Yehuda and Tamar - A Story Within a Story?

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Yehuda and Tamar – A Story Within a Story?

By Rav Elchanan Samet



Parashat Vayeshev is the beginning of the longest story in all of the Torah: the story of Yosef and his brothers, which continues until the end of sefer Bereishit. We do not mean to imply by this that it is a single story in the full sense of the word; on the contrary, this lengthy narrative is clearly divided into several literary sub-units. Each of these has its own subject and its own literary style, as expressed in all the parameters of the biblical story: in structure, in unique style, and in the focus on central characters in a place and at a time that are both well defined.

How, then, does the story of Yosef and his brothers represent a single story? Only in one central dimension: in the continually developing plot that stretches from the beginning of our parasha to the end of the sefer. In other words, we cannot join this story in the middle, because each small literary sub-unit is built on those parts of the plot that preceded it, and unfamiliarity with them will make it impossible for us to understand what is going on.

This has a dual meaning for the person studying this section. On the one hand, he must continue to ask himself what are the boundaries of the single, smaller story in relation to the larger story (keeping in mind that each of these sub-units is approximately the length of an average biblical narrative). This smaller story must be treated as the basic unit, with its own message, and we must delve into its analysis and probe its message just as we have done with every story until now.

On the other hand, the student of this section now has a new task, arising from the special, new literary situation in which he finds himself: he must seek the subject of the greater story in which all of these smaller units are placed like a mosaic. The unity of plot of the greater story points to its unity of direction and message. But the complexity of the plot, and the fact that it is drawn out over so many literary sub-units, may make us lose sight of the forest for the trees. The fascinating sub-plots may at times conceal the principal message that unifies them all into a single long story. In searching for the subject that unifies the story, the student must remember that the subject of each smaller unit contributes to the general topic and is absorbed in it. By this we mean not that every sub-unit is absorbed in the PLOT – which is obvious, but rather that it is absorbed in the MESSAGE of the story as a whole.


I opened with the above general introduction to the story of Yosef and his brothers specifically because this shiur will address what appears to be an independent narrative "island" within the greater story. The story of Yehuda and Tamar in chapter 38 follows the first literary unit in the greater story – chapter 37, which is a dramatic opening, containing the thematic foundation for the entire story of Yosef and his brothers. But chapter 38 cuts short the continuity of the narrative by presenting an independent story that is unrelated to what happens either prior to it or thereafter.

The complete answer to the question will reveal itself over the course of three shiurim; this time I shall focus on the meaning of the story of Yehuda and Tamar itself, and on how – from a literary angle – it serves as a necessary complement to the story of Yosef and his brothers. In Parashat Miketz I shall deal with the larger story of Yosef and his brothers, and thereafter I shall return to the connection between the subject of Yehuda and Tamar and the subject of the larger story. Finally, in Parashat Vayigash I shall complete our discussion of the connection.


The story opens with a formal opening formulation – "And it was, at that time," the likes of which we find also in chapters 21 and 22. This formulation may hint at the proximity in time to what was previously narrated.


The first action that takes place in the story is that "Yehuda went down from his brothers and went in to a man from Adullam, named Chira." The significance of this "going down" is, first and foremost, geographical: Yehuda descended from Chevron, which sits atop the Judean mountains, to the region of the hills lying between the Judean plain and the mountains.

The text does not explain why Yehuda went down from his brothers, who remained with their father in Chevron. In any event, Yehuda interacts with the Canaanite environment in several ways: he pitches his tent in the vicinity of the Canaanite city of Adullam, close to Chira – his Adullamite friend; he is also a work partner of this friend (verse 12); he marries a woman who is "the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shu'a" whom he saw "there" in Adullam, and it turns out that Tamar herself is also a local Canaanite woman.

What is the meaning of all of this? Were the daughters of Canaan not loathsome to the forefathers (28:8)? This difficulty prompts several of the Sages, starting from the Targum Yonatan and the Targum Onkelos, to conclude that neither the daughter of Shu'a nor Tamar were Canaanite in origin, and that Yaakov's other sons likewise did not marry Canaanite women.

The literal text would seem to point in the direction adopted by R. Nehemia in Bereishit Rabba (84:21): Yaakov's sons were no longer required to exercise such stringency in the matter of marrying wives from their extended family in Charan, which had been observed strictly by Avraham and Yitzchak. The difference here, from the generation of Yaakov's children onwards, is related to the difference in the circumstances of their marriages: Yitzchak and Yaakov were lone individuals; had they married local Canaanite women, they may have ended up assimilating into their Canaanite families. Yaakov's family, in contrast, was by this stage already a large clan, and any woman that a son of Yaakov would marry would become part of this family.

If we are correct in the above hypothesis, then we must conclude that this "going down" on the part of Yehuda in no way changed his feeling of belonging to the greater family which he now left, temporarily.

Three sons are born to Yehuda from the daughter of Shu'a, and the pace of the narrative would suggest that they are born in close succession. The names of these sons all hint at what will happen to them in the future.


The borders of this section are determined, interestingly enough, by the movements of the secondary, passive character here: Tamar. At the beginning of the section (verse 6) Yehuda brings her into his home as a wife for Er, his firstborn, and at its conclusion (11) he sends her back to her father's house.

Er appears to die because of his sin (the nature of which is not made clear in the text) a short time after marrying Tamar. Yehuda commands Onan, his second son, to fulfill his duty of levirate marriage to Tamar in order to establish a continuity for his brother, who died without children. It therefore appears that this institution of levirate marriage (yibbum) existed among Israelites and the nations even before the giving of the Torah. This, indeed, is the conclusion drawn by Ramban (38:8).

The commandment in the Torah, then, comes only to establish the exact definition: that the commandment to marry the wife of the deceased applies specifically to the brother of the deceased; that it is specifically concerning him – but not the other relatives of the deceased! – that the prohibition of sexual relations with relatives, which would usually apply to their relationship, is removed; that the woman who is now in the position of requiring a levirate marriage is prohibited from marrying anyone else (other than the brother of her deceasedhusband) and that she msubsequently be permitted to marry someone else, if the brother has no wish to marry her, by means of the ceremony of "chalitza."

Like many customs similar to that of levirate marriage that have prevailed in the world until today, the situation described in our story does not fit the mitzva in the Torah in several of its details:

i. Although from Yehuda's words (both to Onan and to Tamar) it would seem that it is the brother who will marry her, from Tamar's deed and from Yehuda's reaction to it ("She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shela, my son") we learn that where yibbum could not be performed by a brother, it could be performed by the father. (Nevertheless, in this instance, "he did not know here again," for in this case there was indeed a brother, but Yehuda had not allowed him to fulfill his duty.)

ii. It appears that the woman requiring yibbum could under no circumstances be permitted to marry outside of the family of her deceased husband. If this were not so, then why did Yehuda let Tamar understand that she would, in the future, be married to Shela his son? He could have "released" her from her state of inability to marry through the regular procedure.

iii. The status of a woman requiring yibbum was similar to that of a married woman, and if she prostituted herself she was punished with death ("Take her out and let her be burned"). According to Torah law, in contrast, this woman is subject to a prohibition – "The wife of the deceased shall not be married to an outsider" – which is not included in the laws of "arayot" (forbidden sexual relations) and their attendant punishments.

Onan refuses to fulfill his obligation of yibbum because he knows that "the seed [that will be born from Tamar] will not be his;" the child will be considered the descendant of his deceased brother. What he does in order to prevent Tamar from becoming pregnant – although unknown to Yehuda – is clearly evil in the eyes of God, and he, too, dies.

Now Tamar should be married, through yibbum, to Shela, who is still too young to marry, and she must therefore wait until he matures. This is indeed what Yehuda tells her, but the text testifies that this was not his real intention: "For he said, 'Lest he (Shela), too, die – like his brothers.'" In effect, Yehuda sentences Tamar to a lifetime of "aginut" (a status whereby a woman is legally unable to remarry) without saying so openly.

On what basis does Yehuda fear this outcome? There can be no doubt that he believed that Shela would be in danger of his life were he to marry her, given her history with his two brothers. A beraita (Yevamot 64b) seems to justify his fear:

"If a woman is married to the first - and he dies, then to the second son – and he dies, she shall not be married to the third."

The woman is referred to as an "isha katlanit," a "deadly woman" who has a record of bringing death to her husbands, and therefore she is not to be permitted to marry again. At the time of our story this was not yet the firmly established practice, for had it been so, Yehuda simply could have told Tamar why he really had no wish for her to marry his third son. In any event, this was Yehuda's motive: the fear that Tamar was a "deadly woman." Tamar herself may even have understood this and known that Yehuda was putting her off with excuses, with no real intention of allowing her marriage to Shela later on.

What does the text tell us about this fear of Yehuda, and about his deed (or lack thereof) resulting from it? The answer is clear: it was not Tamar who caused the death of Yehuda's first two sons; rather, the Torah says explicitly that each of them died because of his own sins. Although Yehuda had no knowledge of his sons' sins, by preventing Tamar from marrying Shela he was not acting properly and honestly. He eventually admits this himself: "She has been more righteous than I, for I did not give her to Shela, my son." In other words, "I should have given her to Shela, my son, without suspecting her of being a 'deadly woman.'" Even when he says this, Yehuda still has no idea of the true reason for his sons' deaths, but it is clear from the story that the suspicion of Tamar being a "deadly woman" had been unfounded, for Yehuda was embarrassed to admit to it at the time that this suspicion guided his actions, and he regretted it afterwards. The Torah likewise testifies that this suspicion was groundless, for Er and Onan clearly died because of their own sins.

Hence, one of the messages that arises from the story is opposition to the concept of a "deadly woman." How, then, are we to explain the beraita quoted above? The Rambam addresses this question in a most important responsum (#218 in the Blau edition). The Rambam was consulted for a ruling concerning a woman who was widowed for the second time and refused to marry the brother of her second husband (who had died without children). In such a situation, was it at all permissible for the woman to be married again by levirate marriage (in which case her refusal would render her rebellious), or was she forbidden to undergo yibbum because twice she had been married and widowed (in which case her refusal to marry the brother had no significance). The Rambam answers as follows:

"I am greatly astonished by these honored Torah scholars… who assume such a level of prohibitions, making no distinction between the prohibition from the Torah and prohibitions of rabbinical origin, and what is simply not approved of but concerns no prohibition (i.e., marriage to a woman who has been widowed twice). And what is even more surprising in the question is your comparison of the case of a danger to life posed by something certain [i.e. the question of performing circumcision on a baby whose two brothers died following this procedure] to the possible danger to life that is supposed only through divining and witchcraft and imaginings, where in some rare instances would have a real effect on people of weak constitution [i.e. those who believe her to be dangerous could be injured psychosomatically]… In our opinion this woman with her record is not recommended for marrying, but THERE IS NO PROHIBITION INVOLVED AT ALL… and the practical ruling in all the area of Andalusia is always that if a woman is widowed of husband after husband, a number of times, she should not be prevented from remarrying, especially if she is still youthful… How can we place daughters of Israel in danger of becoming involved in evil culture? And for us, the practice is… to say to her explicitly: 'If you find someone who will marry you, we will not force him to divorce you; it will depend on you alone.' And then the woman and her groom go out and are betrothed (kiddushin) in front of two witnesses, and afterwards she comes to the Beit Din and they write her a ketuba (marriage contract) and she enters under the wedding canopy, and the Beit Din recite the 'seven blessings,' since she has already been betrothed. So did the Beit Din of the Rif, and so did the Beit Din of his student Rabbenu Yosef HaLevi ibn Megash, as well as all those who follow them, and so we ourselves have instructed and practiced in Egypt since arriving here.

All of this applies even where there is no mitzva involved, i.e., in the case of a regular marriage. How much more so in an instance of yibbum should this claim not be brought against her (i.e., that she is a 'deadly woman'), and a Torah-ordained mitzva should not be put aside for such considerations. We have never heard of such an idea; I would never have thought that such a thing could be imagined by anyone of proper intelligence… this brother-in-law has the same law applying to him as any other brother-in-law of a deceased who left no children, and the woman shall be married by levirate marriage…."

The Rambam views the "deadly woman" as presenting a danger to her third husband only if he believes in that superstition, in which case his fear would cause him to become ill or to die. But there is no real danger, and the brother of the second husband should certainly not put aside the mitzva of yibbum for this reason. The could well have adduced proof from the story oTamar, where Yehuda feared Shela would be hurt by this "deadly woman," but the Torah itself tells us that she had not caused her husbands' deaths, and Yehuda himself admits as much later.


Let us skip to verses 24-26. Once Tamar's pregnancy becomes noticeable, "It was told to Yehuda, saying: Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has prostituted herself." This instance of "it was told" balances the previous instance of the expression in our story (13): "And it was told to Tamar, saying: Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timna to shear his sheep." The consequences of this "telling" lead to the outcome and the "telling" described here.

Yehuda pronounces her judgment, and Tamar is taken out to be burned. Now comes her great moment, the moment to which all of her actions have been directed. The signs of Yehuda's identity – the seal, the cord and the staff – are sent to Yehuda as proof that he is the father of Tamar's unborn child. Tamar has not "prostituted herself," but rather has arranged her own levirate marriage; she has become pregnant not from harlotry, but rather from the person who prevented her yibbum because of his unfounded and unjustified fears, through "divining and witchcraft and imaginings."

Yehuda justifies Tamar's actions and confesses openly to his unjust treatment of her. The section concludes with the words, "and he knew her no more." The literal meaning would seem to be that he had no further relations with her since, in a case where there exists a brother of the deceased, yibbum was not usually practiced by the father. Tamar has lost the possibility of marrying Shela, and she will not be married to Yehuda either; she has gained only the twins that she is carrying. The seal, the cord and the staff of Yehuda are within her, even if they have been returned to him.


Twice in Sefer Bereishit we find a description of the birth of twins. Both instances of birth are preceded by a period of longing for motherhood that has not yet been fulfilled: in Rivka's case because of her barrenness, and in Tamar's case because of the death of her two husbands and Yehuda's consequent mistreatment of her.

The birth of twins expresses a bursting forth of fertility that comes to compensate for the lack of children until that time – and in both instances also for the fact that no further children will be born.

The struggle between the twin brothers in our story concerning who was born first is most reminiscent of the struggle between Yaakov and Esav at their birth. But there the battle began AFTER the birth, and it was decided only much later on, when Yaakov fought against the "man" (the angel of Esav). In our story, the battle is miraculously decided while the twins are still in the womb, with the child claiming to be the firstborn bursting first from his mother's womb, thereby acquiring the natural firstborn rights. This bursting forth saves both his mother and the Israelite nation as a whole much indecision and controversy.


The story is divided fairly clearly into seven sections. The fourth section (16-18) is of highlighted importance: here the fateful encounter between Tamar and Yehuda takes place, an encounter that concludes with, "He gave (them) to her, and he came to her, and she became pregnant by him." The importance of this section is recognizable not only in the decisive incident that takes place, but also in the fact that this is the only real encounter between Yehuda and Tamar where there is a dialogue between them. In both other places where they are to be found together (in the second section and in the sixth, which – as we shall see – actually correspond to one another), there is no dialogue, but rather only monologue, and the speech in each of these two cases precedes a parting of their ways. In verse 11 of the second section, Yehuda speaks to Tamar, and she obeys silently and parts from his family. In verse 25 of the sixth section, Tamar speaks to Yehuda (via a messenger), and his reaction (which is not conveyed to her), "She has been more righteous than I," immediately leads to "And he knew her no more."

The fourth section is therefore the "central axis" of the story, dividing it into two halves that correspond to one another in inverse symmetry. This section serves as the "central axis" in precisely the manner that we have defined the concept on a number of occasions: the events of the first half of the story are aimed at bringing about this fateful encounter between Yehuda and Tamar; the events of the second half result from that encounter, and the encounter itself represents the most dramatic and important event in the story -a turning point in the development of the plot.

We may depict the structure of the story as follows:


1. i (1-5) Birth of Yehuda's three sons

2. ii (6-11) deaths of Er and Onan without children, Tamar sent away

3. iii (12-14) preparations for Tamar's encounter with Yehuda

4. iv (16-18) the fateful encounter

5. iii (19-23) Tamar's return to previous situation

6. ii (24-26) Tamar's "trial," cancellation of her death sentence

7. i (27-30) birth of the twins


There is a clear parallel between each pair of sections surrounding the central axis.

The correspondence between sections 1 and 7 seems clear enough – in one case three sons are born to Yehuda in quick succession; in the other case, two are born to him together. But the essential parallel between them turns out to be inverse: two of Yehuda's three sons are destined to die, and the names of all three hint at unpleasant things associated with them. The twins born at the end of the story, in contrast, will live: they come as replacements for Er and Onan, and their names – Peretz and Zerach – have only positive connotations.

The correspondence between sections 2 and 6 likewise seems clear: in both sections there is death that comes as a punishment for various sins. In section 2 it is Yehuda's two sons who die by the hand of heaven as punishment for their sins, while poor Tamar is sent away from Yehuda's house as a troubled, childless widow who is blamed for the deaths of her husbands. In section 6 Tamar is accused of prostitution and is sentenced to death, together with the twins in her womb. But here, again, the parallel is, obviously, inverse – from every angle. The sins of Er and Onan are genuine, and therefore they pay with their lives. Tamar's "sin" is fictitious and therefore her life is saved. Another inverse parallel concerns Yehuda's attitude towards Tamar: in section 2 he sends her away so that when Shela matures she can be given to him as a wife, but in truth he has no intention of allowing this. In section 6 Yehuda admits that he has wronged Tamar in this respect – "She has been more righteous than I, for I did not give her to Shela, my son." This admission by Yehuda also represents the evaporation of the suspicion that it was Tamar who caused the deaths of her husbands, for it is now clear with absolute certainty that Tamar is not a "deadly woman" but rather – on the contrary – one who brings new life to the world, and is establishing the seed of the house of Yehuda.

The parallel between sections 3 and 5 is quite clearly inverse:

Section 3: (14) "And she removed THE GARMENTS OF HER WIDOWHOOD from upon her, and covered herself with a veil…

Section 5: (19) "And she removed HER VEIL from upon her and wore THE GARMENTS OF HER WIDOWHOOD…"

In both cases Tamar misleads Yehuda by wearing clothing that is inappropriate to her at that time.

Now we must clarify what the subject of the story is. It seems that we may take, as the definition of the subject, an expression taken from the story itself (38:5): IT IS A STORY ABOUT ESTABLISHING SEED. Countering the threat of seed being cut off and the destruction of an important branch of Yaakov's household (namely, that of Yehuda), our story comes to teach how the obstacles were overcome, and Yehuda's seed was, finally, established.

In the background, almost from the beginning of the story to the e, stands yibbum as a legal, social and religious institution. This fits in well withe subject of the story, for yibbum is the means here for dealing with the danger of a person being cut off from his family without leaving children.

The scale for evaluating both characters and actions in our story is the same: to what extent do they promote or hinder the realization of the goal – establishment of seed for the family of Yehuda?

What brings upon Yehuda's family this chain of disasters and the question mark that hangs over its continued existence? There is one sin that is explicit in the text – the sin of Onan: instead of fulfilling his duty of levirate marriage to Tamar in order to ESTABLISH HIS BROTHER'S SEED, he destroys his seed "so as not to give seed to his brother," and for this reason God punishes him with death.

Even Yehuda himself, while not knowing the reason for his sons' deaths, becomes a partner, to some extent, in this sin of failing to establish seed: because of a false suspicion he sends his daughter-in-law Tamar away to her father's house and prevents the yibbum from taking place through Shela. This deed is both cruel and unjust towards Tamar, and also represents the halting of the process of establishing seed for his family. Yehuda's punishment – measure for measure – is that his wife dies; a person who leaves a woman in her status of widowhood needlessly is punished by becoming a widower himself.

Tamar is the only character who is elevated above all the other characters in the story as someone who fights for her motherhood in the house of Yehuda, a struggle that also involves the rehabilitation of this household through establishing its seed. Through her intricately-planned and clever actions she causes Yehuda, AGAINST HIS WILL, to establish the seed of his family and to establish seed also for his sons, who died childless. This, too, is part of Yehuda's punishment: he is forced to do in a most unrespectable way what he was obligated to do in a respectable way.

Divine Providence was with Tamar in all that she did: she was afforded a rare combination of circumstances, which could be exploited only in the most cunning way to bring about her pregnancy through Yehuda. Tamar's actions are successful at all stages – starting with the fact that Yehuda is fooled by her disguise, then the fact that she falls pregnant immediately, and culminating in her life (and that of her fetuses) being saved. But the greatest success of all awaits us at the end of the story: the birth of the twins – a bursting forth of the blessing of seed, removing the question-mark that had hovered over Yehuda's household.

This meaning of the story likewise arises from the analysis of its structure, as explained above. Section 4 represents the "central axis" not because it contains the interpersonal encounter between Yehuda and Tamar, but rather because it contains the crux of the story's message: here the seed of Yehuda's house is established.

The inverse parallel between sections 2 and 4, as discussed above, comes to teach us that the failure to establish seed brings punishment and destruction upon the sinners, while she who established seed – even though it was achieved by means of an extreme and dangerous cunning, which brought Tamar's life into terrible danger – was ultimately saved, and her righteousness publicly recognized. Moreover, the person who prevented Tamar from establishing Yehuda's seed in section 2 found himself a partner, against his will, in establishing seed with her, and publicly acknowledges this in section 6. Furthermore, she who was banished from Yehuda's house as a "deadly woman" eventually - through her efforts to establish seed – merited recognition as a wife and mother who brings forth life. The contrast between these two sections also illuminates the contrast between sections 1 and 7.

Only the parallel between sections 3 and 5, which is technically inverse, truly reflects their essential equivalence: both describe Tamar's success in all her attempts to mislead Yehuda.


Let us now turn our attention to the way in which this story fits in with its literary context – the story about Yosef and his brothers, which surrounds it on both sides.

The larger story continually shifts back and forth from narrating the events of Yosef's life to that of his brothers, all the while moving forward on the axis of time. The shifts of focus are not synchronic but rather diachronic: the story does not describe, for example, what the brothers were doing WHILE the events previously described were happening to Yosef, but rather picks up the time-line from where it had just left off. The one exception to this is the transition from chapter 37 to 38 to 39. Chapters 37 and 39 narrate Yosef's story, and 39 picks up exactly where 37 had ended. Chapters 39-41 recount more than twenty years of Yosef's life in Egypt, and we are left without information about what had been occurring in Yaakov's family in Canaan. To avoid this imbalance in focus, chapter 38 (Yehuda and Tamar) narrates events concurrent with those of Yosef's enslavement in Egypt. In this case, the desire to present a balanced portrayal of the two parts of the divided family outweighs the desire to maintain this description on a continuous, non-synchronous time-line.

Over how long a period does chapter 38 stretch? Certainly no less than twenty years, for it follows a change of generation: at the beginning of the story Yehuda marries a woman and has children, and at the end we read of the birth of Peretz and Zerach who, theoretically, could have been Yehuda's grandsons from Shela, his third son, who is already grown and could have married Tamar. When Tamar meets Yehuda, he is still living apart from the rest of his family, in the region of Adullam and Timna. But a relatively short time thereafter we find him back amongst his family, joining his brothers in their descent to Egypt.

Thus, the story of Yehuda and Tamar takes place PARALLEL to the story of Yosef in Egypt, described in chapters 39-41, during the same twenty years or more.

Here we come to a number of questions which we shall answer in the shiurim to follow, on parashot Miketz and Vayigash:

i. Why does the text choose to describe the experiences of Yaakov's family in Canaan during those twenty years specifically by focusing on Yehuda, who "went down from his brothers," and not by describing the rest of the brothers?

ii. The list of the seventy souls who went down to Egypt damages the claim to chronology that we have maintained concerning the story of Yehuda and Tamar and its place within the story of Yosef and his brothers. (We shall address this issue in our study of Parashat Vayigash.)

iii. We have clarified here the subject of the story of Yehuda and Tamar, but ultimately we have not found how the subject of this story fits in with the subject of the larger story of Yosef and his brothers. To access a full answer to the question, we shall have to address the subject of the larger story, and that will be the subject of the shiur next week.


(Translated by Kaeren Fish.

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