Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5762/ December 8, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5762/ December 8, 2001

Yael Tzohar
Department of Bible

The story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) begins with details about Judah's first marriage to the daughter of Shua the Canaanite and the birth of his three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. This is followed by the account of the death of his two older sons and his wife. At this point one might ask whether there is any significance in thus describing Judah's family, almost all of whom died out, or whether this description only provides the functional setting for his daughter-in-law Tamar appearing on the scene? What is the significance of this multiplicity of detail, which seems quite irrelevant?

According to A. Kariv,[1] the biblical author seeks to describe the home that Judah established and that ended in heart-break and disappointment, all because his Canaanite wife was not worthy of establishing his line: "Because of these foreign origins, none of the three was worthy of being the ancestor of the line from which would come kingship and redemption." His wife, explicitly mentioned as being "the daughter of a certain Canaanite" (v. 2), along with her sons, was wiped off the face of the earth, and another woman took her place, one who would be worthy of establishing the dynasty descending from Judah. Kariv's remark makes perfectly clear why Scripture goes into such detail regarding Judah's marriage to the daughter of Shua the Canaanite and the birth of their sons (vv. 3-4).[2]

Judah's eldest son married Tamar and then died. Of him it is written, "But Er, Judah's first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life" (v. 7); Onan ought to have married his deceased brother's widow to provide offspring for his brother, but he shirked his duty, as it is written, "What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also" (v. 10).

The repetition, word for word, of the phrase, "displeasing to the Lord," coupled with the penalty of death, foretells the continuation of the story, in which Judah accuses Tamar of the death of his two sons and is unwilling to let her marry his third son. The details that Scripture provides us concerning Tamar's husbands and the circumstances of their deaths inform us that Tamar played no part in their demise, but rather was the innocent victim of a marriage to evil people.

Judah, having incorrectly interpreted the tragedies that befell him, accused Tamar of responsibility for the death of his sons. Seeing her as a woman who brings disaster[3] "Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, 'Stay as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up'" (v. 11). In a parenthetical remark, Scripture reveals to the reader that Judah had no intention of ever giving Tamar to Shelah: "for he thought, 'He too might die like his brothers.'" Given the painful circumstance of the death of his two sons, Judah was fearful and unwilling to put his only surviving son at risk.

So Tamar waited. She accepted what Judah candidly and expected to be given Shelah in marriage. But as time went by, she observed that Shelah was not being given to her. Tamar wished to bear a son who would continue the line of Judah,[4] and having realized that she had been deceived by Judah, she took the initiative in a daring and dangerous way. Disguising herself as a harlot, she sat on the main road and seduced Judah (who did not recognize her), taking as a pledge his seal, cord and staff, and conceived by him. When Judah found out that his daughter-in-law had become pregnant by harlotry, he proclaimed without the least hesitation, "Bring her out and let her be burned" (v. 24).

As the story continues, our sympathy goes increasingly to Tamar, who is portrayed both as the victim of her two husbands as well as the victim of her father-in-law's mistake, and as a refined woman who is even willing to be burned, provided she not be the one to publicize Judah's disgrace: "As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law: 'I am with child by the man to whom these belong.' And she added, 'Examine these; whose seal and cord and staff are these?'" (v. 25). She did not make a public proclamation, nor utter harsh words of anger, but rather presented the pledge in a manner that gave Judah a hint and placed the matter at his discretion.[5]

At the end of the story, it is Judah, who at the outset had seen Tamar as responsible for the death of his sons, who recanted and said explicitly, "She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah" (v. 26). Judah, too, is shown to be a great person, capable of admitting error. He admitted to having been the first to begin the deceit by promising her Shelah without truly intending to give him to her, and therefore her deeds were proper. Furthermore, one could say that in these words Judah expressed recognition of Tamar's good intentions, attesting her desire to continue the name of her deceased husband and bear a son for the family of Judah.

Chapter 38, which begins with the details of Judah's first family, concludes with the birth of Tamar's twins. One of them reached out, and the midwife tied a crimson thread to his wrist, but then the other suddenly burst forth, "and she said, 'What a breach (heb. perez) you have made for yourself!' So he was named Perez." This was the Perez who became ancestor of the Davidic line. What does this story signify?

The conclusion of the story is the inverse of its beginning. The beginning describes Judah's failed attempts at establishing a family, and the end clearly indicates that now his true family was formed.

The anecdote about a struggle to be the first-born aims at reminding the reader of many other contests for the birthright and inheritance going back to Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and many others. This peculiar detail puts our story into that group of narratives dealing with the sons chosen to continue the line and the struggles they faced. This is Scripture's way of informing us that the genealogy of the son just born will be important. Moreover, the birth story of Tamar's twins is a "correction" which sets right the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau, on which it is based. Perez succeeded in coming out first, whereas Jacob did not, the latter having been born grasping the heal of Esau. Zerah, Perez's twin brother, also became one of the forefathers of the tribe of Judah, whereas Esau became excluded from the Israelite dynasty.

This is the place to point out that Judah's first two sons are never again mentioned, whereas Shelah is mentioned in the families belonging to the tribe of Judah (see Numbers 26:20, I Chron. 4:21-23). Nevertheless, the family of Shelah is not considered important in the tribe of Judah and in Chronicles is listed but briefly after a lengthy detailing of the families descended from Perez and Zerah. Radak commented on this as follows: "All the genealogies mentioned thus far were descended from Perez and Zerah. Thus far the sons of Shelah had not been mentioned, so now, when completing the genealogy of Judah, brief mention is made of the sons of Shelah."

In conclusion, the reader realizes from Judah's acknowledgment that Tamar was in the right, and from the knowledge that Perez, Tamar's son, will become a scion of the House of David, that Tamar had good intentions and a fine personality. This, however, is not explicitly stated in Scripture; but compensation for what is absent here can be found in the book of Ruth, in the people's blessing to Boaz, "And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah - through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman" (Ruth 4:12). In the book of Ruth, Tamar is blessed retroactively and given full credit for her deeds.

[1] A. Kariv, Shivat Amudei ha-Tanakh, Tel Aviv 1968, p. 43.
[2] M. Garsiel (Midreshei Shemot ba-Mikra), Ramat-Gan 1987, interprets the names of Judah's sons unfavorably. About Er he says: "Sometimes this pair of letters is based on a complete reversal of direction between the reading of the name and its interpretation... 'But Er (ayin resh), Judah's first-born, was displeasing (resh ayin) to the Lord; and the Lord took his life'" (p. 63). Regarding Onan he says, "The group of names containing the component "on" is frequently interpreted as deriving from the word "aven" (aleph vav nun) in the sense of sin (ayin vav nun) or trouble" (p. 131). As for Shelah, he associates the name with ashlayah (or shelyah), meaning a false illusion. Garsiel also mentions the place where Shelah was born, Keziv, and notes the connection in meanings between ashlayah, illusion, and kazav, falsehood or lie (p. 83).
[3] The Sages call a woman who has had two husbands die on her a "femme fatale": "If she marries one man, and he dies; then she marries a second, and he too dies; she shall not marry a third" (Yevamot 64b). "If she is widowed twice, then she is not fit for marriage" (Ketubbot 43b).
[4] Regarding Tamar's lofty motives, being aware of the special status for the family of Judah, see B. Jacob, Bereshit, pp. 261-263.
[5] Rashi comments: " 'As she was being brought out' - to be burned. 'She sent this message to her father-in-law' - she did not wish to embarrass him and say, 'I am with child by you,' so she said, rather, 'I am with child by the man to whom these belong.' She thought, 'If he confesses, he will do so of his own accord, and if not, I shall be burned but I shall not embarrass him.' Hence it is said (Sotah 10b), 'Better for a person to be thrown into a fiery pit, than to publicly embarrass someone else.'"