A Shabbat Nugget: Parashat Vayeishev

In this week’s Torah portion, we have a fascinating story about Judah.  The Torah tells us that Judah gets married and has three children.  He marries off his first child, Er to a woman called Tamar.  However, G-d is upset at Er and he dies.

In the Torah there is a concept of levirate marriage, in which when a man dies without children, there is a mitzvah for his brother to get married to the widow, so that the child born from this union is considered a spiritual son to the deceased.  Because of this Mitzvah, Judah marries off his second son, Onain to Tamar.  However, Onain follows in the wicked path of his brother, Er and also dies without children.  At this point, Judah should technically marry off his third son to Tamar but, he is afraid that perhaps the reason his children are dying is related in some way to Tamar and therefore, he stalls the marriage of his third son to Tamar.

Tamar was determined to have children from Judah.  When she saw that Judah did not intend to give his third son to her for marriage, she devised a plan to have children from Judah himself. The Torah tells us that at that time Judah’s wife had died and after Judah was consoled from her death, Judah travelled to the city of Timnah to oversee his sheep shearing.  Tamar, covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself up and sat by the crossroads which is on the road to Timnah.  When Judah saw her, he entered in a relationship with her and consorted with her.  He promised to send her payment and left as a collateral his signet ring, his belt and his staff.

Around three months later it became known that Tamar was pregnant.  This was problematic as she was still bound to Judah’s family due to the levirate laws.  Therefore, Judah orders for her to be killed.  Before she is taken to be killed, she sends the staff, signet ring and belt to Judah and sends word to him “With the man that these belong to, I became pregnant.” When Judah hears the message, he proclaims “She is correct, the child is from me.”

Nachmanides explains that her consorting with Judah was allowed since before the Torah was given the levirate laws applied to anyone in the family of the deceased and therefore Tamar was allowed to consort with Judah.  The Torah continues to tell us that when Tamar gave birth to two children, Peretz  and Zarach, this has great significance since from the line of Peretz emerged King David and from the line of King David, Moshiach will emerge.

Our sages tell us that there is an incredible lesson to learn from this story, Tamar did not send a message to Judah that “I am pregnant from you” since she did not want to shame him and she was ready to die if he would not admit on his own that he was responsible.  Also, this Torah portion always comes out around Chanukah and there is a hint to it in this story.  The commentaries tell us that the signet ring is a hint to the jug of pure oil which was found in the times of Chanukah with the signet stamp of the High Priest.  The word the Torah uses for belt is “Pessilah” which also means a wick and the staff is a hint of the branches of the Menorah!

Best wishes for a happy Chanukah!

About Rabbi Pesach Scheiner

Rabbi Pesach Scheiner is the Rabbi of Boulder County Center for Judaism. In addition, he teaches extensively throughout Boulder County and is the author of "Finding the Joy in Everyday Living," a book of short chapters explaining the ways to access happiness through appreciation, gratitude, and a sense of purpose.

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