated with amnesia and suppression of the central nervous system (Tsiligianni et al., 2009). This latter effect would explain the use of mandrake root as an analgesic and anesthetic for military surgeries (Houghton, 2006).
The mandrake’s association with fertility may have originated from the story of Rueven finding the dudaim and bringing them to his mother. Rabbeinu Menachem (cited in, Otzar HaRishonim, complied by Rabbi Joseph Asia) noted that dudaim emit a fragrance that increases the sex desire, heating the brain, and thereby inducing the emission of seed. In today’s scientific terminology, this would be described as a neuroendocrine pathway. Shaouli and Fisher (1999) noted studies in Hadassah Medical School, Israel, that found mandrake to have a minute quantity of sex hormones. For additional information on mandrakes, see Solodokin (2010).
Probably because the root may take on the figure of a human being, an interesting legend arose for harvesting mandrake. Josephus (around 37 CE) gave the following instructions for the safe harvesting of mandrake. “A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear” (Wikipedia, 2010). In Otzar HaRishonim a similar procedure is attributed to Reuven’s obtaining the mandrake, except that a donkey, instead of a dog, was used to uproot the plant.
Appreciation is expressed to Rabbi Eli Babich, program director of the Jewish Enrichment Center, New York, NY, for reviewing the Torah portions of this manuscript.
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Wikipedia, retrieved July 9, 2010, Mandrake (plant) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrake_(plant)