by Rabbi Avi Billet
When we look at the “Yehuda and Tamar” story (Chapter 38), there are many questions.
Timeline questions: Did Yehuda marry before or after the sale of Yosef? How old was Tamar? How old were Yehuda’s sons at their respective marriages and deaths? How much younger than Er and Onan was Shelah, the surviving son who was not given Tamar as his bride? Considering that Peretz’s sons (Perets is the older son of Tanar!) are included in those who descend to Egypt (at a time when Yehuda is no more than 44), everyone in the story is really young!
“What really happened” questions: Why did Er die? Why did Onan die? Why was Shelah not given Tamar? Considering their ages, were the people in question ever really married? Did Yehuda “really” know it was Tamar when he met her on the crossroad? Did Yehuda really call for her to be burned at the stake as a consequence for her pregnancy?
Sin questions: What made Er sinful? What made Onan sinful? Did Yehuda sin in approaching the disguised Tamar? Was Tamar the sinful one? Both Yehuda and Tamar may seem vindicated in the end – so what? That doesn’t mean bad behavior never took place!
Motivation questions: Why did Yehuda not allow Shelah to marry Tamar? What motivated Tamar to disguise herself and stand at a crossroad when Yehuda was coming? Considering that she does not approach him, but he approaches her, what was her plan had he not been entranced by her?
P Perhaps if we can understand Tamar’s motivation in the tale, we’ll be better equipped to answer most of these questions.
Rashi notes she wanted to be part of Yehuda's line. Echoing that sentiments, Netziv says Tamar wanted to be part of this family because she saw something in Yehuda. She did not realize at first that Er and Onan (and perhaps also Shelah), being sons of a Canaanite woman, could not be the continuation of the Israelite line. Haktav V’hakabbalah and others note that Er and Onan never consummated a marriage with her (whatever they did was a capital offense in God’s eyes – see Sanhedrin 57), which means she wasn’t really Yehuda’s daughter-in-law, and was fully available to him.
Having been married to Er and then Onan, watching them both die, one wonders why Tamar would want to remain part of this family. Does she feel she owes it to them? Yehuda is surely the instigation behind any concept of her remaining in the family, first through insisting Onan marry his dead brother’s wife, then in telling her to wait as a widow until Shelah is old enough to marry her.
How long does Shelah need to wait? The Talmud in Sotah notes the problem in the passage of time. If Yehuda’s marriage takes place after the sale of Yosef, only 22 years pass from his nuptials, through his sons growing to be marriage-age, their dying, and his having new twin sons (born after their death), one of whom grows up to be a father before the family descends to Egypt. Because of this seeming impossibility, the Talmud’s conclusion is that all of them (except Yehuda) were married when they were under ten years old (Yehuda was around 21 at the time of the sale of Yosef – though he certainly could have been a father by that time).
Riv’a asks how Er and Onan could be punished with death at that age, and he concludes that “God sees the heart.” While it is true that a person is not punished for deeds under the age of 20, it is also true that some can be looked at“al shem sofam” – based on how they will turn out. This may be why Yehuda was pushing off Shelah’s marriage – he needed to reach an older age – not the same age that Er and Onan had been (under ten) in order to be mature enough to wed her properly and survive.
Rabbi Chaim Paltiel agrees that Er and Onan a. never consummated their respective marriages, and b. each “marriage” was a sham anyway because they were so young. He also notes the change in language – when Yehuda meets her at the crossroads he thinks she is a “Zonah.” When he sends his friend with a sheep, to give her in exchange for the items he left with her, she is called a “Kedesha.” Rabbi Paltiel notes that the word “Zonah” means “one who pursues” – which can be translated differently depending on context and about whom we are speaking. One type of Zonah is a woman who pursues married men (a prostitute), another Zonah in one who pursues idolatry (as in the quote from the Shema – “asher atem zonim”), another Zonah is a woman who is an innkeeper (such as Rachav in Yehoshua 2) who looks after her houseguests, while still another Zonah is a woman who pursues a man for marriage – as was the woman with the covered face in this story. When she is called a “Kedesha,” that is from the language of “Kedushin” (betrothal) because their encounter made for a betrothal in the mores of that time period. (Rabbi Paltiel suggests Yehuda found her to be a virgin!)
The verse tells us that after Yehuda married “bat Shua” and had three children “Yehuda took a woman for Er, his first born, and her name was Tamar.”
A woman? Was Tamar considerably older than Er, Onan, and Shelah? If it’s true that Er and Onan were considerably younger, what was Yehuda thinking? Could it be that he wanted her near him? Could it be he saw her as unavailable because he was married, and he thought – let her be a part of my family through my son?
Perhaps Tamar had similar hopes, which is why she agreed, neither of them knowing how things would remarkably turn out for them in the end. [There is a debate in the Talmud and among many commentators as to whether the words “v’lo yasaf od l’da’atah” (38:26) from after her "punishment" was revoked means he was never intimate with her again or he remained her ‘husband’ forever.]
After Yehuda became widowed, however, she took matters into her own hands. Though she certainly found a willing participant in Yehuda.
Rabbi Paltiel suggests that the 3 things Yehuda gave her, his signet ring, his staff, and his cloak served, respectively, as a wedding band, and the pole and tallis for their chuppah. (He notes that others view the three items as representative of the three obligations a husband has to provide for his wife – food (the phrase “mateh lechem”), clothing, and marital relations (“the seal of circumcision”)).
When Yehuda declared she should be taken out and burned, commentaries debate what this means. Some say burned at the stake – suggesting that was the law of the land. Others suggest she should have a mark branded to her, much like Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Rabbi Paltiel suggests that “Tisaref” was a code word for a kind of non-capital penalty (a “k’nas”), perhaps a whipping or flogging (not nice, agreed, but certainly more palatable than death by fire). Of course, this punishment was not carried out when the truth was revealed. Chizkuni notes that the reason for possibly punishing her was because it was assumed she had become pregnant from a Canaanite, which was unbecoming of a woman who had cast her lot with the Israelites.
Haktav V’hakabbalah further notes that when Yehuda says “Tzadkah” – she is righteous, he was noting her intent was “for the sake of heaven” for seeking him out specifically rather than any other younger man. This does not account for what Tamar would have done had Yehuda not approached her, but perhaps, knowing of his widowhood and loneliness, she felt she had a sure thing coming.
It is clear that the Davidic line comes from a significant number of eyebrow-raising male/female relationships which include: Lot and his daughters, Yehuda and Tamar, Ruth and Boaz, David and Batsheva. Ramban notes that this was by design of the Almighty that the Davidic line of kings should never get too haughty and think of themselves as better than the people they serve as kings, considering their background.
That is probably the most important message of all. Even great kings have skeletons in the closet and pedigree that ought to remind them to be humble and not to think of themselves as better than anyone.
At the same time, Tamar’s story is an incredible nod to the power of truth, dedication, and a certain pursuit of justice. If, for example, Tamar was meant to be redeemed through the equivalent of a levirate marriage in Yehuda’s family, her effort came to fruitful conclusions when she took matters into her own hands.
Not everyone is blessed to have such insight. And certainly the behavior in this tale leaves much to be desired. But history and legend have the benefit of hindsight, and we know where this story stands in the scheme of the history of the Jewish people.