In Genesis 38, temporarily interrupting the story of Joseph, we read the fascinating story of Tamar, one of the more unexpected heroines of the Torah. The text gives us no inclination as to who she is. The chapter opens by telling us that Judah had separated from his brothers, and married a Canaanite woman by whom he had three children. The eldest, Er, married Tamar.
The plain implication is that she too was a Canaanite. These were the people among whom Judah was living; and he was unlikely to have forbidden his son from marrying a local woman, given that he had done so himself. (Rabbinic tradition, though, identified Tamar as a daughter of Shem, and hence not a Canaanite, for they were descended from Shem’s brother Ham.)
Er dies young, leaving Tamar a childless widow. Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to marry her, “to do his duty as the husband’s brother and raise up offspring for his brother” (Genesis 38:8). Realizing that a child from the marriage would be regarded as belonging to his dead brother rather than himself, Onan is careful not to make Tamar pregnant. This is reckoned a sin, and Onan too dies young. The proper thing would now be for Judah’s third son, Shelah, to marry Tamar, but Judah was reluctant to let this happen, “for he was afraid that Shelah too might die like his brothers.” He tells Tamar to wait until Shelah grows up – but this is disingenuous. Judah has no intention of letting Shelah marry Tamar (Rashi).
Operating throughout the story is a form of the law that later became part of Judaism, namely yibbum, levirate marriage, the rule that another member of the dead husband’s family marry his childless widow “to perpetuate the dead brother’s name so that it may not be blotted out from Israel” (Deuteronomy 25: 6). Indeed the text, in verse 8, uses the verb y-b-m. However, as Nachmanides points out (and this is crucial to the story) the pre-Mosaic law differed from its Mosaic successor. The law in Deuteronomy restricts the obligation to brothers of the dead husband. The earlier law seems to have included other members of the family as well.
As the years pass, Tamar begins to realize that Judah has no intention of giving her his third son. She is now trapped: an agunah, a “chained woman,” unable to marry Shelah because of Judah’s fears, unable to marry anyone else because she is legally bound to her brother-in-law. Her plight concerns more than herself: it also means that she is unable to bear children who will carry on the name and line of her dead husbands.
She decides on a bold course of action. Hearing that Judah was about to pass by on his way to the sheep shearing, she removes her widow’s clothes, puts on a veil, and sits at the crossroads. Judah sees her, does not recognize her, and takes her for a prostitute. They negotiate. Judah offers her a price – a young goat from the flock – but Tamar insists on security, a pledge: his seal and its cord, and his staff. Judah agrees, and they sleep together. The next day he sends a friend with the payment, but the friend cannot find her, and people tell him that there was no prostitute in the area. Judah shrugs off the episode, saying, “Let her keep the pledge, or we shall be a laughing stock.”
Three months later, people begin to notice that Tamar is pregnant. Since Shelah has been kept away from her, it can only mean that she has slept with someone else, and is thus guilty of adultery, a capital crime. Judah issues the following order: “Bring her out so that she may be burnt.” Only then do we realize the subtlety of Tamar’s strategy.
As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law: “The father of my child is the man to whom these things belong,” she said. “See if you recognize whose they are, this seal, the pattern of the cord, and the staff.” Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
With great ingenuity and boldness, Tamar has broken through the bind in which Judah had placed her. She has fulfilled her duty to the dead. But no less significantly, she has spared Judah shame. By sending him a coded message – the pledge – she has ensured that he will know that he himself is the father of the child, but no one else will. To do this, she has taken an enormous risk – of being put to death for adultery.
Not surprisingly, the rabbis inferred from her conduct this strong moral rule: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public” (Baba Metzia 59a).
The rabbis were acutely sensitive to humiliation. They said, “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, is as if he shed his blood” and “One who publicly humiliates another, forfeits his place in the World-to-Come” (Baba Metzia 58b-59a). Rabbi Tanchuma taught: “Know whom you shame; if you shame your neighbor [you shame G-d himself, for it is written], ‘In the image of G-d, He made man’ ” (Bereishit Rabbah 24:7).
“When Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was about to die, his disciples sat before him and asked, ‘Our teacher, teach us one [fundamental] thing.’ He replied, ‘My children, what can I teach you? Let every one of you go and be very careful of the dignity of others’ ” (Derech Eretz Rabbah, 3).
The Talmud defines ona’at devarim (verbal oppression) as reminding a person of a past they may find shameful. Judaism is a religion of words. G-d created the natural world with words. We create – and sometimes destroy – the social world with words. That is one reason why Judaism has so strong an ethic of speech. The other reason, surely, is its concern to protect human dignity. Psychological injury may be no less harmful, and is often more so, than physical injury. Hence the rule: never humiliate, never put to shame, never take refuge in the excuse that they were only words, that no physical harm was done.
I will never forget an episode that occurred when I was a rabbinical student in the mid-1970s. A group of us, yeshiva students together with students from a rabbinical seminary, were praying together one morning in Switzerland, where we were attending a conference. We were using one of the rooms of the chateau where we were staying. A few minutes into the prayers, a new arrival entered the room: a woman Reform rabbi, wearing tallit and tefillin. She sat down among the men.
The students were shocked, and did not know what to do. Should they ask her to leave? Should they go elsewhere to pray? They clustered around the rabbi leading the group – today a highly respected rosh yeshiva in Israel. He looked up, saw the situation, and without hesitation and with great solemnity recited to the students the law derived from Tamar: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public.” He told the students to go back to their seats and carry on praying. G-d forbid they should shame the woman. The memory of that moment has stayed with me ever since.
It says something about the Torah and Jewish spirituality that we learn this law from Tamar, a woman at the very edge of Israelite society, who risked her life rather than put her father-in-law to shame. Psychological pain is as serious as physical pain. Loss of dignity is a kind of loss of life. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was the episode of Judah and Tamar that began a family tree from which 10 generations later came David, Israel’s greatest king.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.