Jacob and the Speckled Flocks


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I was wondering if you had any literature on the section of this week’s Parsha, when Jacob makes the deal with Laban for his wage. I had a couple of questions. Why would Jacob offer a deal like that? Meaning, if Laban separated all the spotted and striped from Jacob’s flock, how did he expect to breed his own - of those very markings? You cannot create black sheep from white ones! And secondly regarding the design of the sticks in the feeding burrows during the mating season: did Jacob know some scientific formulation affecting the phenotype of the animals? That seems strange. I think the commentaries also suggest that there was Divine providence involved. If that’s the case, did Jacob know that for sure, or was he just relying on it? And if it was Divine providence, why did he have to design the elaborate breeding with the streaked rods, let the Divine providence take charge, and forget the whole streaked rods procedure!

If you had time I think that there is definitely some interesting idea underlying this section- it seems too strange not to!

Thanks, Daniel



Mesora: Let’s place your questions into context: After Jacob had already worked 14 years for both of Laban’s daughters, and after Joseph’s birth, Jacob desired to take leave of Laban. Jacob asked Laban for his wages. Laban, resorting to standard business tactics, did not want to be the first one to suggest Jacob’s wages. Jacob understood his conniving father-in-law, and then suggested that he would herd the flocks, taking for his wage all future speckled and spotted lambs and goats, and brown sheep.


The Torah then reads, “I will pass over your entire flock, removing from there, every speckled and spotted lamb, every brown sheep, and the speckled and spotted goats, and this will be my wage.” (Gen. 30:32) Jacob stated this, but the meaning is unclear. What is his wage: these flocks, or only their offspring, or both? According to one view, Jacob told Laban to remove these from the current flock so as to eliminate any claim Laban might make later, saying, “These were already there from before and are mine - they are not the ‘future’ flocks you spoke of.”  To avoid this anticipated trickery, Jacob agreed that Laban might separate for himself, all of the speckled and spotted lambs and goats, and brown sheep. However, according to Rashi, it was not Jacob who took the speckled and spotted flock: this was Laban’s own move to eliminate any chance of Jacob’s success. Thus, according to Rashi, Jacob’s plan was to take for himself the speckled and spotted flock alone, as a means to enrich his own flock. This makes more sense, as where would Jacob obtain speckled and spotted flock if he had none from which to reproduce? But Laban agreed to allow Jacob to separate these flocks, but then undermined Jacob’s true intent, and in other words said, “Yes Jacob, good idea. Separate those flocks”. But the less shrewd Jacob assumed Laban took the meaning as Jacob intended. So Jacob separated them, but only to discover that Laban then said, “Now give them to me.” This was not Jacob’s intent. But Laban twisted his words in his favor. Jacob was now left with less than he intended.


We then read that Laban cheated Jacob again: Laban took the “ringed” goats too. This was not part of the agreement. Laban lessened Jacob’s prospects by removing more than what they had agreed to. Chizkuni states this deceit justified Jacob’s streaked rods tactic. Ramban disagrees, suggesting that one has the right to manipulate the flocks any way he sees fit. This was not trickery on Jacob’s part according to Ramban. But according to all views, the Torah clearly teaches that Laban took more than what was agreed.


Laban then took the greedy precaution of placing a three-day journey between his separated, speckled and spotted flocks, and Jacob’s flocks. Laban wanted to eliminate any chance of Jacob’s flock mating with the patterned flocks, which would increase Jacob’s flocks.


Jacob was now left with his commitment to accept as his specified share, the speckled and spotted flocks. He had fewer prospects, as Laban also wrongly removed the ringed flocks. Jacob had counted on the ringed flocks to contribute to his projections of patterned offspring. Jacob devised a plan: he placed streaked rods in the watering troughs, and when the animals were heated, the rods’ patterns were somehow absorbed by the flocks, and they reproduced in the patterns of these rods. Jacob successfully reproduced his flock in the patterns Laban agreed would be his.


How did Jacob know this streaked rod idea would work? Was it really Jacob’s own idea? Keep these questions in mind.


Later on, after Jacob’s speckled and spotted flocks greatly multiplied, he saw that Laban’s countenance towards him decreased due to his success. God instructed Jacob to return and that He would be with him. In Genesis 31:10-13, Jacob then tells his wives that he had a prophecy regarding the flocks wherein the angel informed him that the speckled and spotted flocks would be greatly multiplied. But when did Jacob receive this vision? One of two possibilities exists, either prior or subsequent to Jacob’s plan to place the streaked rods in the watering troughs. We must ask: did the angel tell Jacob only ‘THAT’ the speckled and spotted flocks would increase? Or did the angel also tell Jacob ‘HOW’ to make these flocks multiply, via the streaked rods?


Ramban: Two Visions

If the first possibility, we must then ask 2 more questions: 1) If Jacob was guaranteed by the angel that these flocks would multiply, what need was there for the streaked rods? To this, Ramban states that after this vision, Jacob no longer used the streaked rods, he trusted in God. Thus, Ramban holds that Jacob had at least one vision of the he-goats mounting the speckled and spotted flocks ‘after’ he initiated his streaked rods plan. And once he saw this vision, he ceased from using the rods out of trust in God. 2) If the angel did not inform Jacob of the streaked rods’ abilities, how did he know these rods would work? However, since Jacob was the one who selected the speckled/spotted flocks, perhaps he already knew something about animal breeding: environment affects their appearance. Jacob may have observed that in certain regions, those flocks were affected by their surroundings, creating physical markings on their coats. We do see today that in varied regions, one species may bear different markings and colors, while the same species in other global locations appear different. Accordingly, Jacob possessed some zoological knowledge. But had the angel also informed Jacob “how” to increase the flocks via the rods, we may assume less about Jacob’s knowledge.


Ramban states that the vision Jacob recounted to his wives was in fact not a single vision. Ramban says that Jacob received the later vision, while he was yet working his initial years for Laban for his two wives, and not during the later time of this deal with the speckled/spotted flocks. Accordingly, this is what occurred: Jacob agrees to work 7 years for Rachel. Jacob is tricked, and Leah is substituted. Jacob agrees to work yet another 7 years for Rachel. During these years, Laban switches his wages numerous times, to secure the greatest wealth for himself, cheating Jacob. Also during this time, Jacob received this vision recorded in Gen. 31:11,12, “And an angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob’, and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see all the he-goats that are mounting the flocks, are ringed speckled and checkered. For I have seen all that Laban has done to you.” Ramban states Jacob received this vision while he was yet working his 14 years for his wives.


Jacob knew prophetically that these flock types would be numerous. But, did he know they would be his? I am not sure. But if he did, what need would there be for his streaked rods? He had a guarantee! Perhaps, all he knew was that these flocks would greatly increase…the rest remained up to him. In either case, Jacob had a reason to desire them, and asked for these flocks from Laban. If Jacob was not told anything other than the fact that these flocks would increase, we learn that he used the streaked rods to make these flocks his own. Meaning, God gave Jacob just enough knowledge, i.e., that these flock would increase, leaving the ‘acquisition’ up to Jacob. Later, Ramban states that Jacob had another vision at the time the flocks were heated, (31:10) “And it was at the time the flocks were heated, and I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he-goats that mounted the flock were ringed speckled and checkered.” At this point, this latter vision came to secure the acquisition, confirming to Jacob that God’s providence is granting these flocks to him. Jacob therefore ceased from using the rods any further.


So the sequence of events is that Jacob received one vision in which he learned of the flocks’ increase. Years later, during the deal to take the speckled and spotted flocks, Jacob received a second vision securing them to him as his. The verse’s words attest to this, as the verse defines ‘when’ Jacob received one of the visions, as “And it was at the time the flocks were heated…”. The second vision he repeats to his wives, omits any date. This would explain why Ramban holds that there were two visions.




One Vision

We understand Ramban’s view. Now, let us consider an alternative understanding: the visions were a single prophecy. The verses read as follows: (31:10-12) “And it was at the time the flocks were heated, and I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he-goats that mounted the flock were ringed speckled and checkered. And an angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob’, and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see all the he-goats that are mounting the flocks, are ringed speckled and checkered. For I have seen all that Laban has done to you.” Why is Jacob first given the opportunity to see the vision, and only afterwards, addressed by the angel, and at that, instructed to look again at what he already saw? What is added the second time Jacob views the he-goats? It is this, “For I have seen all that Laban has done to you.”


When he devised the plan regarding the streaked rods, it was his own thinking. Now, as the flocks became heated, he received this vision. Of his own accord, Jacob attempted to use his knowledge of animal behavior to increase his wealth. Why then was a vision necessary at this point?


By its very definition, a vision means that God is relating to the person individually. Jacob was now being informed that God is providing for him. He need not concern himself that Laban might cheat him anymore. This reasoning makes sense, as this reassuring vision came exactly when Jacob was trying to outwit Laban. Jacob felt he was on his own, and rightfully so. A righteous person is humble by nature, and does not rely on miracles. However, God informed Jacob through this vision that “all is in God’s hands. You need not worry.” This is a general rule, which Maimonides teaches at the very end of his Laws of Shmita and Yovale. He states that any person who enters the world, if he desires to take on the life of Torah, abandoning the life of monetary concerns, that he will be given enough to sustain him. God does not give this Torah follower excess finances, as he would not need it, and as Hillel taught, “with increased possessions comes increased anxiety.” (Ethics, 2:7) God administered this precise providence for Jacob at this juncture. The message, “For I have seen all that Laban has done to you” means to say, “Despite what Laban has done, I am with you. You will be successful.”


We are left with one question: why is Jacob first given the opportunity to see the vision, and only afterwards, addressed by the angel to look again at what he already saw? Seeing twice in a vision also occurs in connection with Abraham. Genesis 18:5 reads, “And he lifted his eyes and he saw, and behold three men standing (waiting) on him, and he saw…” The Rabbis teach that the second “and he saw” implies understanding of the matter, not a redundant viewing. Perhaps here too, Jacob was instructed to ‘understand’ the vision, after already seeing it. I am not sure why in some cases a person will see a vision once, and why in these cases, a further understanding is required. Perhaps, this emphasizes to the prophet his ignorance of a specific area of knowledge. The angel instructs Jacob to delve deeper, indicating that at first, he was unaware of something. Why is this necessary? Perhaps the emphasis of the prophet’s ignorance is to teach him precisely, that he is now attaining knowledge of a new area of God’s providence. Had the angel told Jacob to look at the vision, and then Jacob first did so only ‘after’ the angel’s instruction, Jacob would still learn something new, but he may not have acknowledged that this new knowledge partook of a distinctly “new” category of Divine providence. Thereby, Jacob is forced to recognize this vision as entering him in to a new realm of God’s providence.


When one sees a new “realm” of knowledge, it affects how he treats this knowledge. He understands that this is not an “instance” of a known category, but it is the tip of the iceberg. Knowing this, a person treats such knowledge differently. He is thereby prompted to explore that new category of knowledge. But if a person looks at new information as merely an instance of his already-learned categories, he will not think that there is greater knowledge subsumed therein. He will treat it as the end of the line.