Royal propaganda in the story of Yehuda and Tamar

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur

The final third of Sefer Bereishit – from the story of the sale of Yosef until Yaakov's parting words to his sons – recounts what happens from the time that the brothers rid themselves of Yosef until they are reunited in Egypt. Each stage of the story can be explained in terms of cause and effect, but an overall view of the plot indicates very clearly the idea of dual causality, whereby God sets down what needs to happen and mortals are the actors who through their own human conduct realize the Divine decree. The heroes of the story, the secondary characters, dreams, successes, failures, memory and forgetfulness – all these elements serve to advance the plot, leading to the realization of the vision of the Covenant Between the Parts:


"Know with certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will afflict them for four hundred years." (Bereishit 15:13)


Within this overall narrative, we find some episodes that appear, at first glance, to be of marginal importance, and their contribution to the advancement of the plot is not immediately apparent. The most obvious example is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Other than the identity of the characters involved, which anchors this episode within the family history of Yaakov's sons, there is no clear connection between this narrative and the sale of Yosef with its significant repercussions in Chevron and in Egypt.[1] Ancient midrashim and later commentators alike tried to find some link between the narratives, proposing both psychological explanations (describing Yehuda's pangs of conscience and consequent depression as the motivation behind the story[2]) and the connection between the sin and its punishment (with Yehuda's embroilment in the affair concerning Tamar viewed as repayment for his dominant role in the sale).[3] Nevertheless, the seeming out-of-place story demands some explanation indicating a broader connection with the surrounding plot.


We will return to this question after looking at the unique midrashic approach to the story of Yehuda and Tamar.


Indeed, this episode is awarded extensive and unusual attention in the rabbinic literature originating in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period. On the face of it, the various teachings solve difficulties in the peshat, the plain reading of the text. They explain the location of the story at this point in the broader narrative about Yosef and justify the choice of Yehuda, despite the incident involving Tamar,[4] as the head of the Israelite royal dynasty, as promised at the end of his father's life: 


"Yehuda is a young lion; from the prey, my son, you have arisen; he stooped down, he crouched as a lion and as a lioness – who shall rouse him up? The staff shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the scepter from between his feet, until Shilo comes, and the obedience of the peoples shall be his." (Bereishit 49:9-10)


However, closer attention reveals that in contrast to the midrashic treatment of other biblical stories, in which we find a balance between teachings that criticize the actions of the characters involved and others that seek to justify or mitigate them, in the Talmudic teachings about Yehuda and Tamar originating in Eretz Yisrael, there is a manifest effort to rebut a number of teachings that are critical, while at the same time taking pains to justify each and every step taken by the characters – even those which appear to be depicted in a negative light in the text. These teachings present the entire process as a Divine plan which they carried out.


Let us examine these midrashim and try to understand why this particular narrative is surrounded by such a positive midrashic embrace, while other biblical stories – even those involving the greatest of our forefathers – are not spared homiletic criticism. Finally, we will return to the question of the connection between the messages arising from this story and the surrounding narrative concerning the sale of Yosef and its effects.


1.            Juxtaposition of the Stories


As noted, the first question posed by the episode of Yehuda and Tamar concerns its location in the text. The literary continuum of the sale of Yosef is inexplicably broken by an incident whose details add nothing to our understanding of the plot. The considerations behind this redaction are addressed by three contradictory opinions:


What was the last matter described in the text? “And the Midianites sold him to Egypt.” Hence, the unit that starts “And it was at that time…” is out of place, for what should come next is, “And Yosef was taken down to Egypt” (Bereishit 39:1). R. Elazer said: This unit comes to juxtapose one “descent” [that of Yosef] with another [that of Yehuda]. R. Yochanan said: This unit comes to juxtapose one utterance of “Recognize now” [which the brothers ask of Yaakov concerning the bloodied coat - 37:32] with another [Tamar's request that Yehuda recognize the pledge that he had left with her]. R. Shmuel bar Nachman said: This unit comes to juxtapose the act of Tamar with the act of the wife of Potifar. Just as one [i.e., Tamar] acted for the sake of heaven, so did the other. For R. Yehoshua ben Levi taught: The wife of Potifar saw through her astrology that she was destined to have progeny from him, but she did not know whether it was she herself or her daughter who would give birth to them. (Bereishit Rabba 85:1-2, pp. 1030-1031)


R. Elazar and R. Yochanan connect the story of Yehuda and Tamar to the preceding unit and suggest two different educational messages underlying their juxtaposition. R. Elazar focuses on the idea that "one transgression pulls another in its wake,” while R. Yochanan points to the lesson of Divine retribution "measure for measure." R. Shmuel bar Nachman connects the story of Yehuda and Tamar to the episode of Yosef and the wife of Potifar, taking a positive view of the motivations of both women in tempting men who were forbidden to them.


The idea of the chain of events in this unit as a realization of a Divine prophecy is developed further by R. Shmuel bar Nachman in another teaching in which he explains the necessity of this story for the realization of the Divine vision. In his view, the stories detailing the sale and its attendant circumstances create the conditions for realization of the prophecies of subjugation and redemption, while the story of Yehuda and Tamar lays the groundwork for the eternal redemption:


R. Shmuel bar Nachman offered the following interpretation: “For I know the thoughts that I think concerning you, says the Lord; thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Yirmiyahu 29:11): The brothers were busy with the sale of Yosef, and Yaakov was busy with his sackcloth and fasting, and Yehuda was busy taking a wife, and the Holy One, blessed be He, was creating the light of the King Mashiach: “And it was at that time…” [This represents the realization of the verse,] “Before she suffered birth-pangs, she already gave birth” (Yeshayahu 66:7) – before the later enslaver of the people [Pharoah] was born, the redeemer had already appeared: “And it was at that time…" (Bereishit Rabba 85:1-2, pp. 1030-1031)


2.            "And Yehuda Went Down from his Brothers" (1)


The verb "va-yered" (he went down) signifies a geographical fact. Yaakov's family dwells in Chevron, and Adulam is south of Chevron. Nevertheless, the Sages of the midrash seem compelled to find deeper meaning in this statement. Symbolically, "going down" indicates a decline, as the following teaching suggests:


“Go, descend…” – Moshe was cast away and castigated, for the word “descent” is used to indicate casting away. And from where do we learn this? When Yosef's brothers sold him and then went to offer solace to their father, who refused to be consoled, they said, “All of this was caused by Yehuda, for had he not asked it, we would not have sold him. Just as he said to us, 'Do not kill him,’ and we obeyed him, so if he had said, 'Do not sell him,' we would have obeyed. But he said, 'Let us sell him to the Yishme'elim,’ and we obeyed him.” So they decided to cast him away, as it is written, “And it was at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers.” For there was no need for the text to say more than, “And Yehuda went…,” but [the text highlights that] he “went down” in relation to [or “by order of”] his brothers. And just as that “going down” [of Yehuda] indicates casting away, so in this case [God's command to Moshe], “Go down” indicates a casting away. (Shemot Rabba 42:3)


An opposing midrash rejects the connotation of “casting away” in the verb “going down” and arrives at the opposite conclusion – Yehuda is appointed by the brothers as their leader, setting a pattern for future crises:


“And Yehuda went down from his brothers…” – They said: Let us take care of ourselves. Previously, Yaakov was meant to marry us off. Now that he is occupied with sackcloth and fasting, it is not proper that he should have to concern himself with marrying us off. They said to Yehuda: Are you not our leader? Stand up and take care of yourself. [Sekhel Tov 38:1: … Right away, “Yehuda went down from his brothers.” And why does the Torah use an expression of “going down”? Because this heralded an [emotional] descent for him, since he ended up burying his wife and his sons.] (Bereishit Rabba 85:2, pp. 1033-1034)


Accordingly, the verb “going down” is a preliminary allusion to the disasters that will befall Yehuda, rather than a judgmental view of his actions.


3.            "And there Yehuda saw the daughter of a Canaanite man, named Shu'a, and he took her [as a wife] and came to her" (2)


The stories of the forefathers describe the degree to which Canaanite women were abhorrent to them and the efforts they went to in order to ensure that their children would marry women who were not of Canaanite origin. It is difficult to ignore the critical tone accompanying the textual description of Yehuda's marriage to the daughter of a Canaanite, as reflected in the following midrash from the Tanchuma:


Where the text says, “Yehuda has dealt treacherously and an abomination has been committed in Israel” (Malakhi 2:11), what is the meaning of the words, “Yehuda has dealt treacherously”? That Yehuda denied… What did he deny? “For Yehuda has profaned the holiness of God” (ibid.) – meaning, Yehuda has dealt treacherously, “and has married the daughter of a strange god” (ibid.)… When was this? When he parted from his brothers, as it is written, “And Yehuda went down." (Tanchuma [2], Vayeshev 9)[5]


Surprisingly, Reish Lakish proposes an original explanation for the appellation "Canaanite,” clearing Yehuda of the sin of marrying the “daughter of a foreign god”:


What is the meaning of [the appellation] “Canaanite”? If we wish to suggest that it is meant literally – is it possible that Avraham warned Yitzchak against this [i.e., marrying a Canaanite woman], and Yitzchak warned Yaakov, but Yehuda nevertheless went ahead? [Surely not;] rather, R. Shimon ben Lakish taught: [It means that she was] the daughter of a merchant, as it is written (Hoshea 12), “As for the merchant [kena'an], the balances of deceit are in his hand.” Alternatively, I can quote a different verse (Yeshayahu 23): “Whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers [kena'aneiha] are the honorable of the earth." (Pesachim 50a)[6]


4.            "And it was told to Tamar, saying, ‘Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timna to shear his sheep’" (13)


Once again, a geographical signifier becomes the springboard for a symbolic teaching:


In one place we read, “Shimshon went down to Timna,” and in another place we read, “Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timna.” [How are we to understand this seeming contradiction?] Rav said: There were two places named Timna, one referred to in the story of Yehuda, and the other referred to in the story of Shimshon. R. Shimon said: There is only one Timna. So why does the text mention both “going down” and “going up” to it? In Yehuda's case, it was “going up” because he did so for the sake of Heaven. In Shimshon's case, it was not for the sake of Heaven, and for this reason, the text speaks of him “going down." (Yerushalmi, Sota 1:8, 17a)[7]


Rav, the Babylonian scholar, solves the geographical contradiction with a geographical solution, while R. Shimon and R. Elazar, Sages of Eretz Yisrael who, as we have seen, managed to interpret even the verb “going down” in a positive light with regard to Yehuda, emphasize the verb “going up” here. Despite Yehuda's misdeed, described in the text as the result of his journey to Timna, these Sages point to the use of this verb as an allusion to the positive future outcome of that sin.


5.            "And she sat at the entrance to Enayim, which is on the way to Timna' (14)


Bearing in mind Tamar's intentions, which are known to the reader, her sitting at the "entrance to Enayim" (literally, “eyes”) is understood as a choice of a place that is clearly visible, so as to be sure that Yehuda will notice her.


The midrash, however, exploits the obscurity of the phrase, "entrance to Enayim." It elaborates on Tamar's worthy intentions and renders her fit for Yehuda by clearing her of any suspicion of being married, as well as of menstrual impurity. Tamar's immodest positioning of herself on the side of a public road is interpreted in the midrash as an expression of prayer and purification:


"And she sat at the entrance to Enayim” – R. Chizkiya taught in the name of R. Acha: Rabbi offered positive interpretations of three incidents: … “And she sat at the entrance to Enayim” – This cannot be meant literally, for even the least virtuous prostitute does not behave thus. It therefore teaches that she set her eyes upon the entrance that all eyes await [i.e., Heaven] and said, “Master of the universe, let me not leave this house [i.e., Yehuda's household] empty-handed [i.e., childless].” A different interpretation: “She sat at the entrance to Enayim” – She opened his eyes [i.e., drew his attention] and said, “I am unmarried and I am ritually pure."[8] (Yerushalmi Berakhot 13:1; 35c)


6.            "And Yehuda saw her and he thought her a prostitute, for she had covered her face" (15)


On the simple level, the text comes to explain how it was that Yehuda failed to identify Tamar. Her covering of her face is quite understandable given the circumstances. In the midrash, however, her act of wantonness becomes a symbol of modesty, by virtue of which she merits descendants who are kings and prophets:


"And Yehuda saw her and he thought her a prostitute, for she had covered her face” – She covered her face and therefore he considered her a prostitute? R. Elazar taught: She had covered her face in her father-in-law's house. For R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yochanan: Every daughter-in-law who is modest in her father-in-law's house merits to have kings and prophets among her descendants. And from where do we learn this? From Tamar… (Sota 10b)


The midrash suggests a picture that is actually the opposite of the plain meaning of the verse. Tamar had customarily covered her face while she was part of Yehuda's household, and therefore her face was not familiar to him. Thus, now that she exposed her face, he did not recognize her and thought her a prostitute.


7.            "And he turned to her by the way and he said, ‘Come now, I pray you, let me come to you’" (16)

The verse describing the actual sin is transformed by the midrash into a struggle between Yehuda and an overwhelming desire, which ends up prevailing over him by virtue of ideological justifications. Yehuda succumbs to his desire not out of lust, but rather out of the need to realize the destiny of his progeny:


"And Yehuda saw her…”: R. Yochanan said: He sought to pass by, but the Holy One, blessed be He, sent an angel responsible for desire. He said to him: Where are you going, Yehuda? From where will kings emerge; from where will redeemers emerge? “And he turned to her” – Against his will, and against his interests. (Bereishit Rabba 85, p. 1042)


The midrash continues to develop its defense with regard to later events, as well, but in contrast to the units presented thus far, in which the midrashic evaluation of Yehuda and Tamar is different from – or even the opposite of – what the plain reading of the verse suggests, the messages from this point onwards are compatible with the plain meaning of the verses, which outline the process of Yehuda's acknowledgment of his sin, his consequent repairing of his attitude towards Tamar, and the happy ending with the birth of the twins who are the progenitors of the royal dynasty.


How are we to explain the far-reaching defense of Yehuda and Tamar by the Sages of Eretz Yisrael? Would it not have been possible to understand the first part of the story as a sin and the second part as a “tikkun,” thereby gaining the educational message of the greatness of teshuva?


Our response to this question will comprise two levels – an exegetical explanation and an historical explanation based on the methodology of research into midrashei Chazal.


Exegetical Explanation


At the outset of our discussion, we presented the realization of God's promise to Avraham at the Covenant Between the Parts as a central message that interweaves the various parts of the narrative with its subplots and clarifies the contribution of the ups and downs in the life of Yosef and his brothers to the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy. Alongside this overt message, there is a secondary message, which sits well with the overall orientation of the narratives of Sefer Bereishit in general. Sefer Bereishit, as commentators and scholars have pointed out, chronicles the history of the chosen individuals.[9] The narratives here offer positive or negative descriptions of the chronicles of the chosen ones, the tremendous potential of humanity as a whole, and its fulfillment or failure depending on its actions. Avraham, who commanded his children and his household after him to keep the way of God, performing righteousness and judgment, bequeathed the gene of chosenness to his progeny. Avraham's children and grandchildren fought over the “chosen” status, while his great-grandchildren merit to have this status extended over the entire family. Nevertheless, the struggle among the brothers is not yet over, and it reaches its climax in the casting of Yosef into the pit. Are the brothers not aware that they are chosen? Does the fact that Yaakov took the trouble to bring them out of Charan and back to Eretz Yisrael, despite the threat of Esav's revenge, not prove to them that their fate will not be like that of Yishmael, who is banished by his father, or like that of Esav, who is dispossessed of his birthright and blessings? What are the brothers seeking to achieve by neutralizing Yosef's influence?


The stories about Yosef cover the final part of the history of the chosen individuals of Sefer Bereishit. The choice as to the family nucleus where the “Divine aspect” will be focused has already been made,[10] but the choice of leadership dynasty has yet to be decided. The stories of Yosef deal with the struggle among the brothers over the leadership. This struggle is overt in its early stages, but continues in a more covert manner in the descriptions of the actions and statements of the brothers once they have (seemingly) rid themselves of Yosef.


There are two potential leaders. The first is Reuven, who – as the firstborn – would seem to be the natural heir, but the episode concerning Bilha places his candidacy in question. The second is Yehuda, who is next in line once Shimon and Levi lose their chances at this sought-after position following their massacre of the men of Shekhem. The words and actions of Reuven and Yehuda are the only indications of this competition that are documented in the years in between the sale of Yosef and Yaakov's declaration as to the identity of the head of the royal dynasty – while in the background, without the brothers' knowledge, there also lurks Yosef's candidacy.[11] A comparison between Yehuda and Reuven demonstrates Yehuda's superior persuasive powers (his idea of selling Yosef supersedes Reuven's suggestions and his attempt to save him), his taking responsibility for misdeeds ("God has found the transgression of your servants," as opposed to, "Did I not tell you…"), and his better insight ("I shall be his surety," as opposed to, "Slay my two sons"). But the episode of Yehuda and Tamar, sitting in the midst of the story of the sale, threatens to tip the scale back in favor of the other two candidates. Does Yehuda's faulty conduct in this crisis not balance out his finer qualities and advantages, such that his chances for leadership are damaged?


Yaakov's decision, articulated in his blessing to Yehuda, becomes a firm fact with the anointing of David and the promise of the eternal dynasty as foretold by the prophet Natan:


"When your days are fulfilled and you sleep with your fathers, I shall set up your seed after you, those who will emerge from your bowels, and I shall establish his kingdom. He will build a House for My Name, and I shall make firm the throne of his kingdom forever. I shall be a father to him, and he will be a son to Me. If he transgresses, I shall chasten him with the rod of men and with the plagues that befall mortals. But My love shall not move from him as I removed it from Shaul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom will be established forever before you; your throne will be firm forever." (Shmuel II 7:12-16)


What remains, then, is for Chazal to explain the ultimate choice of Yehuda and to prove that Yehuda, "who was elevated through her,” fulfilled through his actions the Divine plan of creating the light of Mashiach. The story of Yehuda and Tamar is the decisive moment in which Yehuda is chosen as the sole candidate worthy of leadership from among Yaakov's twelve sons.


R. Elazar said: … Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, award the crown to Yehuda? After all, he was not the only mighty one among the brothers – for were Shimon and Levi, and the others, not mighty warriors? But he made a true judgment concerning Tamar, and was therefore made the judge for the entire world… How so? Yitzchak and Yaakov sat there, along with all his brothers, and they were covering for him, but Yehuda acknowledged the facts and stated the matter as it truly was, saying, “She has been more righteous than I” – and the Holy One, blessed be He, made him ruler." (Shemot Rabba 30:19)


The Historical Explanation


The exegetical explanation offered above raises the obvious question of why it is specifically the Sages of Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period who are such stanch defenders of Yehuda.


From various Talmudic testimonies it appears that in the early Talmudic period, the status of the office of Nasi was weakened. This resulted from the difficulty of adjusting to the absence of R. Yehuda ha-Nasi, who had displayed exemplary leadership, and the unfulfilled expectations that the leadership of his son and grandson (R. Yehuda Nesia) would continue to combine tremendous Torah knowledge with extensive and fruitful contacts with the Roman authorities. The general sense of frustration was further exacerbated by the increase of the tax burden during this period and the resulting bitterness towards the office of the Nasi, which was responsible for collection.[12]


The intensity of the displeasure is expressed openly:


R. Chama bar Chanina said: The son of David [i.e., the Mashiach] will not come until [this] petty monarchy passes from Israel. (Sanhedrin 98a)


The Nasi was regarded as being a descendant of the house of David.[13]It seems that during this period, there developed amongst the opposition to the Nasi a tendency to undermine the importance of Davidic lineage as a decisive parameter in the choice of leadership through demonstration of its deficiencies as documented in Tanakh. The mushrooming of defensive midrashim surrounding the story of Yehuda and Tamar (and in teachings about Ruth and about David) in the rabbinic literature originating in Eretz Yisrael during the early Talmudic period would therefore seem to be a response on the part of the supporters of the leadership to the attempts at deposing descendants of Davidic lineage from the seat of the Nasi by claiming that the dynasty itself was flawed. The story of Yehuda and Tamar proves that specifically in a clouded reality, in which the candidate's abilities are uncertain, we see the budding of the eternal royal dynasty in accordance with the Divine choice:


“And Yehuda saw there” – There is one who engaged in forbidden sexual relations and prospered, while another engaged in forbidden sexual relations and was lost… The one who was lost was Zimri, while the one who prospered was Yehuda, from whom there emerged Peretz and Chetzron, who would ultimately produce David and the King Mashiach, who is destined to redeem Israel. See how many twists and turns the Holy One, blessed be He, had to bring about for the King Mashiach – he of whom it is said, “And the spirit of God shall rest upon him” (Yeshayahu 11:2) - to be born of Yehuda. (Tanchuma [2], Vayeshev 13)


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] To this we must add the chronological problem arising from the mention of Peretz's sons, Chetzron and Chamul, Yehuda's grandsons, in the list of those who go down to Egypt (46:11), for it seems impossible for Yehuda to have married, borne children, and already seen grandchildren in the period of time between the sale of Yosef and the descent to Egypt – especially since the birth of Zerach and Peretz took place many years after Yehuda's marriage. Different solutions are proposed by the author of Seder Olam Rabba 2 and M.D. Cassuto, "Ma'aseh Yehuda Ve-Tamar," Tziyyunim Le-Zekher Y.N. Simchoni (Berlin, 5689), pp. 93-100.

[2]See Chizkuni's comment: "'And Yehuda went down from his brothers' – He took himself away, for he could not bear his father's sorrow.”

[3] See Seforno: "'And it was at that time' – At that time when Yosef was sold to Egypt by reason of Yehuda's counsel, for he had suggested selling Yosef and did not intend to return him, thereby bereaving his father. For this reason, Yehuda is repaid for his actions and he bears two sons who die, and he is left bereaved of both of them." R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments: "Here we have a sign of the tension or chasm that opened among the brothers in the wake of what they did to Yosef; this tension was directed mainly at Yehuda, who was apparently the most influential among them, and at whose suggestion and under whose direction the unfortunate event transpired. We see that Yehuda and his family suffered a terrible punishment…"

[4] In contrast to Rashi's second explanation, which suggests that Yehuda is chosen specifically because of this incident: "My son, you have risen' – also above killing Tamar, concerning whom you acknowledged, 'She has been more righteous than I.’"

[5] The teaching in the Tanchuma is based on its parallel in Bereishit Rabba 85, but is broadened and developed in light of the verse from Malakhi that serves as the framework of this teaching.

[6]In Bereishit Rabba 85 we find: "'The daughter of a Canaanite man' – The daughter of the local vegetable merchant.”

[7] Sota 10a: "R. Elazar taught: Concerning Shimshon, the text speaks of ‘going down' because he was humiliated there; concerning Yehuda the text speaks of 'going up' because he was elevated there.”

[8] The claim as to Tamar's ritual purity would seem to rest upon an interpretation of the term “petach ha-enayim” as the entrance to the spring (ma'ayan) in which she immersed herself.

[9]The expression, "These are the generations…" appears only twice in the entire Tanakh outside of Sefer Bereishit, where it appears 10 times (along with, “This is the book of the generations of man” [5:1]), indicating its status as a key expression in the sefer.

[10]According to R. Yehuda ha-Levi, Sefer ha-Kuzari, first ma'amar, 46-47.

[11] G. Eldad, in his article "Ha-Oz Ve-Ha-Anava – Bein Reuven Le-Yehuda," Megadim 35, pp. 25-32, discusses the expressions of the tension between the brothers by comparing their actions and the way the text describes their respective handling of the challenges that they face.

[12] For further discussion see G. Alon, Mechkarim Be-Toldot Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 5736), pp. 15-16; Y. L Levin, Ma'amad Ha-Chakhamim Be-Eretz Yisrael Be-Tekufat Ha-Talmud (Yad Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem, 5746).

[13] "The staff shall not depart from Yehuda…': R. Levi said: They found a genealogical record in Jerusalem, and it was written there that Hillel was a descendant of David" (Bereishit Rabba 98:8, p. 1259).