Vayeishev: Murky Messianic Beginnings

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29 Nov 2007

Back in 5th grade, I remembered we skipped the story. Never has a teacher sparked such interest; the particular episode being one of the great and difficult pieces of the written Torah, that of the story of Yehuda and Tamar (1). What follows is one piece in the puzzle.


Immediately, following Yosef’s sale and descent to Egypt, our story commences: (2)

And it came to pass at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers

Yosef and Yehuda’s twin fates of decline are midrashically linked. (3)

R. Yochanan said: “descent” is juxtaposed with “descent”. Yosef’s descent and Yehuda’s descent [“And Yosef went down to Egypt” and “Yehuda went down.”]

Rav Yochanan implies causality (4). Yosef’s fall necessitates Yehuda’s plunge – for it is only appropriate that Yehuda, prime engineer of Yosef’s fall, should share a similar fate.

Momentary Decisions, Monumental Reverberations

Tamar loses two husbands, Er and Onan, both sons of Yehuda. Ramban finds notions of minhag yibum (levirate marriage) predating matan torah lurking in the background. Tamar dutifully waits for Shelah, Yehuda’s third son. Alas, it is a fruitless wait (6) – for Yehuda has no plans to allow Tamar to marry Shelah (7). Tamar, who eventually realizes this, seizes the moment. The Torah describes the scene: (8)

And in process of time the daughter of Shuah, Yehuda’s wife died and Yehuda was comforted, and went up to his sheep shearers to Timnath, … And it was told to Tamar, saying, behold your father-in-law goes up to Timnath to shear his sheep. And she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; … When Yehuda saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, because she had covered her face. And he turned to her by the way, and said, come, I beg you, let me come in to you, for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said, what will you give me, that you may come in to me? And he said, I will send you a kid from the flock. And she said, will you give me a pledge, until you send it? And he said, what pledge shall I give you? And she said, your signet and your bracelets and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and came in to her, and she conceived by him.

Three months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant with apparently illegitimate children. Yehuda is informed and convenes a multigenerational beis din:

She (Tamar) would enter the bathhouse saying to her friends: “make way for me for I am bearing kings”… And sitting there in judgment were Yitzchak, Yaakov and Yehuda.

Imagine for but a moment: Yehuda is sitting with his father and grandfather on the beis din. His brothers serve as the courtroom audience (9). Yehuda feels absolute disgust – something along the lines of: “how my immoral daughter-in-law has shamed me and all of Israel”. In sum, an overwhelming air of righteous indignation pervades.

The beit din then paskens: hotziuha v’tisareif – she is to die.

And then in a sharp Purimesque turnabout, Tamar presents Yehuda with the evidence: (10)

She was being taken out, and she sent [word] to her father-in-law saying, “By the man to whom these belong am I pregnant.” She said, “Please recognize (haker na) to whom this signet, wrap and staff belong.”

Suddenly pride yields to shame, and indignation to indignity. Yehuda’s ire must be redirected inward. With every passing second, the enormity of his error grows in stature. Further, Tamar’s language הכר נא (please recognize) evokes the memory of another haunting event. (11)

They sent the long, colorful coat and brought it to their father, and said, “We found this. Please recognize [haker na] it. Is it your son’s coat or not?”

In all of Tanach,הכר נא appears but twice, both within two chapters. Indeed, according to R. Yochanan, this is intentional. (12) Yehuda could not fail to sense the Divine irony. (13)

The Holy One, Blessed be He said to Yehuda: you stopped the innards of your father and you said to him הכר נא . By your life, you must also hear such …

Yehuda must reflect and consider the unfolding events in a broader context. Will his momentary clarity spur teshuva, or will he shunt his conscience aside?


Tamar forces Yehuda’s hand. She does not embarrasses Yehuda, nor does she want to confront him(14). Her tact is to simply present the evidence, thus leaving Yehuda to ponder his fate.

Consider the dilemma: Yehuda’s inner turmoil is surely magnified by the presence of his father, grandfather, and brothers. It would be oh so expedient for Yehuda to remain quiet. A few moments of uneasy passivity and the whole matter, including Tamar, would be history and he could then move on. Thus the wrenching choice becomes: Will Yehuda opt for eternal excellence or ephemeral ease? Does Yehuda squirm? Perhaps. Ultimately, his decision (15) serves as a paradigm of gevurah, and defines his very essence.

And Yehuda recognized (וַיַּכֵּר) them, and said, צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי she has been more righteous than I because I did not give her to Shelah my son.

צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי. (She is more righteous than I) two words of moral clarity and ultimate responsibility. No excuses. Yehuda’s accepts guilt and endures the consequences. The text does not present the fallout, the midrash does: (16)

They all heard his words – Yitzchak, Yaakov and all the brothers of Yehuda and they disgraced him: “You have embarrassed us, Yehuda.”


For Yehuda, this key moment ultimately lands him the eternal monarchy and the messiah. (17)

Why did God give the crown to Yehuda? Surely, he was not the only brave one of all his brothers; were not Simeon and Levi and the others valiant … But because he dealt justly with Tamar did he become the judge of the world.… but Yehuda recognised the place and said, ‘ The thing is correct; She is more righteous than I’ For this, God made him a prince. This is what Ben Zoma used to say and teach: If thou hast been put to shame in this world, thou wilt not be put to shame before God in the World to Come,

And for us non kings? Yehuda’s dilemma serves to remind that life is replete with “mirror” moments; situations that call for wrenching reflection, forcing us to define our ultimate values and determine our soul mettle.

Often, these are times of extreme discomfort; they may entail preempting a piece of lashon hara from the mouth of a friend, offering difficult, albeit necessary criticism to a loved one; standing up for what is right at the risk of one’s livelihood, or “simply” confronting and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. What unites them all is they force one to choose the good over the expedient – no matter the cost.

True monarchy, says Ibn Ezra (18) happens when one exhibits dominion over the self. Let us strive for Yehuda’s brand of royalty, for not only does it bring national salvation, but within it lies the secret of ultimate personal redemption.

1. The halachic issue of Yehuda’s actions and psak din is not within the scope of discussion. See Ramban, Bereishit 38:24 for several approaches.
2. Bereishit, 38:1.
3. Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev, 11
4. את טיננת מעיו של אביך והטעית אותו חיה רעה אכלתהו, עכשיו תדע מהו צער של בנים, ומה כתיב אחריו, ויהי בעת ההיא וירד יהודה מעת אחיו ‘
5. Ramban, Bereishit 38:8אבל הענין סוד גדול מסודות התורה בתולדת האדם, ונכר הוא לעיני רואים אשר נתן להם השם עינים לראות ואזנים לשמוע. והיו החכמים הקדמונים קודם התורה יודעים כי יש תועלת גדולה ביבום האח, והוא הראוי להיות קודם בו ואחריו הקרוב במשפחה, כי כל שארו הקרוב אליו ממשפחתו אשר הוא יורש נחלה יגיע ממנו תועלת: והיו נוהגים לישא אשת המת האח או האב או הקרוב מן המשפחה. ולא ידענו אם היה המנהג קדמון לפני יהודה. ובבראשית רבה (פה ה) אמרו כי יהודה התחיל במצות יבום תחלה, כי כאשר קבל הסוד מאבותיו נזדרז להקים אותו.
6. Bereishit, ibid, 11.
7. Ibid.
8. Bereishit, ch. 38.
9. Shemot Rabbah 30:19
10. Bereishit 38:25.
11. Bereishit, 36:32
12. בראשית רבה פה: למימר אלא ויוסף הורד מצרימה ר’ לעזר אמר כדי לסמוך ירידה לירידה, ר’ יוחנן אמר כדי לסמוך הכר נא להכר נא,
113. אגדת בראשית (בובר) פרק סא ד”ה [א] ויוסף הורד Cf. Sotah 10b בהיכר בישר לאביו בהיכר בישרוהו
4. Cf. Brachot 43b.
15. Bereishit 38:26.
16. See Sefer Haparshiyot by R’ Eliyahu Kitov, Vol. 2, p.224. I have been unable to locate the original source of the midrash.
17. Shemot Rabbah 30:19. See also Bereishit Rabbah 99:8 -יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך, אמר לו הקב”ה אתה הודית במעשה תמר יודוך אחיך להיות מלך עליהם
a name=”fn18″> 18. Bamidbar , 6:7 v’hamelech b’emes sheyeish lo neizer v’ateres malchus b’rosho, kol mi shehu chafshi min hata’avos

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.