Judah and Tamar's Troubling Story: The Important Significance | Aleph Beta

Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!

The Troubling Story Of Judah And Tamar

Immanuel Shalev


Is this a chapter in Genesis or an episode of Game of Thrones?! In Parshat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1–40:23) the story of Joseph's drama with his brothers is put on hold for us to learn about Judah and Tamar's seemingly scandalous rendezvous. Why are we hearing about this story now? What does it mean and what can it possibly add to our understanding of the Joseph story?

For more on Judah and Tamar: The ‘Scandalous’ Backstory of Boaz and Ruth


David: Welcome to Parshat Vayeishev. This week's parsha begins the epic saga of Joseph. In fact, the Sale of Joseph and its aftermath really takes us through the end of the book of Genesis. There are 14 chapters left to the book, and almost all of them are about Joseph.

Immanuel: Almost all of them. There's one chapter that seems to totally interrupt the Joseph story. Listen carefully to the 20-second recap and see if you can spot a digression:

  • Jacob gives Joseph a coat
  • Joseph shares dreams which imply that he'll rule over his brothers
  • The brothers get really jealous, and they eventually sell Joseph
  • Tamar dresses like a prostitute and conceives a child with Judah
  • Joseph ends up in Egypt and becomes master in Potiphar's home
  • Potiphar's wife frames Joseph and he's sent to Jail
  • In Jail, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of a butler and baker.

David: Did you catch that? Right after the Sale of Joseph, before we hear about Joseph's life in Egypt… we hear the strange digression of the story of Judah and Tamar.

Explaining the Strange Story of Judah and Tamar

Immanuel: Judah has a few kids, and he marries off his oldest son, Er, to a woman named Tamar. But Er dies, and now Tamar is faced with yibum – levirate marriage. Traditionally, when a man dies without children, his widow would marry the deceased's brother, and the children from that marriage would carry on the legacy of the dead brother.

So, after Er dies, Tamar marries the next son, Onan… but Onan dies too. Judah has one more son, Shela, but he doesn't want Tamar marry him… after all, his first two sons just died. So he tells her to wait until Shela gets older. Years go by, and he doesn't give Shela to Tamar.

David: Meanwhile, Tamar has been in limbo… she's still mourning the loss of her husband, hoping that someone will keep Er's name alive through Yibum. She takes matters into her own hands. She dresses up like a prostitute, and waits for Judah to solicit her.

We hear about the details of the bargain between Tamar and Judah over payment for her services... He doesn't have payment with him, so she takes a collateral, and then he tries to find her later to actually pay her…. it's just a really strange story.

Immanuel: Why do we need to know about these details of Judah's life? Why don't we hear personal stories about any of his other brothers... Why does the Torah think it's important for us to hear this? Secondly, even if it's a valuable story, why are we hearing about it now??

David: Let's explore this and more this week on the Parsha Experiment.

Immanuel: Hi, I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. What are we to do with the strange digression story of Judah and Tamar? Here's a theory that Rabbi Fohrman suggests in a few places, links below. Maybe the story is not a digression from the Joseph story at all... maybe somehow, it's a perfect continuation.

Why Did Tamar Disguise Herself and Sleep with Judah?

David: Let's take a look, and play our favorite game: where have we heard these words or ideas before? When Tamar realizes that Judah had no intention of allowing her to marry his son Shela, she devises another way to keep the legacy of her first husband alive. She dresses up like a prostitute, and tries to fool Judah. And it works: וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, – Judah sees her, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה: כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ – and he thinks she's a prostitute, because her face is covered… he doesn't recognize her.

Immanuel: Tamar asks, What can you pay me for my services? Judah answers: אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח גְּדִי-עִזִּים מִן-הַצֹּאן – I can send you a goat from my flock… I just don't have it with me now. She says, no problem; in the meantime, give me a few things:, חֹתָמְךָ וּפְתִילֶךָ, וּמַטְּךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדֶךָ – your signet ring, your coat, and your staff.

David: Then something ironic happens. Judah, who seems to have been the judge at the time, is told that Tamar is pregnant… and that's a problem because Tamar has been awaiting Yibum from Shela.

For her infidelity, Judah condemns her to death. Of course, the irony is that Judah himself is the father of the child, but he doesn't realize that... yet.

Immanuel: And look what Tamar does. As Tamar is being led out to be killed, she sends to her father-in-law saying: לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-אֵלֶּה לּוֹ, אָנֹכִי הָרָה – the person to whom these things belong impregnated me. הַכֶּר-נָא – recognize, please… מִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה, הָאֵלֶּה – this signet ring, this coat, this staff… whose are they???

David: Ok, let's take a step back… I think we have heard this before:

  1. A man who is deceived in a plot involving a goat.
  2. Someone loses a coat.
  3. The coat is then presented to a father for recognition.

Studying Parallels to Judah and Tamar in the Bible

Immanuel: You don't need to go back too far. It's exactly what happened in previous chapter with the Sale of Joseph. Joseph lost his coat when his brothers stripped him of it. Then, they dipped the coat into goat's blood in order to cover up their actions – again, deception involving a goat.

And then, right on queue, the bloody coat is presented to father for recognition. Just as Tamar presented a coat to Judah – the father of her unborn children – for recognition!

David: And look at the words the brothers say when they present the bloody coat to Jacob: הַכֶּר-נָא – recognize please, הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא–אִם-לֹא – is this your son's coat? הַכֶּר-נָא – that's exactly what Tamar said to Judah. Recognize these things! And just in case you're thinking that הַכֶּר-נָא is a common Biblical phrase, it actually appears only twice in the entire Torah. In these two stories.

A Hidden Commentary in Tamar and Judah's Story

Immanuel: So, what does this connection mean? Why is the Judah and Tamar story carrying echoes back to the sale of Joseph?

Well, think about it: who engineered the Sale of Joseph? That was Judah. It was his idea, and the brothers followed his lead. He choreographed the events the led to deceiving Jacob with the bloody coat, to covering up the truth… to saying, הַכֶּר-נָא – Father, please, recognize this.

David: But the stories of Judah and Tamar and the Sale of Joseph are not the only Goats and Coats stories… there's another one. An earlier one… Goats and coats goes back to the earliest deception in the Jacob storythe story of the blessings.

Jacob prepares a goat for his father before he gets the blessing. Jacob wears Esau's coat and presents it to his father to deceive him – Isaac feels the coat to figure out which son it is. But he's was confused… וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ – and he does not recognize him! That's the same word – הכר נא. Recognize. This was the very first Goats and Coats story.

The Sale of Joseph is an echo of the very first Goats and Coats story – the story of the blessings. Jacob's children are replaying their father's deception. They seem to be facing the same challenges that Jacob faced. We saw it with the deception with Shechem and Dinah, and we see it now with the Sale of Joseph.

The Significant Lesson Behind Judah and Tamar's Story

Immanuel: And the story we hear immediately after that is Judah and Tamar. Judah just arranged a deception in which he covered up the truth and shirked responsibility, and now Judah would be faced with another similar opportunity. And he has a choice… will he continue to cover up truth, to shirk responsibility? Or will he learn from his mistakes and grow from them?

Tamar is being brought out to be killed and she makes a small plea. She doesn't say, "Judah, this coat and ring and staff, they are YOURS! This is your child!" Instead, she gives Judah a choice… "Please, recognize these things – to whom do they belong?"

David: What were Judah's options at that point? The ball was in his court. He could have said nothing. He could have continued hiding the truth, and no one would have known the difference. And that was probably an attractive option for Judah.

Earlier in the story, Judah sent someone to pay Tamar the goat that he didn't have with him at the time. But the person couldn't find her, and Judah said, he says, "Let's stop looking for her – פֶּן נִהְיֶה לָבוּז – lest it come to scandal." He clearly didn't want the word to get out about what he did. So now, he has the perfect opportunity to let the story die out… it would be so easy to cover it up.

Immanuel: But Judah doesn't remain silent: וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה – Judah does recognize them, וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי – and he says, Tamar is more righteous than I. Judah saves her life and publicly embarrasses himself… He's able to do something that beforehand – in the Sale of Joseph – he was unable to do… He recognized the truth. He took responsibility for his actions.

David: By connecting these three stories, the Torah is highlighting that Judah was beginning to restore his personal integrity on a path that would eventually lead him to look Joseph, the brother he deceived and sold into slavery, in the eye. But that's a story for another time.

Why Is the Story of Judah and Tamar Important?

Immanuel: In the story of Judah and Tamar, Judah was beginning to correct a chain of deception that has plagued his whole family – his father, his brothers, and himself. This is the turning point in the story of Jacob's children. The brothers failed… they deceived, hid the truth. But Judah, when he's faced with הַכֶּר-נָא, he doesn't cover up the truth – he confronts it directly… and, like his father, he begins to correct the mistakes that have haunted his family.

David: And you know what happens when he does? When Judah recognizes his ring, coat, and staff, he gets them back. Who carries around these things? Who carries around a coat, a staff, and a signet ring? A king does. The Davidic dynasty, the Messiah, would ultimately come from Judah.

In fact, it would come from Peretz, the child born from the union of Judah and Tamar. The child that would never have lived if Judah hadn't recognize the truth. Judah gets back his ring, his cloak, and staff… It's symbolic – it's at this very moment when Judah's kingship is confirmed.

Immanuel: What a fascinating paradigm. Kingship doesn't descend from a flawless, perfect human being. It descends from someone who made mistakes, but was able to learn and grow from them. That's who God chooses as our leaders… someone who has experienced a fall, and learned how to perfect themselves. That's Judah… וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה – Judah recognized.

David: But that story doesn't end there. Judah may have begun a transformation, he may have begun to correct the flaws of his father and brothers. But his family's in shambles. He ruined relationships, Jacob's mourning, and his brother Joseph's a slave in Egypt. How can Judah and his brothers begin to put the pieces back together?

Immanuel: Join us next week on the Parsha Experiment.

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