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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Va-Yeshev 5762/ December 8, 2001
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
According to A. Kariv,
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).
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
A. Kariv, Shivat Amudei
, Tel Aviv 1968, p. 43.
M. Garsiel (Midreshei
), 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
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
the sense of sin (ayin vav nun
) or trouble" (p. 131). As for
Shelah, he associates the name with ashlayah
a false illusion. Garsiel also mentions the place where Shelah was born, Keziv,
and notes the connection in meanings between ashlayah
, illusion, and
, falsehood or lie (p. 83).
The Sages call a woman who
has had two husbands die on her a "femme fatale
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"
lofty motives, being aware of the special status for the family of Judah, see B.
, pp. 261-263.
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
10b), 'Better for a person to be thrown into a fiery pit,
than to publicly embarrass someone else.'"