Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
The motives of the heroes in the story of Judah and Tamar are elusive. Judah, Prince of the tribes how is it that he so swiftly succumbed to a street prostitute? More enigmatic are Tamar’s motives. Being fully aware of Judah’s stature did she really expect him to fall to her enticement?
I would like to suggest that Tamar’s plan was completely different – she never planned nor expected Jehuda to approach her in such a way. But when he did, she took full advantage of the situation.
A careful reading of the pesukim, reveals that Tamar never intended to to pose as a prostitute. Quite the contrary, the expression used is “and she covered herself with a scarf”, the only other appearance of this expression is when Rivkah in modesty applies the shawl in the presence of Isaac.
I fully subscribe to Seforno’s interpretation regarding Tamar. What Tamar wanted was to confront Judah in a non-mourning attire and demand that he fulfill his pledge to her regarding the third son Shelah. Torah itself bears testimony to Tamar’s motivation, she was not given to Sheilah, when he matured. Judah, and Judah only interpreted what he saw in Tamar as a harlot, perhaps on account of being recently widowed and the ensuing state of mind. The verse stresses that this was Judah’s subjective interpretation (Breishit 38,15): He saw her and he thought she was a harlot, because her face was covered. It is a fact that when subsequently Judah searches for her to make good his payment no local person can recall the presence of such a harlot. The word “and he thought her” appears only once more in the bible in the story of the priest Ely misinterpreting Chana’s prayer as an act of drunkenness: And Chana was speaking to her heart, only her lips were moving, and he (Ely) thought she was drunk. It seems that in the bible this word is indicative of a man misinterpreting a woman’s actions and rightfully is applied regarding Judah.
Tamar’s plan was simple – to confront Judah on his journey to Timna and make strong her claim to Shelah. Tamar’s plan misfired when Judah did not recognize her as his daughter in law but as a harlot and desired her. At this moment Tamar reacted swiftly to the unexpected turn of events and acted as Torah records.
What was it that Tamar wanted from Shelah and what was she to gain by “exchanging” Shelah with Judah? The medrash reveals Tamar’s desire:
Tamar was not a blood-member of the family of Jacob, but once she was brought into the family through marriage to Judah’s son she burned with desired to partake in the historical and redemptive role destined to the Jewish people. Tamar now calculated which son would be the chosen one as forefather of Messiah:
“above whose brow would the father lift up his horn that he anoint him as heir? Tamar had fingers whereon to reckon it up. Three of the sons had been cursed, the favored, son of the true wife, was dead…justice was the horn out of which the oil of anointing must trickle on the brow of the fourth, Judah he was the heir” (Thomas Mann, Joseph and his brothers).
But it was too late – by the time Tamar appeared on the scene Judah was married and hence she had to avert her gaze from father to son – To E’r, then O’nan and finally Shelah. However when Judah now inadvertently offers himself to her she takes full advantage of the situation.
Indeed, Tamar’s plan was crowned with success – she gives birth to Peretz, and as is to be found at the end of Ruth, King David was later born. Tamar indeed is the ancient matriarch of King David and consequently of Messiah ben David.