Rachel and Leah's Shared Anger

The theft of the birthright is a story about women's potential to use and craft language.

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Several midrashic sources contend that Jacob's death sentence for the theft of Laban's t'rafim is borne out in Rachel's tragic death after giving birth to Benjamin (for example, Bereishit Rabbah 74.32). According to a plain reading of Genesis 31, however, Rachel emerges from the episode victorious and unscathed. After all, Jacob's curse is conditioned upon Laban actually finding the t'rafim in someone's possession--something that Laban never accomplishes.

Laban conducts a thorough search of Jacob's camp: Jacob's tent, Leah's, the two maidservants', and Rachel's--v'lo matza (and he finds nothing), a verb construction that appears three times (31:33, 34, 35).

What has Rachel done to elude her father? She has placed the t'rafim in a camel's saddle (echoing how Jacob put his wives and sons onto camels in v. 17) and conceals them by sitting on this same saddle. She then shrewdly apologizes to her Rachel Stealsfather for nor obeying usual custom and rising before him as he searches her tent. "The way of women is upon me" (31:35), Rachel claims, cunningly manipulating the (male) menstruation taboo to her own advantage.

What are these t'rafim that Rachel risks so much to steal? What did they stand for in Rachel's time, and what do they mean for us today?

According to Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, the t'rafim were household idols that Rachel steals from her father for pious, monotheistic reasons: "in order to distance him from the practice of idol worship." This interpretation clearly stems from rabbinic discomfort with the idea of Rachel as idol worshiper.

But if Rachel were so angry with her father as to be willing to leave his house forever without so much as a goodbye, would she really care about his spiritual fate? Based on other instances in the Bible where the same word appears, other traditional exegetes identify the t'rafim with the practice of divination. Thus, Rachel steals the t'rafim, which were used by ancient magicians as a means of telling the future, in order to prevent Laban from knowing Jacob's plans or whereabouts. If that were the case, however, Rachel should have simply broken them. Why does she go to the trouble of stealing them, hiding them in a saddle, and tricking her father?

Several contemporary biblical scholars have argued that possession of the "household gods" was related to issues of clan leadership or inheritance. Accordingly, the t'rafim are symbolic tokens that indicate Rachel's right to take her children and possessions away from her father and hand them over to her husband. And yet, Rachel's decision not to inform Jacob of her theft of the t'rafim suggests that she acts for her own sake, not Jacob's.

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Wendy Zierler

Wendy Zierler is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women's Writing (2004) and of the feminist commentary included in My People's Passover Haggadah (2008).