Superpowers or Superstitions? by Gavriel Epstein


Before Ya'akov and his family make their covert escape from Lavan’s house, Rachel makes an intriguing decision: “VaTignov Rachel Et HaTerafim Asher LeAvihah,” “Rachel stole her father’s Terafim” (BeReishit 31:19).  Later on, when Lavan chases after Ya'akov in pursuit of his Terafim, the Torah makes it clear “VeLo Yada Ya'akov Ki Rachel Genavatam,” “Ya'akov did not know that Rachel had stolen them” (31:32).  What exactly were these Terafim, and why did Rachel feel compelled to steal them without telling anyone about it?

The most obvious explanation is that the Terafim were idols for Avodah Zarah.  Rashi (31:19 s.v. VaTignov Rachel Et HaTerafim) explains that Rachel intended to isolate her father from the Avodah Zarah, perhaps to prompt him to change his ways.  Lavan, however, does not appear to be a very flexible man and certainly seems to be wealthy enough to afford another set of Terafim to worship.  In the long run, this event would likely have become no more than an inconvenience to him.

Alternatively, Rachel’s objective in stealing the Terafim might have been caused by her care for her husband.  According to the Radak (31:19 s.v. VeHaTerafim), the Terafim functioned as magic crystal balls, which Lavan would have used to track Ya'akov and his family down after their escape.  Rachel—apparently believing in the Terafim’s power—stole the Terafim to cover up their tracks.  Clearly, Lavan did not really need the Terafim, as he caught up to Ya'akov quite handily without them.

While it is troubling to consider that Rachel Imeinu believed in such superstitions, the notion is also found elsewhere.  Earlier, when Rachel was childless, she demanded that Ya'akov pray on her behalf.  Infuriated, Ya'akov responds, “HaTachat Elokim Anochi,” “Am I in Hashem’s place!?” (BeReishit 30:2).  She implied, at least from Ya'akov’s perspective, that he himself was empowered to grant her children, not Hashem.  Ya'akov’s reaction likely motivated Rachel not to tell him that she had stolen her father’s Terafim, fearing that he would chastise her for believing in their power.

Rachel’s belief in certain non-existent—or at least mystical—powers is a recurring theme throughout VaYeitzei and may be a product of Lavan’s influence.  For example, when Re’uvein brings Duda’im to his mother, Rachel requests of her, “Teni Na Li MiDuda’ei Beneich,” “Please give me some of your son’s Duda’im” (BeReishit 30:14).  Seforno (30:14 s.v. VaYimtza Duda’im) interprets Duda’im to mean some plant that induces fertility, yet another example of Rachel’s belief in the powers invested in certain objects or people.

While we obviously cannot fault Rachel for growing up under her circumstances, it is interesting to note the subtle influence Lavan had on her, no matter how righteous she was.  Likewise, the influence we have on those around us, especially our children, can have a profound impact on their personalities, for better or worse.

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