Yaakov – Lavan’s Hebrew Slave?

In Parashat Vayetze, Lavan and Yaakov seem to hammer out a work agreement that will allow Yaakov to marry Rachel after 7 years, but Lavan gives him Leah instead. Yaakov works for seven more years, and then an additional six – and finally flees, taking his wife and children (and flocks) with him.

In Chapter 31 of Genesis, Lavan confronts Yaakov, and then Yaakov confronts Lavan.

Lavan first suggests that if Yaakov hadn’t fled behind his back, he would have sent them off with musical accompaniment. When he asks why Yaakov did this to him, Yaakov says that he believed Lavan would take Rachel and Leah away from Yaakov.

Tellingly, Lavan claims that everything rightfully belongs to him – Yaakov’s wives, children, and animals -but reluctantly concedes them. Why does Lavan claim this? Is he at all justified in his claim, or is he merely causing trouble?

A legal section in the Torah may provide us with some clues. If we compare the laws of the “Hebrew Slave” to the Lavan-Yaakov dialogue and narrative, we find another angle to this story.

Was Yaakov Lavan’s employee, or his (Hebrew) slave?

In Chapter 21 of the book of Shemot (Exodus), the time period under discussion is seven years. That includes six years of work – and “in the seventh” the slave shall go free:

If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. (Exodus 21:2; JPS 1917 trans.)

There is an interesting wrinkle in the situation: If the master gives his temporary slave a wife during the years of slavery, the wife and children stay behind when the slave is freed in the seventh year. The slave, however, has the option to stay behind with them and continue his employment permanently:

(2) If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. (3) If he come in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he be married, then his wife shall go out with him. (4) If his master give him a wife, and she bear him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

(5) But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; (6) then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever. 

Yaakov worked for Lavan a total of 20 years – 14 for his daughters (seven each) and six for the flocks. He may have believed himself to be working as an employee, but what if Lavan sees it as slavery? Has Lavan engineered a situation where, to all outsiders, he has a Hebrew slave (a descendant of Avraham “ha-Ivri” – the Hebrew), and has given him not one but two wives who have given birth during Yaakov’s work term.

When Yaakov wishes to leave, Lavan may appear to have the rights to his wives and children – and, possibly, his flocks, Especially if others were not aware of the conditions and terms of Yaakov’s agreement).  (Even the idea of switching Leah for Rachel may have appeared to be within Lavan’s rights as a master to assign his slave a wife. He may take Yaakov’s preference into account, but perhaps it would really be up to him if he is the master and Yaakov is the slave.)

Sure enough, as was mentioned above, when Lavan angrily asks why Yaakov did not inform him that he was taking his family and leaving, Yaakov responds that he believed that Lavan would have forcibly kept Rachel and Leah from going with Yaakov.

Why would Yaakov believe this? Perhaps because Lavan had some basis for claiming that this was an agreement where Yaakov sold himself into slavery.

Lavan claims that he would have given Yaakov a grand sending-off. This, too, is mentioned in the laws of the Hebrew Slave in Chapter 15 of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy):

If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, he shall serve thee six years; and in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. (13) And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; (14) thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him…(18) It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years; and the LORD thy God will bless thee in all that thou doest.

Lavan did throw a feast – “mishteh,” which implies the drinking of wine, at the end of Yaakov’s first term of employment, after Yaakov asks for Rachel now that his work term has ended (Genesis 29:22).

Lavan had originally acknowledged Yaakov as his “flesh and blood” and even, perhaps, as his “brother” (Genesis 29). But does Lavan really let Yaakov go, graciously or otherwise? First, Lavan switches Leah for Rachel and manipulates Yaakov into working for seven more years. Thereafter, he indeed acknowledges, as per Devarim 15:14 and 15:18, that God has blessed Lavan on Yaakov’s account (Genesis 30:27).

But then Lavan presses Yaakov to continue working for him. As we find out later, in Yaakov’s angry words toward Lavan, it is for a period of six years. If we had not noticed resemblances between the Hebrew Slave and Yaakov’s “employment” by Lavan, we should pay attention now.  Lavan agrees that Yaakov’s salary will come in the form of the speckled and spotted sheep that come from his flocks (giving of one’s flocks to the former slave is another element mentioned in Devarim 15).

Yaakov becomes very successful, but Lavan and his sons begin to exhibit ill will toward Yaakov. Yaakov realizes it is time to leave, but feels the need to do so in secret. When he confers with Rachel and Leah, away from the ears of Lavan, they invoke references to slavery – they feel that they have been sold by their father (Genesis 31:14)!

They ostensibly know their father’s nature and how he sees the world.

It is no wonder that there are so many comparisons between Yaakov’s time with Lavan – attempted escape of a three-day journey (and catching up after a seven-day journey), crossing a body of water, and ultimate freedom after the intervention of God, with a sacrifice on a mountain at the end.

The Pesach Haggadah begins with the idea that Pharaoh kept the Israelites as slaves, but that Lavan tried to uproot everything from the start. He wished to keep his own “Hebrew slave” (eved ivri) in perpetuity, but Yaakov was freed, with the help of God.  His descendants could look at the laws and at this narrative, and learn from Lavan what not to do as an employer.

Lavan did not give graciously, or pleasantly allow his worker to leave at the end of his term. Instead, he was duplicitous numerous times and was going to prevent Yaakov from leaving – if it had not been for God, the ultimate Redeemer.


Hevel: Haftara for the Three Weeks – Week Two

I know,  I know. What a creative and exciting title. But there is so much to say about this Haftara, and unfortunately, I have such little time!

Once again, we are reading from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah Chapter 2). I really don’t have much time to delve into this, and there are such great turns of phrase that really get the message across. Please read it closely and see for yourself – and if you are in need of a translation – the New JPS translation does a good job of making things readable and refined  for the contemporary reader.

I am thinking about the phrase וילכו אחרי ההבל ויהבלו – which cannot be perfectly translated, especially since there are many ways of translating “hevel!” But in short – it constitutes a rebuke at those who abandoned God and the ways of goodness and substance to wander – transfixed? (my insertion – after vapour – after that which is worthless, ephemeral, illusory, fleeting. There is also a neat play on words in that it sounds like “Ba’al” (the foreign deity which they were following), and there also may be a connection between “hevel” here (literally “vapour” and the sad metaphor about them abandoning God, a “living natural spring” (mekor mayyim hayyim) to instead hew themselves leaky cisterns which cannot contain water. In other words – they are going after mere vapour – evaporated nothing – instead of water.

This idea resonated with me, partly because I am thinking and reading about the meaning and function of the word “hevel” within the book of Qoheleth and within certain Psalms (mizmorim), and partly because I, and I imagine many of us – struggle with wandering or straying after vanity. In my case, I waste far too much time on Facebook, and I am trying to cut it down by blocking my newsfeed on my computer (at least in Google Chrome).  But I still have it on my phone, etc. So many “news” stories are about unsubstantial topics and devolve into mere gossip, if not worse.

Anyway, part of a message of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy is to take stock of ourselves, and to undergo some soul searching – are we staying true to what is truly important, or are we willfully or passively letting ourselves stray, distracted by instant gratification and other vacuous vanities? How much do we value and cherish our time, and how much are we mindful of how we use it?

There is a lot to think about, and there are many more specific messages. I hope to perhaps examine these passages more in the future, but for now, here is some food for thought.

Tribal Journeys Food Update

I’m a little rushed, and don’t have as many fun food concocting stories this week(but ate some delicious homemade pancakes this morning, and baked some chocolate chip banana bread earlier this week), so I’ll make it short(ish):

We roasted eggplant – cut the eggplant in half, lengthwise, sprinkled some sea salt on top, and let it sit for half an hour, while setting the oven to preheat to 400F/200C (approximately). We drizzled some olive oil on a roasting pan and placed the eggplant halves on it, face down.

We stuck the eggplant on the top shelf of the oven and broiled them for about half an hour, checking on them after 15 minutes. Looking forward to tasting them!


After the other week’s success, I thought I’d try another take on a slow cooker chicken and vegetable meal – but with rice as an added twist. I hope to discuss more later if it works out. Stay tuned…


Food Update for Boiling Cauldron and Almond Stick Week

So we were thinking of making a slow- cooker/ crockpot meal-in-a-pot for Shabbat, with chicken, rice and vegetables. We did that last week (minus the rice), and it was excellent (okay, not exactly a meal-in-a-pot, because we made other side dishes, but it was still excellent)! We chopped up a bunch of vegetables (carrots, onions, garlic, sweet potato- I think that was about it). I browned the chicken pieces (quarters- legs and backs) on the stove with some vegetable oil, and then dumped them into the slow cooker over the carrots, sweet potato, and most of the onions. I put some onions on top and sprinkled the minced garlic over the chicken. I added some leftover chicken soup (which also had zucchini pieces) , and also poured in some white semi-dry wine. The slow cooker did its thing on high for hours, and everything was excellent. Next time, though, I would try it with less liquid- there was a LOT of broth! We also made zucchini soup.

Oh, and “we” may refer to the writer of this blog, her dear husband, or both. Last week we also made petitim (“Israeli couscous” or this pasta that is sort of reminiscent of pearl barley in shape, but not really in texture, consistency, etc). Petitim can taste good IF you fry the dry pasta with oil and preferably onion, garlic, spices, etc. before boiling. Otherwise it can be a bit bland, so you MUST dress it up somehow! I have also had it in a tomato-based sauce, but I’m not always the biggest fan of tomatoes. Anyway, we made the petitiim with fried mushrooms, onion, and garlic.

There were ample leftovers of the petitim, and they came  in handy during the week. It has been really hot outside, and I was craving light meals for some of the days.

One such day, we made up a really excellent salad! A special twist on a pasta salad: mixed petitim, cabbage, and some other vegetables (usually carrots, occasionally with baby corn added or something else), and then diced up some Tzfatit cheese (feta or Bulgarian would also work, but the cheese I had was a little milder). Occasionally we added some light dressing- maybe a bit of olive oil and soy sauce, sprinkled with celery seed, etc.  Continue reading “Food Update for Boiling Cauldron and Almond Stick Week”


A Bubbling Pot and an Almond Stick (and a short introduction to this blog)

As the fast of the 17th of Tammuz came out earlier this week, this Shabbat is the first with the special Haftarot for the “Three Weeks” of mourning leading up to the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Accordingly, we read of the Divine inauguration (or consecration) of Yirmiyahu as prophet. Yirmiyahu is presented with a series of visions, but what does he really see?


How appropriate that this week’s haftarah is a fusion of ideas and food-related items- just in time for the first post on this blog! This blog is intended as a vehicle to discuss Navi (starting with Haftarot) and food, on  a weekly basis. There may be more of one element than the other. I hope that the Tanakh content will generally be more than the food content, but we’ll see. As for the food – this will not necessarily be a fancy recipe blog – I just may mention some food or meal items from the week, with or without full recipes.

As the fast of the 17th of Tammuz came out earlier this week, this Shabbat (Parashat Pinchas, this year) is the first with the special Haftarot for the “Three Weeks” of mourning leading up to the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Accordingly, we read of the Divine inauguration (or consecration) of Yirmiyahu as prophet.

Yirmiyahu is a prophet who lives in the vicinity of Jerusalem right before (and during) the Babylonian Destruction of Jerusalem and the First Beit HaMikdash (Temple). Though Yirmiyahu earnestly and passionately tries to persuade the people to change their ways and to do what they can to prevent the coming doom, they consistently do the opposite of what he suggests (even after the brunt of the Destruction, which he foretold). Attempts on Yirmiyahu’s life, some apparently state-sanctioned, happen a number of times. Through it all, he remains devoted to his people, and even when a Babylonian official offers him a cozy position in the Babylonian court, Yirmiyahu refuses to leave his people.

In this week’s haftarah- in the first chapter of Yirmiyahu, God informs Yirmiyahu of his mission as prophet. Yirmiyahu protests that he is too young (or inexperienced), but God tells him not to be afraid. He presents Yirmiyahu with a series of visions. Yirmiyahu’s task here is to describe what he sees in these visions- God asks Yirmiyahu “what do/did you see?” The answer may not be as easy as it may appear, considering that the prophet is to reliably relay Divine messages.

The second vision is that of a bubbling pot, and Yirmiyahu describes it as facing away from the north – or northward (there are varying opinions about the meaning of the biblical words u-panav mi-penei tzafonah ופניו מפני צפונה).

A boiling pot full of meat also appears in the Book of Yehezkel (Ezekiel 11  and 24). The image is first used by over-confident people to describe their own safety, but God tells Yehezkel that the true meaning is that of doom. Does Yirmiyahu immediately know which metaphor his cauldron signifies?

God corrects or elaborates upon Yirmiyahu’s description of it, explaining that the bubbling pot symbolizes the disaster that is to come from the north.

After the first vision, which Yirmiyahu describes as an “almond stick” – a “makel shaked” God replies that he has “seen well”, as God will hasten (shoked) to fulfill his word — “shaked” and “shoked” constituting a type of wordplay. (Another example of wordplay connected with a stick appears in the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers 21:7-9), when Moshe constructs a nehash nehoshet – נחש נחשת – which he places on a pole, after God commands him to place a seraph on a pole in response to the nation’s complaints about the nehashim ha-seraphim – the fiery snakes. Anyone who is bitten – nashukh- gazes toward the pole will survive the snakebites).

Is Yirmiyahu’s skill that he has correctly identified the type of wood? Or is it that he has described the type of rod? And is the wood indeed almond wood – an almond branch, or is Yirmiyahu constructing his own wordplay – calling it a “quick rod”? In Hebrew, the word Yirmiyahu uses for stick is “makel” – מקלBut there are other words for “wood stick” in Hebrew, each with a different shade of meaning. A mash’en is a leaning-stick used for support shevet and a mateh each mean a staff-  and can denote a tribe or tribal staff, but can also be used in negative contexts as a rod of anger, an anaf  is a branch, and a makel  is a rod, staff, tree branch, or (perhaps) wand – mostly in neutral or positive contexts.

It sounds like the role of the stick is not immediately apparent to Yirmiyahu.

It is telling, then, that he confidently describes the stick as “shaked” – almond. Could the reason for his certainty be the other almond stick mentioned in Tanakh?

In the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers 17: 16-28), after Korach challenges the kehuna (priesthood) being made up of Aharon and his descendants, God commands Moshe to collect a staff from each of the tribes, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting. The chosen staff (or tribe) will be the one whose staff buds or blossoms. Aharon’s staff is the one that flowers and bears almonds.

God commands Moshe to place this almond staff with the testimony (the Ark of the Covenants with the Stone Tablets) to serve as a sign for the “rebels” and to quell the “murmurings” against Aharon.

Almonds (or almond shapes) also appear in vessels of the Beit HaMikdash, such as the Menorah branches.

Yirmiyahu correctly perceives God’s vision as a sign – perhaps a sign for the “rebels” among the people of Yehuda.

Sure enough, God castigates the people of Yehuda for their corruption and abandonment of God. Yirmiyahu is to speak to them. He is to be strong in the face of a very, very tough audience, but God assures Yirmiyahu that He will be with him.

The food of the week will be in a different post.