Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 5 December 2015 / 23 Kislev 5776

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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On the surface, the narrative of Yehuda and Tamar is profoundly puzzling. What were the transgressions of Tamar’s first two husbands, Er and Onan, who were Yehuda’s first two sons? Why did Yehuda prevent his youngest son Shelah from marrying Tamar? How could Tamar disguise herself as a prostitute in order to have relations with Yehuda, and how could a righteous man like Yehuda consort with her?

Er transgressed by refusing to have children with Tamar. Most likely he didn’t want her to lose her physical attractiveness. However, this represents his refusal to fulfill G-d’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply, especially with regard to the offspring of Avraham.

His brother having died childless, Onan was obligated to marry his sister-in-law, as the custom of Yibum was also practiced by mankind before it was given to the the Jewish People at Sinai. Since the purpose of this custom was to perpetuate his brother’s line, Onan knew that his child with Tamar would really be considered his brother’s child. As a result he felt that the commandment to reproduce really didn’t apply to him with Tamar. However, having seen what happened to his brother, who refused to have any relations at all with Tamar, Onan reasoned that he would be spared the death penalty if he had relations while preventing conception from occurring. However, G-d considered this action to be equally egregious.

Yehuda felt that the behavior of his two oldest sons was the result of their impetuous immaturity, having been not even teenagers at the time. In order to protect Tamar from a similar fate with the young Shelah, he sends her away to her father’s house until Shelah is mature enough to handle the responsibility of Yibum.

Even after Shelah grows up, Yehuda does not give him to Tamar in marriage. This is most likely because Yehuda is also worried that Tamar was somehow complicit by nature in his sons’ deaths and should not be allowed to marry anyone. At this point Divine Providence comes into play to orchestrate the eventual union of Tamar and Yehuda. Having lost his wife, Yehuda was lonely and in need of physical female companionship. With his period of mourning over, Yehuda went out to participate in the sheep-shearing festival, a joyous occasion which only increased his physical desires.

Having heard that Yehuda went to the festival, Tamar changed clothing and covered her face in order not to be recognized. She positioned herself in a place where Yehuda would see her, and she hoped that he would invite her to accompany him to the festival and then propose marriage. All of Tamar’s actions were with the purest of intentions. She knew that the mitzvah of Yibum still applied in this family, since it was absolutely the will of G-d that Yehuda’s lineage continue. With Shelah no longer in the picture she felt that she had to conceive with another family member, and who better than with the respected and honorable Yehuda himself. However, the situation took a different turn. True, he didn’t recognize her, but instead of proposing marriage, he saw her as a simple prostitute with whom he could satisfy his physical needs. At that time Yehuda’s behavior was considered perfectly normal and not immoral. Adjusting quickly to the sudden turn of events, Tamar went along, but refused to take payment immediately. She took a security instead, in order to set up the scenario later on, where she is able to reveal her identity after having already become pregnant.

Still unrecognized by Yehuda, Tamar returns home and makes no effort to hide her pregnancy. When her pregnancy becomes public knowledge she is assumed to have had an illicit relationship and thus liable to the death penalty as she was still attached through the Yibum customs to her second husband. She is brought to the furious Yehuda, and rather than directly reveal the truth, which would have seriously embarrassed Yehuda, she produces the security items. Her intention is also to make it clear that he deserves the death penalty for adultery as well.

When Yehuda recognizes the security items he says the words, “she is right” and “from me”. Abarbanel offers two interpretations of Yehuda’s response. His first interpretation is that Yehuda is saying that both of their behaviors were justified, but that Tamar’s was much nobler than his own. Even though he didn’t do anything wrong, he was simply fulfilling his physical desires whereas she was carrying out the will of G-d. Furthermore, Yehuda says that she is superior to him “inasmuch as I did not give her to Shelah my son”. He means that the reason I kept her away from Shelah is because she is much smarter than I and she did not deserve to be burdened with my young and ignorant son.

His second interpretation is that Yehuda now realizes that his sons died due to their transgressions rather than due to Tamar’s “poisonous nature”. Tamar realized this and made sure that the lineage continued. Her insight and righteousness far surpassed his own.

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