תָמָר -- Tamar (Bereishit 38)
© 2010 S.H. Parker

All Hebrew transcription and translations are from the Mechon-Mamre on-line chumash, unless otherwise noted.

The story of Tamar, which occupies the entire 38th chapter of Bereishit, is the first case in recorded history of a "liberated" woman, at least as far as I know. Moreover, if not the first, it is one of the few (and earliest) depictions of a woman in a positive light, as an independent, valuable person.

The Importance of Tamar's Story

The first thing to note is that this story reflects a tradition going back at least 3800 years, perhaps it is even older.

By contrast, consider the portrayals of women in classic Western literature. When women are mentioned at all, it is clear that they are seen more as brood mares than as people. They are depicted in such a way that it is clear that this is a woman's "proper" role. The best the Greeks can come up with is Cassandra (Iliad). But no one listens to her. She's crazy (and I'm not so sure her portrayal is actually "positive") besides, she was Trojan. Similarly, Penelope (Odyssey) is another "positive" portrait of a woman: she sits and weaves, refusing the advances of suitors while her husband is off trying to capture Troy. That's all she does; she minds Odysseus' home.

Socrates' wife, Xanthippi, uses his children to help her gain entry into his cell just before he drinks his hemlock. Socrates will have none of it. He summarily ejects her (Apologia, Phaido).

Later still, the church marginalized women entirely. The role of women in Jesus' ministry is almost completely devalued, gospels portraying meaningful roles of women were suppressed. Finally the church characterized women who aspired to more than staying constantly bare foot and pregnant as witches (Malleus Maleficarum). The proofs of "witchcraft" were: enjoying sex (ďall witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable"), "consulting knowledge" (i.e., speaking one's mind), healing, in short, behaving differently, outside of the "norms" of female behavior of the day as dictated by the church. 

The role of women in the Bible is somewhat different. In Torah, women speak up. The matriarchs are, by and large (Leah, the long suffering, being the main exception), shown in active roles. But, even more important than these anecdotes is what Torah has to say when it is "legislating," setting standards.

Bamidbar 27 tells us that women can inherit, a privilege reserved exclusively for men:

ז  כֵּן, בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת--נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם; וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת-נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן, לָהֶן. 7 'The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.
ח  וְאֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ כִּי-יָמוּת, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ--וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת-נַחֲלָתוֹ, לְבִתּוֹ. 8 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

Granted, the right to inherit is circumscribed by conditions. But even this small concession has little precedent in the ancient world. 

In Devarim 21, we read:

יח  כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה--אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם. 18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them;

In short, a child may be declared בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה only on the testimony of both the father and mother. As Rabbi Gedalyah Engel taught me, this can only be if both the mother and the father are equal in the house, therefore, equal in the eyes of the children.

Of course, to reiterate the obvious, women had to be able to testify before the beit din. No other ancient society that I know of allowed, much less required, female testimony in court (as with stubborn and rebellious son).

And this passage tells me why Jesus' saying to his mother "Woman, what is this to me?" at the wedding at Cainna can't possibly be a correct translation. No Jewish boy ever talked to his mother like that and lived to tell about it.

Similarly, the Rabbis explain that the two versions of the fifth commandment ("Honor your father and your mother" and "Honor your mother and your father") teach us that the two must be equal in the home (Rabbi Engel certainly taught me this).

Such a notion is not only unprecedented in the ancient world, it is arguable that it is only recently has begun to be taken seriously in the modern world.

The ancient world was hardly a model of egalitarianism, monarchic Israel included. Women, at best, were second class citizens when they were even counted as "citizens." However, Torah never seems entirely supportive of the sociology of the times neither does Torah seem entirely comfortable with it.

How could Torah support such an idea? If "male and female created He them," if both are God's creation, how can there be a difference in the rights or status of either?

There are so many other examples of independent women: Miriam is a prophet, Devorah is a judge, Hannah teach us how we pray to this day (I Samuel 1:13). But this tale, Tamar's story, is the first of the tales with female heroines.

Torah must agree that Tamar's story is exceedingly important. Exceedingly. 

One of the longest, if not the longest, and most important stories in Torah, the story of Joseph, is interrupted for Tamar's sake. Joseph's legacy is what leads us from the patriarchs, from Canaan, to Egypt, to slavery, to exodus, to Torah and nationhood. And his story must be suspended so we can learn of Tamar. Yes, Tamar's is an important story. (I learned this in a d'var given by a young lady. Her name was Tamar -- nu? -- Fox.)


In our story, Tamar is the wife of Er, first born of Judah. Er was "wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord slew him" (38:7). So, her travails start with the fact that she married a no-goodnik.

Tamar was left childless. This is the important bit.

In Tamar's world, by ancient custom, the deceased husband's brother married the widow to raise up a child in the dead brother's name. After a child (i.e., a son) was born to carry the dead brother's name, the brother and the widow could separate. This is Levirate marriage.

Judah dutifully ensures that Levirate marriage occurs:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְאוֹנָן, בֹּא אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אָחִיךָ וְיַבֵּם אֹתָהּ; וְהָקֵם זֶרַע, לְאָחִיךָ. 8 And Judah said unto Onan: 'Go in unto thy brother's wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.'

But, "Onan knew that the seed would not be his." So he "spilled his seed on the ground, least he give seed to his brother" (38:9). Nice guy. God, needless to say, is not pleased by this. וַיָּמֶת גַּם-אֹתוֹ; "and He slew him also." (Onan abused the rite of Levirate marriage and that is the reason for his death. The Catholic church, however, derives a prohibition on masturbation from this passage.)

N.B.: Levirate marriage can be seen as a denial of a woman's autonomy. But it can also be seen as ensuring that there is a male protector for the widow - very important in a clan-centric society like those of the near East.

Also note the Israelite extension of this practice: halitza. The brother can refuse to take his brother's wife in Levirate marriage. But, he must eschew his levirate duty publicly. We see this in the story of Ruth (yet another ancestor of David; David sure seems pop up a lot here).

Judah has another son, שֵׁלָה, but, having lost two sons already, Judah sends Tamar away "until he is grown." Judah is afraid Shelah will die like his brothers (38:11), as if, somehow, Tamar was the cause of these deaths. But time passes and Judah never sends for Tamar.


וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה:  כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. 14 And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife.

Tamar is entitled to a son by this family. She knows this. And she knows that she has been denied what is rightfully hers, first by her husband's death, then by a feckless Onan and, yet again, by a frightened Judah.

But what is Tamar up to? Why does "she put off from her the garments of her widowhood" and go out into the world again, without permission or summons? Remember, her going out into the world is in direct contradiction to her father-in-law's direct instruction to "'remain a widow in thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown up'" (38:11).

What is Tamar up to?

טו  וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה:  כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face.
טז  וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, וַיֹּאמֶר הָבָה-נָּא אָבוֹא אֵלַיִךְ, כִּי לֹא יָדַע, כִּי כַלָּתוֹ הִוא; וַתֹּאמֶר, מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, כִּי תָבוֹא, אֵלָי. 16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said: 'Come, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee'; for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said: 'What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?'

Good grief! She's seducing Judah, her father-in-law!

Here's how I see it: the woman knows her rights, knows that she has been denied her rights, knows that the denial of her rights is intentional, arguably malicious, and, damned it, she's going to get what's owed her. And nowhere does Torah denigrate her for this, no where. As we shall see, shortly, I am not alone in my assessment of Tamar.

A propos of nothing in particular: What does this tell us about the world 4,000 years ago (and certain areas of the world today)?

Judah, ancestor of David, is heading off to supervise the shearing of his sheep and sees a woman at the side of the road. He can't see her face ("she had covered her face"), doesn't know who she is, and thinks she is a harlot (apparently whores covered their faces in those days) and he merrily turns off to ... dally with her. (I think it safe to assume that she does not uncover her face at any time during their dalliance. Had she done so, Judah would know who she is.)

I have to wonder about the amount of self control men had in those days.... Since I have to presume she was not standing there naked (she "wrapped herself"), it seems to be nothing more than the availability of sex that attracts him. Self control, indeed....

And, as if Judah's consuming lust is not enough, he doesn't even have the funds to pay her but has to promise to pay her later:

 וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח גְּדִי-עִזִּים מִן-הַצֹּאן; וַתֹּאמֶר, אִם-תִּתֵּן עֵרָבוֹן עַד שָׁלְחֶךָ. 17 And he said: 'I will send thee a kid of the goats from the flock.' And she said: 'Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?'

Tamar, no fool she (let's face it, at this point, Judah's track record isn't the greatest), demands security for Judah's payment (is this the first collateralized transaction in history?). She takes his signet, cord and staff. These are the signs and symbols of his office as head of his clan. Tamar returns to her father's house before Judah can redeem his pledge. 

Is she setting herself up? Is she completely meshugah? These items are readily identifiable; there can never be a question as to where she got them.

There is, however, some cognizance on Judah's part that he has done something less than stellar. Judah asks a friend to deliver payment and recover his pledged property and, discovering she is gone, says:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה תִּקַּח-לָהּ, פֶּן נִהְיֶה לָבוּז 23 And Judah said: 'Let her take it, lest we be put to shame'

But (finally!) וַתַּהַר לוֹ, "she conceived by him." She finally has the baby she feels she is entitled to.

Tamar's "condition" becomes difficult to hide and Tamar is accused of harlotry (hmmm, somebody was keeping tabs on her):

וַיְהִי כְּמִשְׁלֹשׁ חֳדָשִׁים, וַיֻּגַּד לִיהוּדָה לֵאמֹר זָנְתָה תָּמָר כַּלָּתֶךָ, וְגַם הִנֵּה הָרָה, לִזְנוּנִים; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, הוֹצִיאוּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵף. 24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying: 'Tamar thy daughter-in-law hath played the harlot; and moreover, behold, she is with child by harlotry.'

But, our heroine is prepared:

 הִוא מוּצֵאת, וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל-חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר, לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-אֵלֶּה לּוֹ, אָנֹכִי הָרָה; וַתֹּאמֶר, הַכֶּר-נָא--לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה, הָאֵלֶּה. 25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying: 'By the man, whose these are, am I with child'; and she said: 'Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff.'

I can see it. Judah sitting in the place of honor in the tent ... poor Tamar escorted in under guard ... the clan all around ... gossips gossiping ... the rest looking on in righteous indignation. Tamar approaches the patriarch ... she shows him the tokens in such a way that no one else can see what she is doing. She thus protects, though why is a mystery, Judah's dignity. And Judah, give him credit at this point, immediately understands:

 וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, כִּי-עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיהָ, לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי  26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said: 'She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son.'

Translation: "Okay, folks. Everything is cool ... no problem here folks."

It is just as I said: Tamar knows her rights, knows that she's been denied what is hers. She takes action to procure her rights by the means available to her. Judah accounts her righteous. Torah accounts her righteous. And, indeed, it is through Tamar's children that the tribe of Judah gives us David.

The torah here is clear. First, don't bear tales, at least until you know all the facts (and, then, only to protect someone else). 

The Rabbis compare the one who bears tales to a murderer: The murderer kills the body only, the gossip kills the name (i.e., reputation and, with it, the person's ability to make a living and support his family). God does not tolerate the presence of a gossip (Talmud, Sotah 42a). If you're familiar with the term lashon ha'rah, לשון הרע, literally "evil tongue," you should know that it is translated "gossip." Va'yikrah tells us:

טז  לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה. 16 Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.

Second, it is righteous to pursue what is due you, even when the head man is the one withholding them from you (rank hath not privilege). It is righteous to pursue your rights even if what is denied you is not essential to your well being or to your survival. That you are due it is sufficient. And, no, gender is not relevant.