“Tamar: The Paradigm of an Heroic Woman”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we learn of Judah’s estrangement from his family after the sale of Joseph to Egypt.

In Genesis 38:1, the Torah tells us, “Vy’hee bah’ayt hah’hee, vah’yay’red Yehudah may’ayt eh’chahv,” And it was at that time, that Judah went down from his brothers. Judah leaves home and befriends an Adullamite man whose name is Chirah. Soon after, Judah sees the daughter of Shua and marries her. Together, they have three sons, Er, Onan, and Shela.

Judah takes a wife for Er, his firstborn son, whose name is Tamar. Er is evil in the eyes of G-d, and dies. Onan then enters into a levirate marriage with Tamar, and he too dies. After these two horrific losses, Judah instructs his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to return to her father’s house and remain there as a widow until his youngest son, Shela, grows up. But he really has no intention of ever giving Shela to the woman who has already buried his two older sons.

Eventually, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, also dies, and Judah goes with his Adullamite friend, Chirah, to Timnah to oversee the sheep-shearers. Tamar disguises herself as a harlot, has relations with her father-in-law, Judah, and returns home.

When reports later reach Judah that his daughter-in-law has been unfaithful and is now pregnant, he instructs the people to take her out and burn her alive. As she was taken out, she sends a message to her father-in-law, along with his seal, wrap, and staff that he had given her as security at their encounter, and says, “Identify, if you please, to whom these belong.”

Judah, who could have denied all since he now held all the evidence in his hands, nevertheless, utters two most fateful words (Genesis 38:26), “Tzadkah mee’meh’nee!” She is more righteous than I! He publicly admits that he made Tamar pregnant. Tamar gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach. The eldest, Peretz, even becomes the progenitor of King David. (For a more detailed analysis of this story, see Vayeishev 5762-2001).

Despite her “radical” behavior, or perhaps because of it, Tamar is widely regarded as a heroic figure. There is no question that Tamar would have been entirely justified to publicly identify Judah as the man who had impregnated her. Instead, she privately confronts Judah with the evidence. From here our sages learn (Sota 10b) that it is preferable for a person to be cast into a fiery furnace rather than embarrass another person publicly. For this alone, Tamar deserves extreme adulation!

It is not only the rabbis who regard Tamar with great respect. The Bible itself casts Tamar in a very special light. When the Moabite convert, Ruth, bears Boaz’s child, the well-wishers express their blessings by saying (Ruth 4:12), “Let thy house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore unto Judah, of the seed which the L-rd shall give you of this young woman.”

Several commentators point out the strong parallels between Ruth and Tamar. After the death of Ruth’s first husband, there was no one left for her to marry, so she agrees to marry Boaz, an older relative of the previous generation. Tamar, too, when her two husbands pass away, founds a family by joining with Judah, also a member of the previous generation. Both of these marriages constitute an unusual form of levirate marriage.

Both Ruth, the Moabite, and Tamar, possibly a Canaanite (although our rabbis maintain that she was a descendant of Shem, the son of Noah), yearned to marry a man from the lineage of Judah. Their desire to marry was not so much to bear a child, (although that factor must not be minimized) but, rather, to be connected to the people of Israel, the G-d of Israel, and apparently to what was the prevailing belief at that time, that the Messiah would emerge from the family of Judah.

Both Ruth and Tamar were extremely proactive. Ruth, however, had Naomi orchestrating many of her moves, while Tamar seems to be entirely independent.

All this is in stark contrast to Judah’s wife, whose name we never learn. She is only known as “the daughter of Shua.” Judah’s wife bears child after child after child, and then, after what appears to be a premature death, disappears from the scene. Her relationship with Judah does not seem to have been very good. After the birth of the first child, Judah calls the child Er (Genesis 38:3). After the birth of the second child, Judah’s wife calls the child Onan (Genesis 38:4). When the third child is born, it is again Judah’s wife who names the child, calling him Shela, which means to have been deceived (Genesis 38:5). At the time of Shela’s birth, Judah is nowhere to be found, he is off in Chezib while his wife is delivering. We see the increasing estrangement of Judah from his wife, as he distances himself from both her, and it appears his children as well.

Furthermore, it is Judah alone who chooses Tamar, the bride for his sons. Judah’s wife, the mother of the children, is never mentioned. It is Judah who tells Tamar to go home to her father and wait for Shela to grow up. Again Shela’s mother’s voice is never heard. We also see that when Judah’s wife dies Judah is comforted by running up to Timnah to be with his buddy, Chira the Adullamite, and is only too happy to procure a harlot. All this hardly indicates a healthy marital relationship.

If we were to look at and analyze Judah’s growth and emergence as a formidable leader in Israel, we find many clues about who Judah was and who he became. Even early on, Judah was a powerful personality, and probably extremely charismatic. How else can we explain the fact that his brothers listen to him, and agree to sell Joseph, rather than listen to Reuben, the eldest brother, or Simeon and Levi, who were also forceful personalities.

Later on, in Egypt, we see that it is Judah who personally confronts his brother, Joseph, offering to serve as a slave in place of Benjamin. Who else, but a future king, would so boldly confront the second most powerful man in all of Egypt.

It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the daughter of Shua is completely submerged by her powerful, charismatic husband. Tamar, too, was left bereaved and bereft after the death of her two husbands, and greatly embarrassed that Judah’s youngest son, Shela, was not given to her as a husband, as had been promised. Yet, despite her constant misfortunes, Tamar is never overwhelmed, and takes things into her own hands, and powerfully, yet without being confrontational, redirects the course of history by bearing Judah’s child.

The commentators speculate why Tamar was so keen about bearing a child from the line of Judah. They suggest that Tamar may have already heard what had happened back in Canaan in Jacob’s family, and that neither Reuben, Simeon or Levi had the qualities to assume leadership, and, of course, Joseph was now missing. The writer, Thomas Mann, suggests that the blessing of leadership that Jacob conferred on Judah on his deathbed (Genesis 49:10) was perhaps public knowledge in the house of Jacob, and as such, was already known to Tamar. Whatever the source, Tamar was determined to be part of that destiny.

We can learn much from Tamar’s heroism. While she was proactive and bold, Tamar was never in-your-face. It is more her passive heroism that is remembered, rather than her bold actions. And yet, through these quiet but bold actions, she achieves much more than many mighty warriors. She becomes the mother of Peretz, the progenitor of King David, and the grandmother of the Messiah.

Perhaps it is an indication to us that the Messiah will arrive through passive heroism, rather than aggressive and militant actions.

May you be blessed.