Mandrake root with human features Photo Credit: Chris Devers

By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute

What exactly were the duda’im that Reuven brought Leah? Were they really a fertility drug? What does that have to do with Harry Potter? A lesson in faith hiding in the biblical narrative.

“Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuven came upon some duda’im in the field and brought them to his mother, Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s duda’im.” (Bereishit 30:14).

The Torah tells the story of Reuven in Charan, noting that it was during the wheat harvest season that he found duda’im in the field, which he then brought to his mother. The latter gave them to her sister Rachel in exchange for Rachel’s night with Ya’akov.

The second time in the Tanach where duda’im make an appearance is Shir HaShirim, describing spring in the Land of Israel: “The duda’im yield their fragrance …” (7:14).

What exactly are these duda’im that Rachel wanted so badly, to the extent that she was willing to give up on her night with Ya’akov?

Identifying the Duda’im

The parshanim offer various interpretations. Chizkuni and Rashbam believe that these are figs (possibly since the wheat harvest is mentioned and this is the time figs ripen).

Seforno holds that “it is a type of pleasant-smelling grass, which influences fertility” (though we see here that it does not help Rachel).

Onkelos renders it: “yevurchin” (“yabruh” in Arabic).

The Talmud cites three opinions: What are duda’im? Rav says: [a plant called] yavruchei. Levi says: sigali (Rashi=jasmine). Rabbi Yonatan says: seviskei (Sanhedrin 99b). Rashi translates “sigali” as jasmine and “seviskei” as a fragrant-smelling plant. Both the Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel seem to render yevurchi as mandrakes: “it has the shape of a head and hands, such as the figure of a human.”

Today the common understanding of duda’im (probably based on the translation of the Septuagint) is a mandrake: Mandragora, a plant from the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, which has a thick, perennial root. Its name in Hebrew is דודא רפואי. Its purple or white flowers are bell-shaped. The plant begins blossoming in Tevet; (if fertilized) its highly poisonous yellow or orange tomato-like berries ripen around Nissan, giving off a sharp smell. Its leaves wither in late summer.

Duda’im and Harry Potter: Folklore Associated With the Humanoid Plant

Ron Weasley repotting a mandrake in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

Perhaps due to the often humanoid shape of its roots, many ancient myths and superstitions were associated with the plant. Some believed it possessed a human soul, grew primarily under the gallows, and would assume the form of those hanged there. Some believed it would shriek if uprooted — its cries fatal to whoever heard it. J.K. Rowling, familiar with botany-related folklore, weaves shrieking mandrakes into her plot in Harry Potter. One similar superstition — that the plant was dangerous to uproot — was recorded by Josephus:

“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 endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear. (Wars of the Jews, VII. 6. 3.)

This belief influenced Jewish folklore, which explained how Reuven was able to obtain the so-called deadly plant without harm: Having thoughtlessly tethered his donkey to a mandrake plant, he returned to discover it lying dead beside the uprooted herb. Thus he was able to give it to his mother without harm (Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews (1909), I, p. 336).

Mandrake in bloom. Photo credit: Ashley Basil

The Arab falaha call the duda’im berries, tapuah el majanin — the apple of insanity. The Jews of Morocco called them bid el awel, witch’s eggs; while the berries taste delicious, they reportedly cause hallucinations and even narcosis.

Mandrakes and Fertility

Prof. Bernhard Zondek, a German-born gynecologist who made aliyah in 1940, studied the mandrake in 1942. He discovered that it contained estrogens that can arouse desire. In a study performed on the effect of mandrakes on chickens’ egg-laying in the Gush Etzion area, it was found that the root had an unexplained physiological effect on the chickens, causing them to lay their eggs earlier than usual.

Some tie the biblical account of the duda’im to the ancient beliefs prevalent during the time that they could be used as a love potion that also induced conception.

Radak’s interpretation takes this route:

“And Reuven then was about seven years old, and went out to the field during the wheat harvest season. He found duda’im, picked them, and brought them to his mother, Leah. Now, duda’im are a grass whose roots are in the natural shape of a human. Perhaps Reuven heard what the masses said, that they induce women’s pregnancy. Because his mother become infertile, he brought them to her. However, this is not true, since had this been so, why did Rachel, who partook of them, not become pregnant? Also Leah did not become pregnant because of them, since the scripture states: ‘And G-d heard Leah.’”

Whether or not there is any truth in the mandrake’s fertility-inducing qualities, it seems that part of the point of biblical account of the duda’im is to highlight that it is not a plant that causes fertility, but rather G-d, who first listened to Leah, as mentioned above, and later answers Rachel’s prayers: “Now G-d remembered Rachel; G-d heeded her and opened her womb” (Bereishit 30:22).

Even when Chazal state (Bereishit Rabbah, 72:5) that two tribes were born as a result of the duda’im, they specifically refer to Leah, who gave up the supposed fertility pill to Rachel, not Rachel, who consumed them. Chazal indicate that it was the act of giving up the duda’im that gave Leah the merit to conceive. While there is certainly a place for hishtadlut — taking necessary, logical steps to further our goals — the results are truly due to prayer, good deeds, and G-d’s intervention.

Meir Cohen, “Parashah Eretz Yisraelit”; translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom

Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email h.moshe@toraland.org.il or call 972-8-684-7325.

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