Weekly, I look forward to reading Covenant and Conversation, a commentary delivered in email text and spoken podcast on the weekly Torah reading. Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, offers this way to help follow the Torah as it unfolds, from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah (the celebration marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle). Last Shabbat, we read Genesis 37:1-40:23, which introduces my namesake, Tamar. Rabbi Sacks' commentary explains why I love my name. (Note: In his commentary, I replaced the Torah translations with those by Robert Alter in The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.)
We know little about her except her name, Tamar
Judah, fourth son of Jacob, had "gone down" from his brothers — a spiritual and physical decline. He had proposed selling Joseph as a slave. Now he has left the family and married a Canaanite woman. He has three sons by her: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds him a wife, Tamar.
Er dies. He "was evil in the eyes of the Lord." How, we are not told. Judah, practicing a form of levirate marriage (in which a widow is required to marry one of her husband's brothers after his death, if he died childless, to continue his family line) tells his second son, Onan, that he must marry his late brother's widow so that she can bear a child. Onan resents that a child of his would be regarded as perpetuating his brother's memory, and when he would come to bed with Tamar "would waste his seed on the ground." For this he is punished, and he too dies.
Judah tells Tamar that she must "stay as a widow" until Shelah is old enough to marry her. Yet he delays, fearing that his third son too may die. Tamar is in a situation of "living widowhood," unable to marry anyone because she is bound to her remaining brother-in-law, unable to marry him because of Judah's fear.
Taking destiny into her own hands
Tamar seizes an opportunity when she hears that Judah is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep. Covering her face with a veil, she dresses as a prostitute and positions herself on the route she knows Judah will take. Judah approaches her and sleeps with her. She returns home and removes the disguise. She becomes pregnant. Three months later, her condition is apparent. People inform Judah, who is indignant. She must, he reasons, be guilty of adultery because she is bound to Shelah, whom Judah has kept from her. "Take her out to be burned," he orders.
The significance of one detail
During Tamar's deception, she had negotiated a price with Judah, but first insisted on a pledge: his seal, cord, and staff. When Judah sent a messenger to pay her and reclaim the pledge, she had disappeared. Now she produces the three items and sends them to Judah with the words, "By the man to whom these belong I have conceived." It is a masterly stroke. She has established her innocence without shaming Judah — for he alone now understood exactly what had happened. From this behavior, the sages derived the principle that one should be willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than shame another person in public.
What was Tamar doing?
According to the Midrash of Nahmanides and Hizkuni, she was acting according to the custom then, by which levirate marriage could be practiced by a brother of the deceased husband and by another close relative — here, Judah, Tamar's father-in-law. Her act was one of piety, ensuring that her husband's family line would be continued.
Tamar's conduct bears an uncanny resemblance to another biblical personality, Ruth. Both stories begin with an act of descent by fathers-in-law: Judah to the Canaanites, Elimelech to the Moabites. In both, two sons die: Judah's sons Er and Onan and Elimelech's sons, Machlon and Chilyon. In each case, the woman concerned has been left a childless widow. In both, the denouement is brought about by a bold act by the woman — Tamar dressing as a prostitute, Ruth lying at night at Boaz' feet. Both times, the man involved (Judah, Boaz) is not the closest in line (for Tamar, that was Shelah; for Ruth, the anonymous Peloni-Almoni whose claim Boaz has to ask him to forego).
The heroine is an outsider
Ruth is a Moabite. We are not told Tamar's family background. The sages say she was descended from Shem; Philo ((20 BCE - 50 CE) says that she was the child of idolaters. Yet they give birth to children "to maintain the name of the dead . . . so that his name will not disappear," as Boaz says of Ruth. And they are sensitive to the living — Tamar by not shaming Judah, Ruth by not letting Naomi return home alone.
The connection between the women is stated explicitly at the end of the Book of Ruth. When the elders give permission to Boaz to buy Naomi's field and marry Ruth, they pronounce this blessing: "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel . . . May your family be like Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah."
Why refer to Tamar and Judah in the Book of Ruth?
The answer lies in the genealogy with which the Book of Ruth ends. It lists the ten generations from Perez to King David. The beginning of David's family tree is the son, Perez, born to Judah and Tamar. The seventh generation is the son, Obed, born to Ruth and Boaz. The family tree of Israel's great and future king includes Tamar and Ruth, two women whose virtue and loyalty, kindness, and discretion contributed to David's greatness.
Heroic figures at the extreme margins of Israelite society
I find it exceptionally moving that the Bible should cast in these heroic roles two figures at the extreme margins of Israelite society: women, childless widows, outsiders. Tamar and Ruth, powerless except for their moral courage, wrote their names into Jewish history as role models who gave birth to royalty to remind us that true royalty lies in love and faithfulness, and that greatness often exists where we expect it least.