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What is the meaning of the hishtadlus that Yaakov made with the conception of the animals starting at 30 (37)?

Is it or was it a natural thing that the colouring of animals depends on what their mother recently saw? If not, what is the implication?

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5 Answers 5

I don't think that there is any one answer to this.

However:

1) according to Shadal, indeed, the koach hadimyon (imaginative faculties) were at work in causing the coloring of the sheep.

By power of the imagination, just as it is well known that the imaginative faculties work for females and causes them to give birth to that which is imprinted forcefully upon their imagination. And see Bourdach in his work Physiologie (Leipzig, 1837), who brings many cases which were in this generation, which prove conclusively that the imaginative force works upon the fetus, not only at the time of conception, but also before the conception.

2) At the same time, he presents an alternate explanation by which the female sheep preferred male sheep which matched the pattern of the sticks.

Rather, his intent was that when those sticks would be in sight of the sheep at the time that they went into heat, and their souls {/desire} would attach to things similar, and when they went to pair with a male, they would attach to those males whose appearance was similar to the appearance of the sticks.

He connects it with an idea put forth in Bereishit Rabba, though I am not convinced that that is the intent of that midrash.

3) I also present in the above link the opinion of Dr. Yehuda Feliks, that Yaakov Avinu knew modern genetics, before Gregor Mendel did. And thus, a way it can work in accordance with modern genetics. I don't find this last one entirely convincing.

4) Finally, my own position (with grounding in ideas by R' Yosef Ibn Caspi in general) is that Yaakov Avinu thought that he was accomplishing something, based on contemporary science. Of course, contemporary science was bunk. However, “Rabbos machshavos b'lev ish, va'atzas Hashem, hi takum.” And indeed, according to Yaakov's dream, it was Divine Intervention which caused this. Still, Yaakov did his hishtadlus, which was understood (by him and others) to be genuine hishtadlus based on the mistaken beliefs of the time.

Edit: I'll just add that HodOfHod's answer is legitimate, in that this presents the view of Chazal. They believed, based on contemporary science, that the imaginative faculties would have an impact on the fetus. And the story cited to bolster this is a indeed a maaseh shehaya. But in that maaseh shehaya, there was most likely indeed infidelity, and Rebbe resolved it incorrectly as maternal impression. See here for a contemporary parallel.

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Me'am Loez on this parsha actually talks about it.
Edit: After chasing down the source (יפ"ת דתכ"ב), I found the (hopefully) original in Medrash Rabbah.
This photo is from Me'am Loez.

enter image description here Quick translation:

There was a story with a black man who was married to a black woman, and they had a white son. He came to Rabbeinu Hakadosh and said, "this is certainly not my son, since we're both black where did it come to be born this?", and he wanted to divorce her (for committing adultery).

Rebbi asked him: "Do you have pictures in your house?". "Yes", he replied.
"Are they of white or black (people)?". "White", he said.
So Rebbi said: "When your wife looked, during relations, at pictures like this, it caused a child like this", and its similar to Yaakov's sheep".

This would seem to mean that this is in fact a natural thing.


Additionally, as @avi reminded me, there are many references throughout Torah that what the parents have in mind, or look at, or where they are, during relations will strongly impact their child. The effects it can have range from looks (like R' Yochanan), to sicknesses, to the garments of the soul (Tanya, explaining Zohar and Zohar Chadash).

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First it is a Medrash Rabbah (just realesed by artscrol)the person who did most of the Meam loez is the forementioned Reb ARYeh Kaplan second as has been addressed here many a times not always is the Medrash literal –  simchastorah Dec 4 '11 at 6:01
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First: it may also be a Medrash Rabbah, but it is most certainly in Me'am Loez as well, which is where the photo is from. Second: Me'am Loez has been translated by R' Aryeh Kaplan, but not written by him. Third: this is brought as a maaseh shehaya. –  HodofHod Dec 4 '11 at 6:34
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By the way, in the times of the gemora they certainly believe this to be a natural thing, and that is why R Yochanan(I think it was him) would sit outside the mikveh. –  avi Dec 4 '11 at 11:09
    
you are right about the translation part but the Meam loez is a collection of other medrashim summarized –  simchastorah Dec 4 '11 at 13:26
    
oh and the fact that it is a translation from the ladino means you shouldn't make such diyukim –  simchastorah Dec 4 '11 at 13:28

One of the answers the Mizrachi to Rashi on Bereshit 30:39 brings is that the sticks were just used to cover up the miracle. The angel appeared to Yaakov and showed him that all the animals would be born with the pattern that would benefit Yaakov. Yaakov then used to sticks to hide the miracle.

(The Mizrachi is addressing another issue, which is how could Yaakov be dishonest? Wasn't he cheating Lavan?)

However, based on the other answers the Mizrachi gives, we can see that the Mizrachi holds that the sticks do work to affect the coloring of the child.

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According to the Cartoon guide to Genetics, when the goats saw the reeds, they were predisposed to mate with other goats that had similar characteristics, causing an increase in the population of that type of animal. It also brings up the idea of this being an example of recessive genes.

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+1 this is the most correct answer. After learning evolutionary psychology this is what I think. Also notice that until today most scientists do not know that it's possible thinking it's another error in the bible. Yet Jacob, 4000 years ago, did the right thing. The idea of what you see is what you get seems to be central in most religions. It's the same reason why religious leaders do not want us to see porn. They don't want the ugly to go extinct. Seeing porn will not make you produce more beautiful daughter by it self. It does alter sexual selection in ways that favor the talented. –  Jim Thio Jan 20 '12 at 2:36
    
and that's what makes me interested in the religion. Through faith or possibly erroneous believe in God, they did come up with the right thing to do. Who knows God do exist. Believing him is certainly useful and worth learning. Otherwise people won't do it. –  Jim Thio Jan 20 '12 at 2:39

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan quotes Kabbalistic sources that he was using meditation "to direct spiritual energy and actually to change the genetic structure of the sheep ... manipulating some of the highest spiritual forces that exist." Okay, as I'm neither a Kabbalist nor a bioengineer, I'll take his word for it ...

The simplest way to read the whole story (as I see it) is that whatever breed of livestock they had back then, two white sheep would occasionally give birth to a brown or spotted one. Let's assume that brown/spotted is the recessive trait, and white is the dominant one. So probability would have if both male and female sheep are carriers of the brown/spotted trait, there's a 25% chance the offspring will be brown/spotted. If so, when Yaakov is given a vision of spotted sheep mating, what he's likely seeing is a representation of the recessive trait (spotted) winning out each time. Effectively, Yaakov was doing a bunch of coin tosses and hoping to get heads every time.

Now it appears that G-d prefers to bend the rules of nature slightly more often than bend them drastically, and he does that more often than break them entirely. So here it's just a matter of tweaking the probabilities. If so, there are several explanations of what Yaakov is doing:

  • It was believed at the time that external influence can bend the probabilities, and thus Yaakov is doing his appropriate hishtadlut (physical effort). It could be that Yaakov himself believed this worked; or that he didn't but he needed a plausible mechanism in the eyes of Lavan and other skeptics before asking for this minor miracle.
  • External influence does somehow do something, within the realm of biological possibility. Don't ask me how or when or why.

Regardless, the message Lavan is getting is that external influence makes a difference -- which further drives home Yaakov's point that it's best for his family to get out of Mesopotamia and go back their family in Canaan.

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+1. Perhaps a third bullet point to add to your two is that it was a way to pray with a symbol, as we do the night of Rosh Hashana. –  msh210 Dec 2 '11 at 15:16
    
...OTOH perhaps that's what Rabbi Kaplan's saying. –  msh210 Dec 4 '11 at 16:17

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