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Yehudah and Tamar

The story of Yehudah and Tamar (chapter 38 of Bereshit) appears in the middle of the narrative regarding the sale of Yosef and his descent to Egypt. The placement of the story raises two questions:

1) What is the chronology of the events that are interwoven in the Biblical text?
2) Is there any connection between the two stories?

The Problem of Chronology

The commentators differ regarding the order of events in Parashat Vayeshev. It is difficult to ignore the apparent chronological inconsistency. The time between the sale of Yosef and Ya’akov’s arrival in Egypt is 22 years. This is hardly ample time for Yehudah to get married, have children, marry off two of his children, wait for the third child to be of marriageable age, have more children with Tamar, and have grandchildren from that union.

Ibn Ezra and Ralbag conclude that the story of Yehuda actually took place prior to the sale of Yosef. These commentators are compelled to suggest this solution by the fact that the two grandchildren resulting from the relationship between Yehudah and Tamar, Chetzron and Chamul, are listed among the 70 descendants of Ya’akov who came with him to Egypt (Bereshit 46:8-27). Thus, Ibn Ezra utilizes the concept that there is no chronological order in the Torah (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה) to explain that chapter 38 actually records events that took place before chapter 37. He explains that the story of Yehudah was inserted here in order to separate between the despicable behavior of Yosef’s brothers in their plot against him and the dignified behavior of Yosef in his refusal to be seduced by the wife of Potiphar.

In contrast to Ibn Ezra, Rashi claims that the story of Yehudah began as it appears in the text, after the sale of Yosef, but that it did not precede Yosef’s descent to Egypt. He utilizes the concept that there is no chronological order in the Torah (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה) to indicate that chapter 39 is, in fact, out of order and should have immediately followed chapter 37. Rashi’s approach is supported, in his view, by the grammatical structure of verse 39:1:

"ויוסף הורד מצרימה ויקנאהו פוטיפר סריס פרעה “…

“And Yosef was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, the chamberlain of Pharoah, purchased him…”

According to Rashi, the form of the verb הורד(“was brought”) indicates that this section is not in chronological order. In his commentary on Bereshit 4:1, Rashi explains that in Biblical grammar, there are two forms of the past tense, the simple past and the past perfect. The simple past is usually expressed by use of the “ו' ההיפוך”, the letter vav (“and”) that changes the future form into the past tense and vice versa. An example of this form would be the second verb in verse 39:1, ויקנאהו, which is translated “and he bought him”. The past perfect appears in the form that we recognize in modern Hebrew as the past tense, as is the case with the verb והורד. According to Rashi, the verb והורדwould be translated “and he had been brought down”, an indication that the events took place in the more distant past.

Shadal takes a third approach to the chronology of Parashat Vayeshev. He agrees with Rashi that the story of Yehuda followed the sale of Yosef, based on the expression that introduces the story (Bereshit 38:1): “ויהי בעת ההוא” – “and it came to pass at that time”. He holds, however, that the two grandchildren of Yehudah, Chetzron and Chamul, were not among the seventy descendants of Ya’akov that accompanied him to Egypt. Shadal points out that Er and Onan, the two sons of Yehuda who died after their marriages to Tamar, are included in the list of Ya’akov’s descendants who came to Egypt even though they had died previously. Similarly, Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Yosef, are included in the list even though they were already in Egypt and did not come with Ya’akov. So too, Shadal proposes, Chetzron and Chamul were included in the list even though they were not yet born, for they would ultimately take the place of Er and Onan. This approach removes the pressure to change the order of the text.

The Relationship Between the Stories of Yosef and Yehuda

The chronology of the events in Parashat Vayeshev might have significance with regard to the connection between the story of the sale of Yosef and the story of Yehudah and Tamar.

1) “The Cure Before The Disease”

Those commentators who say that Yehudah’s marriage and the subsequent events described in chapter 38 preceded the sale of Yosef, might see the connection between the two stories as does the following Midrash:

ויהי בעת ההיא: ר' שמואל בר נחמן פתח: "כי אנכי ידעתי את המחשבות" (ירמיהו כט:יא) – שבטים היו עוסקים במכירתו של יוסף, ויוסף היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ראובן היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ויעקב היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ויהודה היה עסוק ליקח לו אשה – והקב"ה היה עוסק בורא של משיח … קודם שנולד משעבד ראשון נולד גואל אחרון. (בראשית רבה פה:א)

And it came to pass at that time that Yehudah went down from his brothers: R. Shmuel ben Nachman opened: “For I know the thoughts” (Yermiyahu 29:11) – the brothers (lit. tribes) were busy with the sale of Yosef, Yosef was busy with his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was busy with his sackcloth and fasting, Ya’akov was busy with his sackcloth and fasting, and Yehudah was busy marrying a wife – and God was busy creating the light of Mashiach … Before the first subjugator came into being, the final redeemer was born. (Bereshit Rabbah 85:1)

Before the beginning of the Egyptian exile, the paradigm of the exiles of the Jewish people, the seeds of the Messianic redemption were planted with the birth of Tamar’s son Peretz, who is identified in the Book of Ruth as the direct ancestor of David:

ואלה תולדות פרץ פרץ הוליד את חצרון: וחצרון הוליד את רם ורם הוליד את עמינדב: ועמינדב הוליד את נחשון ונחשון הוליד את שלמה: ושלמון הוליד את

בעז ובעז הוליד את עובד: ועובד הוליד את ישי וישי הוליד את דוד. (רות ד:יח-כב)

Now these are the generations of Peretz, Peretz begot Chetzron. And Chetzron begot Ram, and Ram begot Aminadav. And Aminadav begot Nachshon, and Nachshon begot Salma. And Salmon begot Boaz, and Boaz begot Oved. And Oved begot Yishai, and Yishai begot David.

(Ruth 4:18-22)

2) Cause and Effect

Rashi’s view of the chronology of the events in Parashat Vayeshev relates, as well, to the connection between the stories of Yosef and Yehudah. According to Rashi, the relationship is one of cause and effect:

ויהי בעת ההיא- למה נסמכה פרשה זו לכאן והפסיק בפרשתו של יוסף? ללמדשהורידוהו אחיו מגדולתו כשראו בצרת אביהם. אמרו: אתה אמרת למכרו. אלואמרת להשיבו היינו שומעים לך.

And it came to pass at that time - Why is this section placed here, causing a gap within the story of Yosef? To teach you that his brothers brought him (Yehuda) down from his greatness when they saw the anguish of their father. They said: “You said to sell him. If you had said to return him, we would have listened to you.” (Rashi, Bereshit 38:1)

Yehudah’s troubles in chapter 38 are, according to Rashi, a direct result of his failure to fulfill the responsibility inherent in his leadership role among his brothers, as recorded in chapter 37. Although Yehudah succeeded in saving Yosef from death, he could have prevented the brothers from selling him and causing such anguish to their father, had he acted in a different manner.

Rashi also sees a relationship between the story of Yehudah and Tamar and the story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar that resumes in chapter 39:

ויוסף הורד- …ועוד כדי לסמוך מעשה אשתו של פוטיפר למעשה תמר לומרלך מה זו לשם שמים אף זו לשם שמים … (רש"י בראשית לט:א)

And Yosef Had Been Brought Down:… And (this section was placed here) also in order to connect the incident of Potiphar’s wife to the incident of Tamar – to teach that just as this one (Tamar) was acting for the sake of heaven, so too this one (Potiphar’s wife) was acting for the sake of heaven. (Rashi Bereshit 39:1)

This connection is one that relates to the motivations of the heroines of the two stories. Rashi contends that the juxtaposition demonstrates that Potiphar’s wife was positively motivated in her seduction of Yosef, as was Tamar in her seduction of Yehudah. He explains that Potiphar’s wife knew through astrology that Yosef’s descendants would come from her family, but she did not know if it would be through her or her daughter. In the final analysis, Yosef marries Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, who bears Ephraim and Menashe.

3) Measure for Measure

Cassuto also believes that Yehudah’s problems in chapter 38 are related to his behavior in the episode of the sale of Yosef. A comparative analysis of the two narratives reveals a number of linguitic and content parallels that lead Cassuto to the conclusion that in chapter 38, Yehuda is being punished measure for measure (מדה כנגד מדה) for his flawed behavior in chapter 37:

מה שהביאני לידי דעה שאין להפריד בין הפרשה שלנו (פרשת יהודה ותמר)ובין מה שקדם לה הריהי ביחוד העובדה כי בין מעשה תמר ויהודה וביןמכירת יוסף יש להכיר מעין קשר פנימי המשתקף בהקבלת הניבים המורים על אותם הפרטים.[1]

What has brought me to the view that our chapter (the story of Yehudah and Tamar) cannot be separated from what preceded it is the fact that there is a kind of internal connection between the episode of Tamar and Yehudah and the episode of the sale of Yosef. This is reflected in the parallelism between a number of details in one episode to details in the other…

Cassuto’s use of the concept “measure for measure” is reflected in the following Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 85:9), which he cites:

וישלח יהודה את גדי העזים ביד רעהו" (בראשית לח:כ): …התורה היא משחקת על הבריות. אמר הקב"ה ליהודה: "אתה רמית לאביך בגדי עזים, חייך שתמר מרמה בך בגדי עזים.

And Yehuda sent the young goat in the hand of his friend” (Bereshit 38:20): … The Torah mocks mankind. God said to Yehudah: “You deceived your father with a young goat, by your life Tamar will deceive you with a young goat.”

Because Yehudah and his brothers stained Yosef’s coat with the blood of a young goat in order to trick their father into believing that Yosef had been killed, Yehudah was tricked by Tamar with a young goat. This is but one of the parallels between the two narratives that support Cassuto’s interpretation. The following are a number of additional corresponding elements in the two stories:

ויהי כאשר בא יוסף אל אחיו ויפשיטו את יוסף את כותנתו

(בראשית לז:כג)

ויגד לתמר לאמר הנה חמיך עלה תמנתה לגז צאנו. ותסר בגדי אלמנותה… (בראשית לח:יג-יד)

And it was told to Tamar saying: “Behold your father-in-law is going up to Timna to shear his sheep.” And she removed her widow’s garments

(Bereshit 38:14)

And it was when Yosef came to his brothers, and they removed Yosef’s coat from him

(Bereshit 37:23)

וישלחו את כתונת הפסים ויביאו אל אביהם ויאמרו זאת מצאנו הכר נא הכתונת בנך הוא אם לא.

(בראשית לז:לב)

הוא מוצאת והיא שלחה אל חמיה לאמר לאיש אשר אלה לו אני הרה ותאמר הכר נא למי החותמת והפתילים והמטה האלה.(בראשית לח:כה)

When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law saying: “By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.” And she said: “Identify please whose are these signet, cord and staff.

(Bereshit 38:25)

And they sent the coat of many colors and brought it to their father, and said: “This we have found. Identify please if it is the coat of your son or not.”

(Bereshit 37:32)

This comparison indicates that the deceptions in the sale of Yosef and the story of Yehuda and Tamar were parallel from beginning to end. It is interesting to note that the following Midrash, found in the Schechter Genizah, also utilizes the parallel appearance of the young goat to explain the sale of Yosef as a “measure for measure” punishment for Ya’akov:

"וישחטו שעיר עזים"(בראשית לז:לא): משלם הקב"ה לבני אדם מדה כנגד מדה,ואפילו לצדיקי עולם משלם מדה כנגד מדה. יעקב אבינו רימה באביו בעורותגדיי עזים ובניו רימו בו בגדי עזים... (תורה שלמה, וישב לז:קפא)

And they slaughtered a young goat (Bereshit 37:31) - God repays man measure for measure, and even pays the righteous of the world measure for measure. Our father Ya’akov deceived his father using the skins of a young goat, and his sons deceived him with a young goat …(Torah Shleimah, Vayeshev 37:181)


A combined look at the commentaries on the stories of Yosef and Yehudah reveal an important common thread between the two events – that both stories must be viewed from both the human and Divine perspectives. Each story involves a drama in which human frailty leads to tragedy, and confrontation with that frailty leads to regeneration. In both stories, as well, the human drama unfolds within a larger picture that is driven by a Divine plan. As such, we can understand that ultimately from these two episodes emerged the two redeemers of Israel – Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David.[2]

[1] קסוטו, ב. ד., "מעשה תמר ויהודה" בציונים, הוצאת אשכול, ברלין תרפ"ט, דפים 93-100.

[2] There is a tradition among Jewish thinkers that there will be two stages to the messianic redemption involving the advent of two messianic figures – Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David. Mashiach ben Yosef is described as a warrior who will effect the national reunification of the Jewish people prior to the arrival of Mashiach ben David.

The above image originally appeared on the jacket of the Nehama Leibowitz printed series © WZO/JAFI and is reproduced here with permission from the online series © The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI.