December 13, 2014 – 21 Kislev 5775
Annual (Genesis 37:1-40:23): Etz Hayim p. 226; Hertz p. 141
Triennial (Genesis 38:1-38:30): Etz Hayim p. 233; Hertz p. 145
Haftarah (Amos 2:6 - 3:8): Etz Hayim p. 247; Hertz p. 152
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Jacob gives Joseph a colored coat to show that he is Jacob’s favorite son.
Joseph tells his brothers of dreams that his family will serve him.
Enraged, the brothers plan to kill Joseph, until Reuven pleas for
clemency; instead, they sell Joseph into slavery, and tell Jacob that
Joseph had been killed by an animal.
Judah refuses to have his third son marry Tamar after his first two sons
who had been married to her, die. Tamar dresses as a harlot and seduces
Judah. When Tamar is discovered pregnant, she is saved from execution
only after Judah is revealed as the father.
Joseph, now in Egypt, serves Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. Potiphar’s
wife tries to seduce Joseph; when he refuses her advances, she accuses
him of rape. Joseph is imprisoned. While there, Joseph correctly
interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. But while the baker
is executed, the butler forgets Joseph once he is restored to his post.
Theme #1: To Er is Human?
Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. But Er,
Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his
life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do
your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your
brother.” But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it
go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to
provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the
Lord, and He took his life also. (Genesis 38:6-10)
The deaths of Judah’s older two sons leads him to suspect that Tamar is to
blame -- setting into motion his extraordinary encounter with her that
Like his brother Er before him, Onan has offended YHWH, and he loses
his life. But this time the text declares up front the reason for the divine
sanction: “What he did (that is, preventing Tamar from getting pregnant)
was evil in YHWH’s eyes …” But the evil deed is more than a creative and
illicit method of birth control. By withholding “seed” from Tamar, Onan is
in effect squandering the family’s future. …. Likewise, YHWH’s role in the
deaths of Er and Onan in the Judah-Tamar story is scarcely incidental; it
serves to remind the reader of a lurking providence. -- Frank Anthony
Spina, The Faith of the Outsider
[The history of Jewish law] has developed throughout the millennia to
incorporate new insights and moral vision, while expressing God’s
commitment to compassion and justice. … In Hittite, Assyrian, and Nuzi
law codes … [levirate marriage,] yibbum asserts the ownership of the
woman by the husband’s family. She is to be inherited like any other
property. Jewish law seems to start with that assumption as well. … The
rabbis of the Talmud had qualms about this forced marriage, however,
particularly since Talmudic law permits marriage only with the woman’s
consent. … In 1950, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel made yibbum illegal.
What originated as a way of ensuring family continuity became
objectionable because the ancient notion of women as chattel was
replaced by a growing recognition in rabbinic Judaism of women as
responsible adults. -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah
The matter of seed runs through the scriptures in a very literal and
explicit fashion. It should not be turned into a pale metaphor. The
references are directly biological and have to do with human
reproduction. This is most clear in the story of Onan … To a modern
reader this decision [by Onan to practice coitus interruptus] seems
reasonable, but Yahweh saw the sperm being spilled and it “displeased”
him. … Manifestly, seed refers to biological reproduction and it is through
the seed in the biological sense that the corporate existence of the Chosen
People is achieved generation after generation. Biology is central to the
definition of the Chosen People. -- Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing
Questions for Discussion:
Spina notes that while the reason for Er’s death is not specified, the
reason for Onan’s death is spelled out in the text. Why might have Er
died? Is it likely that the actual reason for his death is related to the
reason of Onan’s death? Why would the text be comparatively mysterious
about Er’s death? Might it be because, as sensitive as Onan’s sin is, Er’s
may have been even more sensitive?
Artson gives us a modern perspective on the law of the Levirate marriage,
a notion that is at the heart of Onan’s refusal to provide Tamar with a
child. Numerous biblical stories are thought to be examples of why a law
exists today the way it does. Does this story properly explain the potential
problems with Levirate marriage? Or should it be seen as an example of
one person’s rebellious defiance of an otherwise reasonable rule?
Akenson reminds us the ultimate importance of biology to Jewish
identity. Today, those who are born Jewish always are considered Jewish
regardless of how observant they might be. What message do we send
fellow Jews when we tell them they are always welcome in the
community, no matter what? How does that impact the way we treat our
Theme #2: Taking Matters Into Her Own Hands
About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar
has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child from harlotry.” “Bring her
out,” his Judah, “and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out,
she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to
whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and
cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more
in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And
he was not intimate with her again. (Genesis 38:24-26)
Judah finally is forced to confront the unfairness with which he treated Tamar and exonerates her from wrongdoing.
Having known her once, he never abstained from her again. -- Talmud Sotah 10b
Once the widow is pregnant, the levirate is over. The laws do not specify that the woman should continue to be the wife of the levir. Sleeping with a daughter-in-law becomes an incestuous act, and the story hastens to assure us that Judah never slept with Tamar again. -- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible
Tamar seized this one prime moment for action, securing her, our, destiny. In any case, whether she was a common prostitute (zonah), or a sacred priestess (kedeshah), or temporarily pretending, her daring dance with illicit sex is surprisingly seen by our tradition as just, moral, and ethical. She is a woman who resorts to desperate measures, and in doing so, she shows Judah’s lack of commitment, at least to levirate marriage. -- Rabbi Geela-Rayzel Raphael, “Power, Sex, and Deception,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.
Questions for Discussion:
Contrary to the Torah text, the Talmudic tractate of Sotah claims that
Judah continues to be intimate with Tamar after her sons are born. What
do you think Judah’s relationship with Tamar is like at this point? Does he
treat her with the level of affection due to a wife? Does he truly mean it
that she is more righteous than he is, and approach her accordingly? Or, is
does he take part in the relationship with awkwardness or even anger?
Contrary to the account in Sotah, Frymer-Kensky goes with the original
meaning of the text, that Judah never is intimate with Tamar again.
Which commentary is more believable?
Raphael celebrates Tamar’s proactive role in this story. Tamar named
alongside numerous like-minded women, including Rebekah, Hannah,
Deborah and Esther. How are today’s egalitarian communities a
celebration of women like them?