Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5762/ November 24, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Va-Yetze 5762/ November 24, 2001

Do the Dead Tell no Tales?

Prof. Daniel Sperber
Dept. of Talmud

This week we read that "Rachel stole her father's household idols [Heb. teraphim]" (Gen. 31:19). According to the writings of the Sages and of medieval Jewish commentators, the word teraphim is associated with strange and peculiar traditions. For example, R Menahem Zioni (14th century, Worms, Franco-Germany, whose commentary was composed in 1386) writes the following on this verse in Genesis:

They would take a first-born red person and slaughter him, cut off his head and salt it with salts and well-known herbs; then they would write on a golden frontlet the name of impurity and place it under his tongue, and put it [the head] in the wall or in a window in the city wall, - and two lamps would be lit in front of it; then it would speak, as it is said, "For the teraphim spoke delusion" (Zech. 10:2).

This tradition is based on Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 36), which is based on Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Va-Yetze, 12):

Why were they called teraphim? Because they were the product of lewdness (ma'ase toref), of impurity. How did they make them? They would take a first-born person, slaughter him and salt him with salts and herbs, and write on a golden frontlet the name of a spirit of impurity, and place the frontlet with spells under his tongue, and place him in the wall and kindle lights before him and bow down to him, and he would speak to them in a whisper. As Scripture says, "For the teraphim spoke delusion." Therefore Rachel stole them.

Here we find all the same elements as appeared in Zioni, except for the detail (appearing only in relatively late sources) that the first-born person (adam) was red (adom)! In addition, this source tells us why Rachel stole the teraphim from her father. The teraphim told the future and the unknown. Accordingly, Rachel feared lest the teraphim reveal to Laban the deeds of Jacob and his family.

We observe that the later sources (such as Zioni) mention that the embalmed person was red, whereas earlier sources do not include this detail. It would seem that this detail is an addition to the original source and not an essential element. However, I would argue precisely the opposite. The ancient source indeed spoke of a red (adom) first-born person; later sources omitted this word because it appeared strange, or perhaps because it appeared to be an erroneous repetition of the word adam, person.

We are dealing with a text about slaughtering a first-born in order to make a magical device that can tell the future. Interestingly, we have found ancient sources that recount how in times of trouble the Phoenicians used to slaughter their first-borns. We know that the Phoenicians believed it was possible to consult with the dead by throwing into a tomb a rolled-up lead plate bearing a magical inscription, and then the dead would speak to them from the grave.

Furthermore, "Phoenicians" means "red (people)," from the Greek root PHOINIX, red. This name was given them because they manufactured red (and blue) pigments.
Thus, the evidence seems to hint at an ancient tradition about red people slaughtering their first-borns and consulting their dead through the vehicle of metal plates bearing magical inscriptions ("the name of a spirit of impurity").

However, the Phoenicians did not generally embalm corpses in the manner described in the texts above. The description of treating the corpse with salt and herbs is reminiscent of the practice of embalming found in Egypt, where salt-water and various herbs were used in the process of preserving a corpse.

After preserving the corpse, a technique had to be found to produce speech from the embalmed body, so that it could fulfill the words cited from Zechariah. Indeed, from the writings of the Sages we know of the practice of inserting a metal plate under the tongue. For example, Sotah 47a: "And some say that he (Jeroboam) inscribed the Divine Name in its mouth (the golden calves) and the calf would recite, 'I am the Lord your G-d, You shall have no other gods beside Me." Similarly, in Song of Songs Rabbah 7.9: "What did that wicked man (Nebuchadnezzar) do? He took the frontlet of the High Priest and placed it in the mouth (of the idol), and it (the idol) said, 'I am the Lord your G-d.'" Thus we have identified all the components of this legend. Although they originate from a variety of places and cultures, they were woven together by the author of the aggadah into a single, coherent unit.

We still have to ask how the author of the legend arrived at the idea that these teraphim were embalmed? Was there no other depiction that could be presented as fulfilling the verse in Zechariah, such as using the skull of the dead person (see Sanhedrin 65b), or the like? The answer is simple. The Hebrew word teraphim might appear to come from the Greek verb therapeuo, with which we are familiar in the sense of "to serve" or even "to heal." This root, however, has another less well-known meaning, which appears in Egyptian papyri: to embalm. Thus one could say the teraphim were embalmed corpses that spoke (according to Zechariah) by means of a frontlet placed under the tongue (writings of the Sages). They themselves were made of corpses of the first-borns of the red people, who were slaughtered for this purpose. Rachel feared lest they reveal to Laban what Jacob was doing, and therefore she stole them and hid them from her father.

By analyzing all the elements of this legend and weaving them together, we can better understand how this strange legend came into being. The author of the Aggadah collected assorted notions from Israel's neighboring cultures (Greece, Egypt, Phoenicia) that echoed the distant past, and applied the generally accepted homiletical technique of associating similar words from distant sources (Genesis and Zechariah), interpreting them by means of folk etymology, a technique commonly used in aggadic literature. Thus he concluded that the teraphim were embalmed corpses that foretold the future and were made of the first-borns of the red people. Combining all these elements yielded a new midrashic creation that had cohesiveness and internal logic.

Lastly, we note that the principal magician here is the author of the legend himself. He took a story that on the face of it describes a woman, the matriarch Rachel, who had little respect for her father and stole from him what he held dearest - his household gods (Gen. 31:30). Afterwards she lied to him and even concealed things from her husband. Is this the figure we are to emulate?

However, after reading the above legend we arrive at quite a different situation. Our matriarch Rachel is portrayed as a brave woman who sought to protect her husband and family from her wicked father, an idolater who consulted the dead in a most cruel way. Rachel, in her great wisdom, foiled his evil plans and protected her family by stealing the abominable teraphim. Such a brave woman is indeed worthy of emulation.