Torah Readers Reflections

The amazing story of Tamar

Inconspicuously sandwiched between the dramatic events of Joseph’s story is a single chapter dedicated to a woman named Tamar. Tamar, it turns out, is an amazing woman who is often overlooked, yet she has so much to teach us and is the matriarch of the most important lineage in Jewish history.
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This essay is based off and inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ essay “Flames and Words”, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis page 259


This week I wanted to share the amazing story of Tamar. This is an episode that is often overlooked in the narrative. The story of Tamar and Judah is sandwiched between two major events in the story of Joseph. Genesis chapter 37 describes Joseph’s sale as a slave to the middianites and chapter 39 describes his arrival in Egypt. Right there, sandwiched in chapter 38, we find this strange, but very fundamental story of Tamar and Judah.


The chapter opens by telling us that Judah married a Canaanite woman by whom he had three children. The eldest, Er, married Tamar. It is implied that Tamar was a Canaanite woman, however the midrash tells us that she was in fact descended from Shem’s brother Ham and therefore not a Canaanite.


Er dies young, leaving Tamar a childless widow. Judah instructs his second son Onan to marry her. Onan, realizing that if he had a son with Tamar it would be regarded as his elder dead brothers, decides to not impregnate her and instead spills his seed. Since this is considered a sin, Onan also dies young. The proper thing would be for Judah to let his third son, Shelah marry Tamar, however he is reluctant to do so lest he also die. He promises Shelah to Tamar but insists that he is too young to marry at this point.

As the years go by Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention of letter her marry Shelah. She is now trapped as an “agunah” - chained woman. Unable to marry Shelah because of Judah’s fears and unable to marry any other man since she is legally bound to her brother in-law. Her plight concerns more than herself, it also means that she will be unable to bear children that will bear the name and lineage of her dead husband.


She decides on A very bold course of action. Hearing hat Judah will be passing by, she removes her widows garments and puts on a veil and sits at the crossroads. Judah sees her but does not recognize her. Midrash explains that Tamar was so modest that she always covered her face with a veil while she was married to Er and living in Judah’s house, therefore he didn’t recognize her since he had never seen her face. Judah assumes that Tamar is a prostitute. They negotiate a fair price - a young goat from the flock but Tamar insists on a security deposit. His seal, its coord and his staff. Judah agrees, they sleep together and the next day he sends a friend with the payment and to retrieve the deposit. She is nowhere to be found and the people tell him that there has been no prostitute in the area. Judah shrugs off the episode saying hat she can keep the security deposit lest it be known and he becomes a laughing stock.


Three months later people begin to notice that Tamar is pregnant. Since she has been kept far from Shelah the only assumption is that she slept with another man and is therefore guilty of adultery, a capital offense. According to Midrash a court was assembled that consisted of Isaac, Jacob and Judah. For lack of any other evidence they found her guilty and Judah demanded that she be burnt.

At this point in the story, the full subtlety of Tamar’s strategy becomes apparent.


As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father in-law. “The father of my child is the man to whom these things belong,” she said. “See if you recognize whose they are, this seal, this pattern of the cord, and this staff.” Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I did not give her to my son Shelah”.


With great ingenuity and boldness, Tamar has broken through the bind which Judah had placed her.She has fulfilled her duty to the dead. But no less significantly, she has spared Judah shame. By sending him a coded message - the security deposit - she has ensured that he will know that he himself is the father of the child, but that no one else will. To do this she took the enormous risk of being put to death for adultery.


Her behavior became a model. The rabbis inferred from her conduct a strong moral rule: “it is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his neighbor in public.” (Talmud Baba Metziah 59a).


Whoever shames his neighbor in public, is as if he shed his blood.

(Talmud Baba Metziah 58b)


One who publicly humiliates another, forfeits his place in the world to come.  

(Talmud Baba Metziah 59a).


The Talmud even includes the definition of “verbal oppression” the act of reminding a person of a past that they may find shameful.


Judaism is a religion of words. God created the natural world with words. We create - and sometimes Destry - the social world with words. That is one reason why Judaism has so strong an ethic speech. Another reason is to protect human dignity. Psychological injury may no less harmful - it is often even more so - than physical injury. Hence the rule: never humiliate, never put to shame, never take refuge in the excuse that they were only words, that no physical harm was done.

It says something about the Torah and Jewish spirituality that we learn this law from Tamar., a woman at the very edge of Israelite society, who risked her life rather than put her father in-law to shame.Loss of dignity is a kind of loss of life. It is no coincidence that it was this episode - Judah and Tamar - that began a family tree which seven generations later would include Ruth - who experienced a similar story to Tamar’s and ten generations later, David, Israel’s greatest king.

Tamar a childless widow, unable to remarry, was a person without position or power. Was it this that gave her unusual insight into the fact that psychological pain can be as serious as physical pain, that loss of dignity is a kind of loss of life? It says something about the nature of Jewish spirituality the the Torah attributes this moral greatness to her and not to a direct member of the covenantal family. The rabbis took her deed as a binding precedent for all of us.


Tamar took her sense of shame and used it sensitize herself to avoiding shaming others. Can we dare to do less than Tamar?



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