The Mystery of Tamar

A short synopsis of the Tamar story (Genesis 38):

Tamar marries Er, the son of Judah, son of Yaakov and Leah. Er dies. She marries the next brother Onan, as the widow of a brother with no children should marry the younger brother. He dies. She is then supposed to marry Shelah, the younger brother. Judah is reluctant to give her Shelah. She is told to act like a widow. Tamar dresses like a prostitute and seduces Judah. In the process, she asks for his staff, signet and cord and takes them. Judah does not know she is Tamar. Tamar gets pregnant. She is ordered to be burnt to death. She brings out the staff, signet and cord and says, whose are these. Judah responds: "She is more righteous than I, for I didn't give her to Shelah." And then Tamar gives birth to twins, Zerah and Perez. Zerah sticks his hand out first, gets a red string put on it. But Perez comes out first completely. Perez is the ancestor of King David.

So my question on my previous post on Tamar was: Why does Tamar merit to become the ancestress of King David?

Rashi says it was because of modesty. Judah did not recognize her because she covered herself up while in his house. Does this mean a physical modesty? Or maybe she just kept to herself? Or perhaps it’s the way she presented his staff, signet and cord: she could have accused him outright, but she set it up so he could either reveal himself, as he did, or he could deny it, which he chose not to do.

We can understand this story as a growth of Judah’s character; it is juxtaposed to the sale of his brother Joseph for a reason. Judah did not behave well in the sale of Joseph (one could add he did not behave well in withholding Shelah from Tamar as well). At the end of this story, however, he does the right thing by Tamar in admitting that it was his staff, signet and cord and thus he was the one who had impregnated her. You can read more about Judah as penitential man in Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s post.

Getting back to Tamar, I do find it strange that someone who dresses as a prostitute is considered righteous and a role model. But I suppose she knew she needed to carry the ancestor of David, and she knew it should be from Judah.

 Tamar discussed on Eishes Chayil website (at the very end, Tamar is compared to Leah, a nice comparison of women who struggled)

 Josh Waxman on the parallels between the two Tamars

 Ilana-Davita explores sibling rivalry and jealousy this week.

Thank you to Augustus John for his help with the watercolor.

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13 thoughts on “The Mystery of Tamar

  • maybe King David’s ancestors were not meant to be perfect.
    Cabbalistically, in order to redeem the whole world moshiach should start at the lowest level and work up. By having his maternal line be from incest (Moav, the ancestor of Ruth) and his paternal line from Judah and Tamar (Peretz) that goal is achieved.

  • Larry, I like your low level and move up way of looking at this. It’s better than elevating everything from the time of the Avot to high standards of perfection.

    Ilana-Davita and Lorri, thank you for admiring my watercolor.

  • I always remember being impressed by this one, with Yehuda sticking up for Tamar. I liked this story when I learned it.

    I think that when she seduced him, it wasn’t that she was being a prostitue. It’s like regular husband and wife, Hashem says that a wife is supposed to be beautiful for her husband. So here Tamar was making herself beautiful for Yehuda cause she knew she was going to have children threw him. Also, by Ruth, Naomi told her to make herself beautiful and to go to Boaz.

  • Jewish Side, I gather in those days having intercourse with someone was enough to say one was married. It’s not like today, where we have a ketubah and formal ceremony. But it does seem like (and I believe commentators back this up) that she acted as prostitutes of those days did. I see similarities and differences with the Ruth/Boaz story. Thanks for that analogy.

  • Jewish Side, sometimes you just have to leave something as a question. I did like Larry’s response, of “Cabbalistically, in order to redeem the whole world moshiach should start at the lowest level and work up.”

  • I once heard that the Davidic dynasty had to be established through an ‘interesting’ manner- as otherwise the Satan might have intervened.
    Also- she was modest in the fact that she would have rather been burnt on the stake rather than reveal the father of her twins. She was reluctant to embarass Yehuda in public- as he had done something wrong by not giving her to his youngest son, even though she knew she had to establish the Davidic dynasty.

  • NMF, yes, she did set it up so as not to embarrass Yehuda, and she gave him the option of not admitting it was his staff and ring.

    The “Satan intervening” part sounds rather eerie.

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