Parshas Vayeshev.




In this Parsha we read the account of Yehuda and Tamar. At first glance, this story is quite peculiar and begs some questions. Why did Yehuda tell his second son to marry Tamar? When his second son died, what were Yehuda’s plans now? Why did Yehuda have relations with Tamar if she appeared to be a prostitute? What was the reason Tamar was judged to be killed? What is the significance of the two children born to her?




As we already mentioned in parshas Vayetze, the most obscure passages of Torah usually contain the most fundamental information. This is especially true in regards to the development of the Jewish souls, and in particular the primary souls, whose rectification comprises a Tikun for the entire nation. One of the main souls, that is a composite of  all of our people, is that of King Dovid. The Moshiach, his descendant will finish the rectification started by him. Special care had to be taken to prepare the appearance of King Dovid in this world[1], starting many generations before his birth. 


As we discussed in parshas Vayetze, the great souls are not released so easily. The more unobtrusive their appearance will be, the greater is their chance of succeeding. Back in the times of Yehuda[2], the events, guided by the Divine hand, were already taking place to make way for Dovid. The continuation of King Dovid’s ancestral chain is further described in the book of Rus[3]. During the years of famine, in the era of the Shoftim, a family from Yehuda goes to sojourn in the land of Moav. All the male members of the household die, and the mother (Naomi) comes back to Yehuda with her widowed daughter in law – Rus the Moabite. Rus later exhibits tremendous loyalty for Naomi.  She works hard gathering the parts of the crops left for the poor, trying to support her mother in law. She also becomes known for her exceptionally modest behavior[4], attracting the attention of a rich and noble judge, Boaz, a cousin of her late husband. Since Boaz’s wife recently died he is offered Rus (who is a lot younger than him) for a shidduch. The custom of ancient Israel was that the closest relative of the deceased is supposed to marry his widow. In this case, there is one other relative who is even closer than Boaz but he refuses to take Rus. Boaz then marries her with all the town’s sages attending the wedding. Rus gets pregnant and gives birth to Oved who becomes King Dovid’s grandfather. Our sages also mention that Dovid himself was considered an illegitimate child (mamzer) as we will later discuss. 


It would seem that the stories of Tamar, Rus, and Dovid’s mother are just shameful episodes in our history. Indeed they were an object of laughter among many jesters[5] who would say: “Look at the founders of the Jewish royalty! Their forefather (Yehuda) impregnated their foremother thinking she is a prostitute. What good can come out from such a union? Another one of their foremothers (Rus) came from the despised nation of Moav, who are specifically forbidden to mix in with our people. At last, Dovid’s own father Yishai claims that this is not his son!” In truth, only through such an unattractive family tree[6] could the great soul of Dovid originate. We can now get into the depth of what is hinted here.


It is known that when a man dies without children, his wife is subject to the law of Yibum, i.e. she gets married to a brother of the deceased. If none of the brothers want to marry her, the procedure of Chalitza is performed. The main reason behind this is that in most cases, a person who did not have children needs to come back to this world. Since a married man leaves some of his spirit in his wife, she has the potential to bring him back, especially if her new husband is a close relative of the deceased[7]. In the case of a Yibum, the new couple can restore the entire structure of the soul (Neshama, Ruach and Nefesh) of the departed brother exactly the way it was in this world. The Torah hints this by saying that the child born will be named after the dead. This passage is not taken literally[8], but rather is a hint that the child born will have the souls of the deceased. If however none of the brothers want to do Yibum, the Chalitza severs any remaining connection between the deceased and the widow, and the soul of the departed will need other rectifications. That is why the main part of Chalitza is the removal of the shoe from the foot of the brother, symbolizing the release of the spiritual from the physical[9]. The widow also spits out to symbolize her release of any spiritual connection to her late husband. In the ancient times, our people practiced a procedure similar to Yibum and Chalitza even with other relatives, not just the brother. This is exactly what happened in the cases of Yehuda with Tamar, as well as Boaz with Rus.


When the first husband of Tamar died, Yehuda told his second son to do Yibum. Even though the Torah was not given yet, we see from here that our ancestors understood the great tikunim that can be done by fulfilling the commandments and practiced them voluntarily. The second son did not try to fulfill the command of Yibum, but rather did everything to prevent Tamar from getting pregnant. He also died in his young age. This event was quite unusual for Yakov’s family that generally enjoyed special blessings of longevity. Yehuda was afraid to give Tamar to his third son[10] and meanwhile Tamar was quite eager to have a child from this special family. Since her intentions were pure[11], Hashem made “special arrangements” that she should be successful. She sat on the road pretending to be a prostitute. Obviously, Yehuda was not a man to go to these kinds of women[12] but in this case Tamar’s prayers were answered and a special miracle was performed. Yehuda all of a sudden had tremendous sexual desire[13] (Bereishis Raba 85:8). He approached the woman, verified that she is not married and that she practices monotheism[14] and then had relations with her[15]. Another miracle occurred and she got pregnant right away. In her womb, she was carrying the gilgulim of her two late husbands. The tremendous tikun that was waiting to be produced by these people caused a very strong reaction from the forces of evil (see our commentary to parshas Vayetze). Everything on the unclean side (Sitra Achara) was aroused to stop this pregnancy[16] but the end result ultimately depended on Yehuda’s freedom of choice. Indeed, he passed the test and admitted to what happened. The next generations of King Dovid’s ancestors came to this world!


A few hundred years later, a new ingredient in the lineage of King Dovid was being prepared. Moav – the nation of exceptional cruelty[17] and moral degradation possessed certain sparks of holiness carried all the way from Lot and his firstborn daughter[18]. The Torah had forbidden any Moabite convert to intermix with our nation, but this prohibition was limited to men. Since for generations there were no Moabite converts, the details of this law were forgotten and when Rus came with Naomi, many thought that she is also forbidden to marry a regular Jew[19]. Boaz however, knew the truth and issued his halachic ruling: Rus is permissible to the Jewish Congregation. Since at the time of this statement there was a closer relative who could choose to marry Rus, Boaz was not considered “biased” in his ruling. Later, that relative refused[20], as he did not accept the ruling, and then Boaz followed his own opinion and married Rus. She became pregnant on the wedding night, but Boaz died right after. Some thought that his death was Divine retribution for marrying a Moabite convert, but in truth it was exactly the opposite – Hashem let Boaz live till this time only in order that the next generation of Dovid’s ancestors will be born.


Boaz’s grandson Yishai was one of the leaders of the generation. At the end of his life he started doubting the halachic decision of his grandfather. What if Boaz was wrong? Then the entire family would be considered “Psulei Kahal” – those unfit to marry regular Jewish people. There is one way to purify such families (Talmud, Kidushin 69a). The man can take a servant woman and her children are halachically like herself. If they are freed, they can marry anyone! But what if Boaz was right? Then Yishai is regular Jew and can’t have relations with a servant woman. So Yishai came up with an ingenious solution[21]. He separated from his wife, and freed his servant woman on condition that he is a kosher Jew. This way, if Yishai is kosher, his relations with the servant woman are permitted since she was freed, and has become Jewish. But if Yishai is not kosher, then he is having relations with a servant woman, whose children will not bear a stigma of “Psulei Kahal”. This way Yishai could purify his seed and have kosher descendants no matter what.


When Yishai’s wife found out about this, she did not accept such a decision. She was confident that Boaz, the leader of his generation, could not be mistaken. Her husband was a kosher Jew. She therefore pretended to be the servant woman, and went to her husband in the dark[22]. When his wife was noticeably pregnant, Yishai, of course, assumed that this is an illegitimate child[23]. Later, when Shmuel came to anoint one of Yishai’s children, it did not even occur to Yishai to bring Dovid. It was only when Shmuel received a message from Hashem that neither of the men standing before him is the chosen one, was Dovid called in. And here the TRUTH came out at last[24]. The man that was most despised is the true anointed of Hashem. It’s the broken heart that Hashem desires (Tehilim 51:19).


Dovid was the in fourteenth generation after Avraham, so is the Gematria of the word Dovid. His kingdom is compared to the moon[25]. The moon shines its’ brightest on the fifteenth day of the lunar month, but by the end of the day its’ light to us begins to wane. So too Shlomo, Dovid’s son, reached the highest point of the dynasty, but at the end of his life things started to deteriorate (see Melachim 1:11:4). In another fifteen generations the Temple was destroyed and our nation went into exile. Every month, when we sanctify the new moon we say that our nation will be renewed just like the new moon! And as we wait for Moshiach to speedily arrive, we continue: “Dovid, the King of Israel lives forever!”


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[1] See also Rashi on Divrei Hayomim, 1:1.


[2] Who was the leader among the brothers. Note also, that the name Yehuda also includes in it the main Divine name.


[3] We read this nook on the Shavuos holiday, and various reasons were offered for this custom (see Mishna Berura 490:17; Eliyahu Raba 494:10). According to our words there may be one other reason: since the main purpose of this book is to explain the ancestry of King Dovid, it’s read on Dovid’s yahrzeit. Dovid died (and was born) on Shavuos, (see also Ben Ish Chai, 1st year, parshas Bemidbar, 6). After writing this I found that this idea is already written in Sefer Agra Dekala, page 141b.


[4] See Talmud, Shabbos 113b.

[5] See also Megila 25b: “the story of Tamar is read and translated (we are not afraid that the common people will misunderstand what happened and make fun of Yehuda).


[6] See also the Talmud , Yoma 22b,  “a leader of the people is only chosen from those with problematic lineage”.


[7] This is discussed in many places, see for example Ramban, Bereishis 38:8, Kisvey Arizal, in Shaar Hapesukim and in Shaar Hamitzvos on Parshas Ki Setze, also in Shaar Hagilgulim in many places, Zohar, Mishpatim starting with page 99b).


[8] See Talmud, Yevamos 24a.


[9] A shoe symbolizes physical; this is why Moshe was told to take off his shoes when he first encountered the Divine Presence at the burning bush.


[10] See the commentators on these verses. Some say he was just letting time pass till the boy grows mature enough to fulfill Yibum properly. Others propose that Yehuda was afraid that anybody living with Tamar had a high risk of dying. This can be a result of sexually transmitted diseases of for other reasons (see Talmud, Yevamos 64b). According to this he did not really want to give Tamar to his third son.


[11] See Talmud, Sotah 10a, Bereishis Raba 85:8.


[12] Logically speaking, nothing prevented Yehuda from marrying anybody he desired. He was rich, powerful, coming from a very respected family who were treated like princes in the land of Canaan. It was certainly far beneath his dignity to “pick up” a girl on the street.


[13] To be sure, Tamar was not forbidden to Yehuda according to the letter of the law. Since Yakov’s family was not yet bound by the laws of Torah, they only had to keep the Seven Noachite Laws. Having relations with a non-married woman is not forbidden for a non-Jew, (even though holding a special house for prostitution is forbidden, see questions and answers  “Mishne Halachos”, 4:188, based on Yerushalmi, Taanis 5a).


[14] Even in this world of idolaters, some of Shem’s descendants were monotheists. In addition, Avraham was able to bring close to Hashem quite a number of people, and many of their descendents observed the Seven Noachide Laws. The Talmud (Sota 10a) thus tells us that Yehuda did not touch Tamar until he found out that she was not married and not a “Nochris” (stranger, a term later used for non-Jews but at that time meant not being a monotheist).


[15] One could also explain Yehuda’s behavior as follows: since he had a tremendous desire, he may have been afraid that if he does not have relations now, his sperm may come out in vain. Since having relations without marriage was not forbidden before the giving of the Torah he therefore chose this rather than risk causing a much greater damage of vain emission (which was the sin for which two of his sons died).


[16] Regarding the exact reason why Tamar was initially judged for death, there is a controversy among the commentators. As it often happens, the Torah is too short to know what happened. According to some, this was a general measure to prevent immorality in Yakov’s family circle. In this case, Yehuda together with other judges took the privilege of punishing more than the letter of the law states, when the need arises (see Talmud, Yevamos 90b, see Ramban and Ohr Hachaim Hakodesh to 38:24). Another possibility is that since Tamar was waiting for Yibum, her status was somewhat similar to an engaged woman (see Chizkuni and Rashbam to 38:24). She would only be permitted to either Shela (Yehuda’s third son) or to Yehuda himself, since before the giving of the Torah Yibum could be performed by the father of the deceased as well. Note also that the very fact that Tamar got a death sentence is subject to dispute. According to some commentators, Yehuda only pronounced that branding should be done on her forehead, so that everybody knows that she is a prostitute (see Tur to 38:24).


[17] The GR”A explains that the quality of cruelty was also needed for a Jewish king and is used when appropriate. The first king Shaul in fact lost his kingdom because he lacked this quality.


[18] Our sages (Talmud, Nazir 23b) teach that the daughters of Lot had a pure intent when they had relations with their father.


[19] But would have to marry only another convert.


[20] A procedure similar to Chalitza was performed with this relative, since he was closer then Boaz.


[21] Look in questions and answers Minchas Yitzchak, 5:47, letter “Yod”, where a similar proposition is discussed as applicable to today. 


[22] About this Dovid would later say: (Tehilim 51:7) “because in sin I was conceived”.


[23] This is why Dovid was spending most of his time alone rejected by his family, see Tehilim 69:9 “I was considered a stranger by my brothers”. In practice however, this caused Dovid to reach the closeness to Hashem that he could not have reached if he lived among other people.


[24] The whole story is brought in Esre Maamros from Rav Menachem Azariah, Maamar Chikur Din 3:10. The Chida brings this in many places in particular in his commentaries to Psalms, see for example Yosef Tehilos, 51.


[25] In fact, the two children of Yehuda were named after the sun and the moon. The one named after the moon became ancestor of King Dovid.