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Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (December 9, 2017)

Thoughts on Tamar

Judah got a wife for Er, his first-born; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother. But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and he took his life also.

— Genesis 38:6-10

Bettijane Eisenpreis

My mother-in-law attended Saturday morning services at Temple Emanu-El regularly. One day, she returned in a state of high agitation. “The Torah portion that the rabbi read this morning was very disturbing!” she exclaimed. “I hope they don’t teach portions like that to children! They are entirely unsuitable.”

I am not sure to what passage she was referring, but the story of Tamar could certainly qualify. It is sandwiched in Vayeishev between two parts of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Tamar was married consecutively to two of the sons of Judah, Er and Onan. When his brother Er, Tamar’s first husband died, Onan was obligated to marry Tamar and give her children. According to the custom called Levirate marriage, those children would be counted as Er’s, even though Onan was their actual father.

Onan did marry Tamar, but rather than have his offspring credited to his dead brother, he “spilled his seed on the ground,” a form of masturbation that is still called “onanism.” This was considered a sin, and Onan died as a result. Judah had one remaining son, Shelah, and because — with some justification — he thought it would be bad luck for him to marry Tamar. So Judah told Tamar to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah was grown.

Actually, Judah had no intention of letting Tamar marry Shelah, and Tamar must have figured that out. When she realized Judah would not make an honest woman of her, she posed as a cult prostitute and tricked him into having sex with her, taking his seal and staff as proof of his payment for her services. When Judah heard that Tamar was pregnant, he demanded that she be killed as a prostitute. But Tamar proved that the child was his by producing the seal and staff he had given her, and Judah admitted that she was right. Tamar lived to give birth to twins, one of whom, tradition says, was the progenitor of Kind David.

Judah is the one character who appears in both the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar. In neither tale is he wholly admirable, but he is not a complete villain either. It is he who suggests that the brothers sell Joseph to the Midianites rather than killing him, and he admits that Tamar is “more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

Both stories show Judah’s character at this point in his life. He saves the lives both of Joseph and Tamar but only after causing both of them significant trauma. He is beginning to mature, but he isn’t there yet. It is not until Parashat Vayigash that he comes into his own. The characters of Genesis may or may not have existed, but they are real people in the sense that they make mistakes and rise to great heights. That is certainly true of Judah, as we shall see.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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