WOLVES IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING
Two feasts in the parsha of Vayetze sandwich Jacob's two-decade long sojourn in Aram (today called Syria). The first meal -- "Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast (Genesis 29:22)" -- was held to mark Jacob's wedding. Twenty years later, the occasion -- "Jacob offered a sacrifice in the mountain, and called his kinsmen to eat bread (31:54)" -- entailed Jacob's spontaneous ceremony upon his exit. To be sure, no record exists of what was on either menu besides bread, which is also used in Hebrew as a generic term for food. Nevertheless, we can safely assume that lamb, in light of its recurrent presence in the parsha, was featured on both occasions.
Sheep are practically omnipresent in Vayetze. There are white sheep and dark sheep and speckled sheep and spotted sheep and sheep as salary and even dreams about sheep (31:11-12). Jacob's first sight of Charan was "a well in the field, and lo three flocks of sheep there next to it (29:1)." (According to Ramban, "The well alludes to the Temple, and the three flocks of sheep to the three Pilgrimage Festivals.") Then his future wife arrived with more sheep, "Rachel came with her father's sheep; for she tended them (29:9)." In reverse of Eliezer's meeting with Rebecca at the well, here Jacob "watered the flock of Laban his uncle (29:10)." That uncle promised Rachel as Jacob's wife in return for seven years of shepherd duty, which proceeded with Leah being substituted for Rachel and eventually the term of work extended to twenty years. The majority of chapter 30 involves the husbandry details of Jacob's employment. At the end of the parsha after two decades of being away from his parents' home, Jacob took his own flocks and departed while "Laban was gone to shear his sheep (31:19)." In the midst of all these sheep, the Torah recounts the birth of eleven of Jacob's sons. Thus, the Jewish people literally develop amongst sheep.
Sheep, docile and easily lead, became among the very first domesticated animals. Since these ruminants thrive in dry climates and mountainous terrain, they suited mankind's early nomadic lifestyle, particularly the environs of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Even after the advent of agricultural societies, these hardy animals continued to provide an invaluable source of meat (Isaiah 53:7), milk (Deuteronomy 32:14), leather (Exodus 25:5), and wool (Hosea 2:7). Thus the Torah established that if someone stole a sheep, thereby seriously effecting the victim's livelihood, he must pay back "four sheep for a sheep (Exodus 21:37)."
The pervasiveness of sheep in this parsha reflects their essential role in the life of the Israelites throughout the biblical period. Judaism has always held sheep in special regard and this intrinsic connection with the lamb is prevalent throughout Jewish lore and liturgy. A host of biblical figures, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David, were shepherds, and the Torah is filled with related references, such as "The Lord is my shepherd (Psalms 23:1)." As an element in the Exodus story, lamb plays an important role in Passover festivities and remains a traditional main course at many Sephardic Seders. Sounding the shofar (ram's horn) serves as the central Rosh Hashanah rite. In some homes, the head of a lamb is displayed on the Rosh Hashanah table, signifying the hope that in the coming year we will be the "rosh (head) and not the tail" (the reverse of Deuteronomy 28:44) and a reminder of the ram substituted for Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:13). Torah scrolls and mezuzot are generally written on sheepskin parchment.
When the Torah described the choicest products of the Promised Land, "Curd of kine, and milk of sheep, with fat of lamb, and rams of the breed of Bashan (Deuteronomy 32:14)," it was referring to the predominant strain of sheep in Israel, the aptly-named fat-tailed sheep (Ovis vignei platyura). (Awassi is a modern improved Israeli breed.) The male's tail can weigh more than 20 pounds and, like a camel's hump, serves as a source of nourishment under desert conditions and the source of the "fat of lamb," a delicacy among Middle Easterners. Many owners attached a tiny cart under the precious tail of adult sheep to protect it from damage (Shabbat 5:4). During the gaonic period, the tail fat became a major point of contention with the Karaites, who forbid it based on Leviticus 3:9, whereas the rabbis permitted it in non-sacrificial animals.
Fat-tailed sheep provided much more than just adipose tissue. The coarse wool -- primarily white but also with brown or black spots and rings -- was also valuable, best for making carpets. In ancient Mesopotamia, wool production was second only to food manufacture in the economy. Fat-tailed sheep yield more milk than most breeds, transformed into tasty cheeses. The meat of the fat-tail sheep was the type preferred by Middle Easterners -- mutton (over one year) for stewing and lamb (under one year) for roasting. Since only the choicest animals were presented as sacrifices in the Temple, the fat-tailed sheep was the one offered (Exodus 29:22).
Although lamb is a popular meat throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe, it is generally unappreciated by many Westerners. Since sheep do not fare well in much of the northern part of Europe, once heavily forested, they are a rarity among Ashkenazim who overwhelmingly favor beef. On the other hand, before Columbus, sheep provided the preponderance of Spain's foreign commerce, especially during the Hundred Years' War between England and France (1337-1453). Much of the wool was exported, while the meat and milk went into the country's larders. Not surprisingly, lamb or sheep's cheese was featured in many Sephardic recipes and consumed on a regular basis. Following the Expulsion in 1492, the number and variety of Sephardic dishes incorporating this favorite ruminant only increased. However, as many Sephardim became increasingly Westernized during the 20th century, mutton lost some of its previous prominence, although it is still used in dishes ranging from Moroccan tagines to Persian kebabs.
In biblical times, sheep and goat were the predominant meat, although sheep were generally considered a more valuable asset alive. Sheep, along with goats with whom they are commonly flocked and conjoined, are subsumed under the category of behamah dakkah ("small cattle"). The Torah employed distinct terms for the various stages and sexes of sheep.
Tzon (from the root "migrate") constitutes a flock. A male less than 13 months of age is called a keves (from the root "dominate") and a female kavsah. Tahlah (from the root "tender") is a term for a young lamb or kid, while seh (from the root "lay waste," reflecting the result of grazing) is a generic term for an older lamb or kid. When a male (ram) reaches 13 months it becomes an ayil (from the root "strong") and, after three years, an ayil meshullash (Genesis 15:9). An adult female (ewe) is a rachel.
Tellingly, Laban named his daughter after a sheep. Proper names in the Torah are never used randomly but rather relate the fundamental character of the various figures or their role in the story of the covenantal community. Laban literally means "white," which is ironically appropriate in light of his true nature. With a cursory reading of the text, "whitey" may even seem a legitimate summation of Rebecca's brother who took in his destitute nephew and gave him a job and his daughters to marry. Once you even slightly peer under Laban's veneer and examine his shenanigans, however, a far different actuality becomes obvious. Laban was the stereotypical con artist, outwardly presenting himself as one thing, but in reality being the opposite. Laban could give George Orwell lessons in double talk. Any good grifter recognizes a golden opportunity, especially a potential son-in-law from a family of successful shepherds capable of rolling a huge boulder by himself and watering his flock and hopelessly in love with his youngest daughter (Genesis 29:10).
Even after twenty years of consistently tricking and cheating his nephew/son-in-law, Laban maintained the pretext, "What have you done, that you have stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters as though captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly, and steal away from me; and did not tell me, that I might have sent you away with mirth and with songs and with drum and with harp (31:26-27)?" Even his words -- "stolen" and "steal away" -- reflect Laban's transference of his true self onto Jacob. Laban's mention of a marching band would almost be comical, if his intent had not been malevolent and impeded only by a Divine warning in which God, knowing how this con artist dexterously misconstrued words, specifically instructed Laban, "Take heed that you speak not to Jacob good or bad (31:24)." Even at this point, Laban attempted to make himself the injured party and went so far as to claim "the flocks are my flocks (31:43)."
Laban, however, from the very onset repeatedly showed his true colors. When he switched Leah for Rachel, instead of owning up to his trickery or apologizing, he disingenuously protested, "It is not done so in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfill the seven of this one (Leah), and we shall give you the other (Rachel) also for the service that you shall serve with me yet another seven years (29:26-17)." The use of the nebulous "it is not done" and the plural "we shall give" are typical of a person evading personal responsibility for their actions. His actual objective is obvious -- "another seven years" of free labor. Finally at the end, Jacob cathartically released his pent-up frustrations about his father-in-law's mistreatment and unfairness, "These twenty years have I been with you; the ewes and the she-goats have miscarried, and the rams of the flocks have I not eaten. That which was torn by beasts I brought not to you; I bore the loss of it; of my own hand did you require it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night (31:38-39)." Lest you think Laban misunderstood, "you changed my wages ten times (31:41)." Laban's "white hat" was simply a pretense.
So why did Laban name his younger daughter after a ewe? Perhaps it was a reflection of his preoccupation with obtaining wealth, which in Aram meant acquiring sheep, or at the very least his desire to have her enter the family business. The Midrash, however, viewed his intent as more nefarious, an attempt to influence the nature of Abraham's family, to have them obedient to his desires. Indeed, Rachel's personality revealed her fundamental sheeplike characteristics, meekness and gentleness. Throughout her life, Rachel lived in the shadow of others and generally acquiesced to their wills, her father, her older sister, her husband, and even her children (33:7). According to Rashi, Rachel's compassion led her to save Leah from embarrassment and possible marriage to Esau by giving her older sister secret signals prearranged by Jacob with Rachel in an attempt to prevent Laban from tricking him. Rachel's only recorded act of rebellion, stealing her father's teraphim (which Ibn Ezra viewed as something of a ventriloquist dummy, quite befitting a charlatan), led to unmitigated disaster (31:19).
If Laban's intentions were malicious, he severely miscalculated. For Laban, in his desire to exploit Jacob, managed to add Leah's sense of initiative to the family mix. Indeed, the name Leah may very well be a play on ayil (ram), reflecting her more aggressive tendencies. From this melding of Leah and Jacob emerged the lion, Judah, and the priesthood, Levi. In addition, Rachel's sons inherited some of Jacob's survival qualities as well as their mother's sheepishness. Indeed, Jacob called Rachel's youngest son Benjamin "a wolf (Genesis 49:27)," a clear contradistinction to the mother.
After so many years as a shepherd, Jacob certainly developed a healthy respect and understanding of the primary predator of his flocks. Thus Jacob's use of wolf for his youngest child was definitely far from a pejorative, for despite its bad press, wolves are not inherently evil, but only dangerous because of their survival instincts. Perhaps Jacob was recognizing some of himself in Benjamin. Thus the Jewish nation needed the inherited sheeplike compassion and obedience of Rachel, the enterprise and drive of Leah, and the tenacity and adaptability of Jacob to create a national character necessary to serve God, while surviving the harsh realities of history. With these strengths, the Jewish people have been able to surmount the canards and attacks of the many Labans throughout the eons. And in the end, the mission of the covenantal community will result in, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6)."
(6 to 8 servings)
The younger the animal, the more tender the meat and delicate the flavor. When choosing lamb, look for meat that is a lighter red than beef with a bright, pink color; a fine-grained texture; bright white fat; and soft pinkish bones. A darker color indicates a more mature animal. A whole shoulder of lamb weighs 4 to 6 pounds; a boned shoulder weighs about 30 percent less, 3 to 4 pounds. Since bone conducts heat, the cooking time for boned lamb is actually longer. This dish is a Passover and Rosh Hashanah favorite in many Sephardic households, corresponding to the time when the largest supply of lamb is available.
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
(6 to 8 servings)
The foreshanks, the lower portion of the two front legs, contain a large amount of connective tissue and require braising. Each shank from a spring lamb provides an individual serving.
1. Pat the shanks dry. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. In several batches, brown the shanks on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes per side.
(6 to 8 servings)
Lamb, specifically the fat-tailed sheep, is the predominate meat in Persian cooking. Meat is rarely cooked in large pieces, rather it is cut into chunks. Typical of Persian cuisine, this dish uses less spices than stews of other Middle Eastern countries. Onions are a fundamental seasoning in this cuisine, while garlic is generally ignored.
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the lamb and onions and sauté until the meat is browned on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes per side.
This classic salad is called elleniki salata, horiataki, and angourodomatosalata in Greece and salatat al-khudra (Arabic for "salad of the vegetable market") in Syria. Since any respectable Middle Eastern suq (marketplace) was historically filled with a wide variety of fresh produce, the mixed salads would customarily contain a varying assortment of seasonal items. Medieval Arabic agronomic improvements meant several growing seasons in a single year and, therefore, the availability of many fresh vegetables nearly year round. Cucumbers and onions or scallions have been standards of these salads since the time of the pharaohs. With the arrival of bell peppers and tomatoes from America, they eventually became commonplace as well. A favorite part of these salads is a piquant sheep's milk cheese called feta. Sephardim have been enjoying similar salads on a near daily basis for more than a millennia. Simple versions of michoteta are a ubiquitous part of Israeli breakfasts and many dinners. Some people prefer to let the dressed salad sit for a couple of hours until the vegetables begin to marinate and the mixture turns soupy, while others insist on eating it soon after mixing for the crispest texture. In either case, do not refrigerate.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to email@example.com.