Parsha Vayeyshev

Judah and Tamar


One of the least known narratives in the Torah concern’s Yehuda’s transactions with Tamar. It is no accident that the name Tamar recurs later in the history of David’s family as another good woman who was wronged by a man (Second Samuel 13).

Judah has gone into voluntary exile for his part in selling Joseph and there he mixes with other tribes and ends up marrying his son Air to an Adulamite woman called Tamar. The son died and following local and ancient tradition (long before it enters Israelite law) she was then married to the next son Onan. He died too and then Judah sends Tamar back home (which was a humiliating demotion). When Shela is old enough Judah refrains from marrying her to the third son for fear that he might die too as if it were Tamar’s fault. The Torah specifically says they died because they were bad people, not because of her. But Tamar feels hard done by.

There are lots of important themes here, such as what happens when one leaves one’s family and one’s cultural, religious environment and how all this affects one’s choice of wife and one’s children. It also speaks to the issue of expectations and the importance of expressing one’s feelings of hurt, communication.

Judah ignores her or perhaps forgets her intentionally (another theme in this week’s reading). The only way she can attract his attention is by dressing up as a courtesan. She sits at the cross roads called Petah Eynayim which means significantly “Open Your Eyes.” Something we often neglect to do. We don’t see the obvious. Judah sleeps with her without his knowing, of course, who she was. She asks for payment. Judah, who does not carry cash, leaves his staff, seal and belt and promises to redeem them the following day. The next day, his agent cannot find Tamar and no one knows anything about any loose woman. She conceives and Judah hearing and believing her to have committed adultery sentences her to die. She then provides the staff, seal and belt, proof that it was Judah himself who was the father of her child. Judah accepts he was wrong to have withheld her from his family.

She is reinstated into his household and the twins who were born become important aristocrats in Judah’s royal family. Tamar is presented as a righteous woman in the way Ruth was later on, another outsider who becomes a principal in the Davidic line. The line that stands out, is Judah’s when he says, “She is a better (a more righteous) person than I am.” It is the vindication of due process, a fair trial and the recognition that finding the truth is more important than winning a case or appearances. In our litigious society, it’s winning the case that counts. In a spiritual world, it is the truth that matters most of all.

We all make mistakes. Very often we can put those mistakes right, though sometimes we may have to do it in a round-about tactful way. And finally, whatever mistakes we might have made, if we put things right and our good qualities come to the fore, the Torah judges us as we are now, not then.