Gardening: Noxious nightshades

According to the majority opinion in the Talmud, the dudaim that Reuven brought his mother were mandrakes. Mandrakes are native to the Mediterranean but can be grown in gardens almost anywhere in the world.

mandragora 88 (photo credit: )
mandragora 88
(photo credit: )
Fairy tale endings are common in movies but occur much less frequently in real life. And Torah stories, because they adhere to the truth, often end tragically. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden; Moses never reaches the Promised Land; and Samson is seduced, betrayed and brought to an early death by Delilah, a Philistine woman. The story of Reuven and the dudaim (literally, "love plants") has the most innocent and promising of beginnings, yet an ending that is terribly sad, consisting of grievous consequences over a period of years. Reuven comes in from the wheat fields with fragrant flowers he has found growing there and just plucked for Leah, his mother, who goes out to greet him. Yet, Leah's "going out" to the fields is considered an immodest act and, as punishment, her daughter Dina is later violated by Shechem. Also, even before Leah has a moment to enjoy the aroma of her son's flowers, she is confronted by her sister Rachel. Rachel, who is childless, demands the dudaim, plants that were used in ancient times to promote fertility. Leah gives Rachel the dudaim on the condition that Rachel relinquish her conjugal privileges with Jacob for the time being. Rachel agrees and gives up Jacob's bed in exchange for the dudaim. However, for trading conjugal privileges with Jacob for a handful of plants, Rachel is denied burial in the Cave of Machpelah alongside her husband. But the story is not over. Reuven apparently harbors deep resentment towards Rachel since, upon her death, Reuven seizes his father's bed and, without consulting him, brazenly places it in Leah's tent. As punishment, Reuven's descendants do not become Israel's priests and kings which, as heirs of Jacob's first born son, should have been their occupations. And to think it all started with a bunch of flowers... According to the majority opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b), the dudaim that Reuven brought his mother were mandrakes. Mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum) are native to the Mediterranean but can be grown in gardens almost anywhere in the world. They are tough plants whose roots grow to a depth of four feet. As they begin to develop, mandrakes hug the ground and their foliage may remind you of jumbo dandelions. As they mature, their leaves become crinkly and reach 16 inches in length, resembling tobacco, to which they are botanically related. The small, tubular flowers are purple or brown and fruit are two-inch green to yellow-orange globes. Mandrakes benefit from some sun protection and are even found in shady woodlands. After hearing about the consequences of Reuven's gift of dudaim, you may wonder about the wisdom of ever giving flowers again. Yet considerable benefit was also derived from Reuven's mandrakes. Ironically, the same mandrakes that Leah, in a seemingly insensitive manner, took from her son and handed over to her sister, brought together the twin disciplines of learning and commerce. The sons Leah conceived as a result of the dudaim exchange were Yissachar and Zevulun. Yissachar's descendants were completely devoted to Torah study while Zevulun's heirs were no less dedicated to maritime trade and other business ventures, conducted with the sole purpose of supporting Yissachar's tribe in scholarly pursuits. It turns out that the plant involved in the transaction that brought Torah discipline into the tribes of Israel has a distinctive Torah quality. Like Torah, this plant can be either an elixir of life (sam hayim) or a potion of death (sam mavet). The mandrake has medicinal, life-giving properties on the one hand but, if not used with caution, can cause death. Up until about 800 years ago, patients drank tea or inhaled fumes from mandrake root prior to surgery in order to remain unconscious during their encounter with the physician's scalpel. The mandrake is one plant, however, that no one fools around with on account of the powerful alkaloids it contains. An overdose of its sap or root bark can be fatal. Mandrakes belong to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), all of whose members are toxic to one degree or another. Potatoes, for instance, contain solanine, an alkaloid that is found in small quantities in the green potatoes and green potato chips that you occasionally see. Consumption of green potatoes will probably not make you ill, but you should not go out of your way to eat them. Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family and you do not want to put their leaves, which are toxic, in your salad. Bell and chili peppers, as well as eggplant, are also nightshades. Some of the most popular ornamental plants are nightshades, including petunia, angel's trumpet (Brugmansia or Datura), and yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Brunfelsia). Yesterday, today, and tomorrow gets its name from its flowers, which are purple when they open, change to lavender, and ultimately turn white in color. Give nightshades well-drained soil and full to half-day sun. After they have established themselves in the garden, they should not require watering more than once or, at most twice, a week.