Much of what I’m going to say comes from Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory. Davidson was a science fiction writer born in New York in 1923, frum for most of his life (in a biography, the Forward said he discovered Eastern religions in the seventies and “is rumored to have relinquished his yarmulke after a stay in Japan”). He was a medic in Israel in 1948, then returned to the US in 1952. His writing was literary, full of long complicated sentences and sesquipedalian words, with a profoundly dry humor that I love. Adventures in Unhistory is nonfiction, a book of cryptozoology and the origin of various legends.
In the midst of the story of the birth of Jacob’s children, there’s a touching little vignette:
Why is this—four-year-old Reuven brings flowers to his mother—important enough to mention? Why do Rachel and Leah care so much about them? And why do they become the very symbol of Reuven’s tribe:
What are דודאים? The word occurs only one other place in תנ״ך:
So we know they grow wild and have an odor. What else?
There are two major opinions (there’s a third, based on a pasuk in ירמיהו, that they are figs. I will leave that one).
Rashi says they are jasmine:
The targum and Ibn Ezra translate them as יברוחין, which is translated as “mandrake” (“a Mediterranean plant of the nightshade family, with white or purple flowers and large yellow berries.”). And then the story gets interesting:
The Septuagint also translates it as mandrake (mandragora):
So mandrakes have roots shaped like a person, and they have a reputation for being good for helping women get pregnant. Ramban says the pregnancy thing can’t be the reason Reuven brought them, since he didn’t bring the root (we’ll see one reason why not later), and it’s the root that helps with pregnancy. But Ramban, a physician, doesn’t think that’s true either.
I have to disagree that Rachel and Leah wanted them להשתעשע ולהתענג בריחן, since the context is all about getting pregnant:
So I understand why they would argue about a pregnancy-inducing root.
So where does this “man-shaped” root come from?
The mandrake as a cure for infertility was well known from ancient times and into modernity:
(It’s worth noting that Donne here is sarcastic; you can’t catch a falling star and you really can’t get with child from mandrakes. But the legend exists enough for people to get the reference.)
There’s one other legend of the mandrakes: you can’t pick them:
And that figures into a midrash:
Taken less literally, יששכר really was the reward for Reuven’s mandrakes:
In reality, as Ramban noted, mandrakes don’t help with fertility (and the man-shape thing is clearly exaggerated). But they are medically useful:
“Mandrake” is from the Sanskrit mandros agora, ”sleep stuff“.
So mandrakes were used for anesthesia. And it turns out that they actually are full of pharmacologically active alkaloids (like most of the nightshade plants) including hyoscyamine (Levsin) and scopalomine (Transderm Scop). Basically it acts like Benadryl, making you sleepy, less itchy but overdosing causes hallucinations, hysteria and death.
So Davidson hypothesizes that the shrieking of the mandrake root wasn’t the plant, it was
the shrieking and dying is of the animal (or person) overdosing on the drug. And the fertility thing?
One common use for a mild anesthetic is, of course, childbirth. So “good for childbirth” in the ספרי הרפואות המדברים בהם becomes “good for having children” in the popular imagination, with the magical thinking that a root that looks like a little person must be good for making little people.
So that would explain Rachel’s eagerness for the דודאים. But why should they be the symbol of Reuven himself? I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s a two-steps-removed symbol of something else. The Artscroll Chumash cites the Ohr Hachaim (I can’t find the original):
You wouldn’t put a bed on the flag, so the דודאים serve to symbolize Reuven’s devotion. And more than that; the Bilhah incident was seen as a turning point in Reuven’s life, and he became a paragon of תשובה:
So the דודאים represent Reuven’s lesson to us in the power of devotion and repentance.