Theft and Thaumaturgy III

We have previously discussed the two traditional interpretations of Rachel’s motive in stealing Lavan’s תרפים:

But what about the obvious and straightforward approach, that Rachel simply desired the תרפים for herself? Dr. Alexander Klein cites the Encyclopaedia Biblica (Israel) as suggesting this view:

לפי האנציקלופדיה המקראית, רחל האמינה שתרפים אלה יוכלו להגן עליהם:

אפשר שרחל גנבה את התרפים כדי שאלי הבית המוכרים לה, שאף שימשו להגדת עתידות יגנו עליה בדרך… רחל שיצאה את בית אביה בחשאי לא יכלה ליטול עמה ברשות את אלי הבית וגנבה אותם להיות לה למגן בדרכה.

But he objects that:

According to this explanation, Rachel believed in the magical power of the תרפים: this belief contains ingredients of idolatry, and the traditional approach refuses to attribute to our Mother Rachel such intentions.

אלא שלפי הסבר זה רחל האמינה בכוח המאגי של התרפים: באמונה כזאת יש סממנם של עבודה זרה, והגישה המסורתית מסרבת לייחס לרחל אמנו כוונות כאלה.

This objection is somewhat incoherent, however, since Dr. Klein himself has earlier cited the impeccably traditional opinion discussed in our first post in this series that Rachel stole the תרפים in order to prevent them from revealing her family’s flight to Lavan. This obviously implies that she did, indeed, believe in the power of the תרפים! A stronger objection might be made to the libelous characterization of Rachel as a common thief.

In any event, there is at least one traditional source that strongly implies that Rachel did indeed want the תרפים for herself, due to their magical powers of communication: the great פשטן, student of Rabbeinu Tam, R. Yosef Bechor Shor:

ואף רחל מצאה לגנוב את התרפים שהיו מדברים ואומרים על ידי מכשפים, ולכן חמדתן רחל, אבל, לבן היה עובד אותן, ועשה אותן עבודה זרה1

The terminology of חמדה, and the lack of any further explanation, clearly imply that the positive goal of obtaining the תרפים for herself, and not the negative goal of depriving Lavan of them, was what motivated Rachel.

  1. פירוש רבינו יוסף בכור שור על התורה, בראשית לא:יט []

Theft and Thaumaturgy I

After breakfast was over, the ogre called out, “Wife, wife, bring me my golden harp.”

So she brought it and put it on the table before him. Then he said, “Sing!” and the golden harp sang most beautifully. And it went on singing till the ogre fell asleep, and commenced to snore like thunder.

Then Jack lifted up the copper lid very quietly and got down like a mouse and crept on hands and knees till he came to the table, when up he crawled, caught hold of the golden harp and dashed with it towards the door.

But the harp called out quite loud, “Master! Master!” and the ogre woke up just in time to see Jack running off with his harp.

Jack and the Beanstalk, as recorded by Joseph Jacobs.

וְלָבָן הָלַךְ, לִגְזֹז אֶת-צֹאנוֹ; וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל, אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ.1

This terse report of Rachel’s theft is surely one of the most mystifying bits of Biblical narration: what on earth are תרפים, and why did Rachel steal them? Our exegetical tradition contains two main approaches to this narrative:

  • The תרפים were magical entities, and Rachel stole them to forestall the possibility of their communicating to Lavan the fact of her family’s flight.
  • The תרפים were idols worshipped by Lavan, and Rachel stole them to wean him from idolatry.

This post discusses the former approach; a follow-up will discuss the latter, בג”ה.

מדרש תנחומא

למה גנבה אותם? כדי שלא יהו אומרים ללבן שיעקב בורח עם נשיו ובניו וצאנו. וכי התרפים מדברים הם? כן, דכתיב: (זכריה י) כי התרפים דברו און. ואתה אומר עיניים להם ולא יראו כל אותו עניין?! אלא תרפים. למה נקרא תרפים? לפי שהן מעשה תורדף מעשה טומאה. וכיצד היו עושין? מביאין אדם בכור ושוחטים אותו ומולחים אותו במלח ובשמים, וכותבין על ציץ זהב שם רוח טומאה ומניחין הציץ במכשפות תחת לשונו, ומניחין אותו בקיר ומדליקין לפניו נרות ומשתחווים לו, ומדבר עמם בלחש, זה שאמר הכתוב: כי התרפים דברו און, לפיכך גנבה אותן רחל.2

The Tosafists ask: why did the תרפים not call out to Lavan “Here we are!” as he searched for them?

Their answer is one of the most humorous ideas I have ever encountered in Biblical exegesis: since the תרפים were currently situated under Rachel’s posterior, announcing their location would have been deeply humiliating to entities that styled themselves as gods:

מה תרפים? שוחטין אדם … ולמה גנבתם רחל? שלא יגידו ללבן שברח יעקב. ואם תאמר אם כן מדוע לא הגידו לו “כאן אנחנו עומדים” כשבקש באהל רחל. יש לומר לפי שרחל יושבת עליהן וגנאי גדול היה להם לומר שהם תחת אחור רחל שהם עושין עצמן עבודה זרה.3

Perhaps we may suggest an alternate approach: (semi-)sentient magical artifacts have been known to betray their current possessers in favor of others; perhaps the תרפים decided that they preferred the company of Rachel to that of Lavan …

  1. בראשית לא:יט []
  2. מדרש תנחומא פרשת ויצא סימן י”ב, תורה שלמה חלק חמישי עמוד תתתכח אות מ”ג. וכן פירש בחזקוני שם, ועיין רלב”ג ורבינו בחיי שם. []
  3. הדר זקנים שם []

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