Vayeshev: Tamar

And Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing.” So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at Enaim…on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, let me sleep with you,” — for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” He replied, “I will send a kid from my flock.” But she said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” And he said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s garb.
Judah sent the kid by his friend… to redeem the pledge from the woman; but he could not find her. He inquired of the people of that town, “Where is the cult prostitute, the one at Enaim, by the road?” But they said, “There has been no prostitute here.” So he returned to Judah and said “I could not find her; moreover, the townspeople said: There has been no prostitute here.” Judah said, “Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. I did send her this kid, but you did not find her.” About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” 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?” Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Bereishit 38: 24-26)

Three months have now elapsed
since the Holy Days’ embrace;
light-filled aspirations
have all but been eclipsed.

Does God lament forlornly
our descent from lofty heights, as we
succumb to the temptation
that lurks beside the road.

Vestiges of summer
are replaced by winter chill,
by a heavy veil of darkness
impervious to light.

Then from within the bleakness
God sees the wicks are lit.
Does He rejoice to witness
that we reaffirm our pledge?


Towards the middle of Parashat Vayeshev we come upon a baffling episode in the Torah: the story of Judah, his three sons, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. This narrative about Judah interrupts that about Joseph.
We learn that Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, has three sons, named Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah finds a wife, Tamar, for Er, his oldest son. Er, we learn, sins in God’s eyes and dies childless soon after. Judah then brings his second son, Onan, to marry his widowed sister-in-law, seemingly in fulfillment of the mitzvah of yibum – the levirate marriage, (which is actually introduced much later in the Torah (Devarim 25:5-10 ). This mitzva obligates a man to marry his deceased brother’s wife if there are no children from the union, and precludes the widow from marrying anyone else. In practice, in such circumstances the brother performs a ceremony called chalitza absolving both the brother and the widow from this obligation. So Onan marries Tamar, but knowing that any children born will not count as his but rather as Er’s, and that, moreover, his share of his father’s estate will thereby be reduced, Onan practises a form of contraception and God is displeased. Onan, too, dies childless. Judah fears that his third son, Shelah, might suffer the same fate as the other two so he sends Tamar home telling her “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah is grown.” The Torah tells us that a long time afterwards, Judah’s wife dies, and Tamar realizes that Shelah is grown and has not been given to her. The Etz Hayim commentary notes, “Tamar is another in the long line of biblical women who long to be mothers and who are rewarded by becoming the mother of a special person (in this case, an ancestor of King David and the messianic line).”
So she dresses up, heavily veiled, as a prostitute and stands at the side of the road along which Judah is due to travel, and he turns aside to sleep with her (the Torah emphasizes that he does not know it is his daughter-in-law). He says he will pay her with a kid from his flock, and she demands a pledge until payment is rendered and requests he leave his seal, cord and staff with her, which he does. They sleep together and we are told she conceives by him. He never asks her name, so that later when he sends the kid in payment, with a friend, the “prostitute” cannot be found, for she has dressed herself again in her respectable widow’s garb and gone home.
About three months later, Judah hears that Tamar is three months pregnant, so he decrees she should be brought out and burned, as any sexual relationship the widow has, other than with the levir, is considered adulterous and thus punishable by death. In an extremely self-restrained and noble move, Tamar then sends a message to Judah, with the items he left with her as a pledge, and saying that she is pregnant with child of the man to whom these items belong. She refrains from shaming him publicly, at great risk to herself. And Judah, with great integrity and courage, acknowledges that the pledge is his and that he is the guilty party because he held Shelah back from her.
Subsequently, Tamar has twins, Peretz and Zerah, the former is the ancestor of King David (10 generations later).

In Itturei Torah* on the phrase, “About three months later” the following commentary is cited and attributed to several (unnamed) books: “There is here a hint of the light of Chanuka. “About three months” – Chanuka falls three months after the creation of the world; the world was created on the 25th Elul, and Chanukah [falls] on the 25th Kislev…”
In an article reflecting a kabbalistic perspective of this story http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/379771/jewish/Seal-Cord-and-Staff.htm, Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson notes that biblical commentators agree that narratives in the Torah do not just recount ancient Jewish history; he cites Nachmanides, “The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the world of the spirit.”
So Rabbi Jacobson brings the Kabbalistic analogy in this episode, whereby Tamar represents the Jewish people, and Judah represents God (the Kabbalists note that the name Judah – YeHuDaH incorporates all the letters of God’s name, with an additional “daleth“. So he says that the intimate meeting between Tamar and Judah (representing the Jewish people and God) occurs during the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish people draw near to God and He embraces them. They dream of staying close. But as the months pass, they gradually drift away. By the time three months have elapsed the spiritual awakening of the High Holy days has worn off. Judah learns that his “kalla” which here means “daughter-in-law”, but also means “bride” (and Israel is, indeed, considered to be betrothed to God as His bride) has committed harlotry, and become pregnant. In this allegory, then, God is told that His bride has forsaken Him for another.
Rabbi Jacobson asks, “Is this not the story of so many of us? At one point during our lives we are inspired to transcend our selfish identity and connect to the deeper Divine rhythm of life. Yet, the cunning lore of numerous other gods captivates our imaginations and ambitions and dulls our vision…What is even sadder for Judah is the news that “Tamar” is so estranged that she became pregnant by harlotry…”
Rabbi Jacobson adds that Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that the judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is completed some three months later, during the days of Chanukah. He continues with the allegory: when Tamar is brought out for justice to be administered, she calls on Judah to identify the articles of the pledge: the seal, the cord and the staff. Each night during the festival of Chanukah – when, according to this interpretation, the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is finalized – God sees His people lighting a wick, or cord, soaked in oil, commemorating the discovery of one uncontaminated cruse of oil, still bearing an unbroken seal, after the Greeks had plundered the Temple in Jerusalem. Meanwhile the staff denotes the wandering of the Jewish people through 2000 years of exile, always seeking a new home where they could practice their faith. Judah recognises that these are his pledge, and confesses that he is to blame, because he withheld his son Shelah. God sees the Chanukah candles and knows that His people are still faithful to the “Owner” of the pledge. In three weeks time in Parashat Vayechi, when Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed, he will bless Judah as follows, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him, and the homage of peoples be his.” The word for tribute is “shiloh” and is understood as a Messianic reference. The kabbalists relate this word to Shelah and so they suggest that God accepts that as He has withheld the Messianic era, the world is still dark and turbulent. The Chanukah candles affirm the human endeavor to illuminate the darkness.

*Itturei Torah – Words of Wisdom, Understanding and Ethics arranged by Parasha on the Torah and on the Megillot and Festivals. Collected and explained by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg.

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