A Rosh Hashana themed stainedglass window by the artist David Hillman, at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London..
(photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)
Rosh Hashana, according to Jewish tradition, is also the birthday of the world. The Midrash relates that on this day, too, God took note of the four matriarchs and enabled them to conceive: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (Midrash Tanhuma). Leah, too?
God, as the Biblical story relates, does not remain indifferent to the sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel, and when He sees that Leah is hated, he does right by her: “And God opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). And so Leah, too, was barren, and the Midrash about the matriarchs who became pregnant on Rosh Hashana heralds the birth of the son as a cultural hero.
Miserable Leah, who knows that she is the hated wife, also knows that her sister is graced with beauty whereas she, Leah, is fit for childbearing. Beauty and fertility are the central criteria in the contest between women in a polygamous society, where the goal is to preserve male supremacy. The preoccupation with beauty and motherhood is also in service of this goal.
And what is Rachel’s response? “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said to Jacob: Give me children, or else I shall die” (Genesis 30:1). Her loving husband’s response is unexpected: “And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said: Am I in God's stead, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2)
Is Jacob’s gruff response a sign that Leah, the hated wife, has triumphed over her sister? Or perhaps Jacob, like all men who follow a strategy of “divide and conquer” when ruling over their women, is sick and tired of all the rivalry and jealousy in his home, and therefore offers such a harsh and unsympathetic response?
The sisters are completely estranged, each jealous of what she lacks and the other possesses. Only when it comes to the story of the mandrakes do we hear, for the first time, an exchange of cold words between them. Reuven finds mandrakes during the harvest season and brings them to his mother Leah. Only then does Rachel speak to her sister: “Give me of your son’s mandrakes” (Genesis 30:14). Leah responds angrily, “Is it not enough that you have taken my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes too?” Rachel proposes a trade: “He can sleep with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” (Genesis 30:15)
Leah is convinced that Rachel has stolen her husband Jacob from her, but she accepts the offer of her sister and rival: Rachel will receive the mandrakes, a fruit that boosts fertility, in exchange for Jacob, whom she will give to Leah for one night.
The competition between women, which is rendered even more bitter on account of the fact that they are sisters quarreling over the same man, only serves to bolster the status of the man over whom they are fighting. But the “divide and conquer” approach that underlies the polygamous structure is susceptible to collapse: Leah goes out to greet Jacob when he returns from the field and quotes him his price, in no uncertain terms: “You must sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes. And he slept with her that night” (Genesis 30:16).
As a consequence of this cohabitation, Leah gives birth to a fifth son, who is named Issachar, and then another son named Zevulun, and a daughter named Dinah. Rachel, too, is redeemed at the end of the day: “And God heard her and opened her womb. And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said: “God has taken away my disgrace.” And she named him Joseph, that is to say, “May the Lord add to me another son” (Genesis 30:22-24). Barrenness, then, is a source of disgrace for a woman.
It was on Rosh Hashanah that both Leah and Rachel conceived, and if in the past this miracle happened, then all the more so in the future.
Professor Aliza Shenhar is the provost of the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.