Yehudah and TamarBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
It’s not discussed much, but the brothers did have lives of their own. Here, we are given an insight into Yehuda’s life.
Yehuda had three sons, Er, Onan and Sheilah. Er was married to a woman named Tamar, but he committed some undisclosed sin and died prematurely. Yehuda instructed Onan to perform yibum (Levirate marriage), in which one marries a deceased brother’s widow and fathers children for the deceased. This plan didn’t sit too well with Onan, so he practiced the “withdrawal method” of birth control, which consisted of wasteful seminal emission. G-d wasn’t too pleased with Onan, so he died, too.
Yehuda wasn’t too eager to marry his last son off to Tamar, who must have seemed like a “black widow” by this point. He procrastinated, telling Tamar that she would have to wait for Sheilah to grow up a little before he could marry her. This left Tamar in a kind of marital limbo.
A long time passed and Yehuda’s wife died. Tamar was still sitting idle and she seized on an idea to marry Yehuda himself. She veiled herself and sat at the crossroads where Yehuda would pass by to go shear his sheep. He thought she was a prostitute and they struck a deal: Yehuda would send her a goat as payment, but she would hold on to his staff and cloak as collateral. The arrangements made, they carried out the transaction. Yehuda sent the goat as promised, but Tamar had disappeared. They made subtle inquiries as to the whereabouts of the prostitute, but they couldn’t find her and they let the matter drop.
Three months later, Yehuda learned that his daughter-in-law was pregnant. As they took her out to be burned, she sent Yehuda the deposit he had given her along with the message, “The father is the one who gave me these.” Yehudah stopped the execution and declared Tamar more righteous than he. He knew that he brought this about because he hadn’t married her to Sheilah in a timely fashion. After that, Yehuda did not have marital relations with Tamar again.
Tamar had twins, one of whom extended an arm first. The midwife tied a red thread around it, but then the other twin emerged first. He was named Peretz because he was “pushy.” The twin with the red string was named Zerach, from the word meaning to shine.
The incident of Yehuda and Tamar is one of the most difficult in the Torah. Suffice it to say that King David and the Moshiach (Messiah) are descended from the relationship between Yehuda and Tamar. Bewildering though they are, these are still the actions of righteous people.