In this week’s parsha of Vayeshev, we read about the famous story of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda marries a woman and has three sons. When the eldest is old enough, Yehuda marries him off to a woman named Tamar. Unfortunately this son dies shortly afterwards, so as part of the Jewish custom of “Yibum–Leverite Marriage”, the next son in line marries his widowed sister-in-law. As “fate” would have it, this second son also dies. Yehuda then tells Tamar (38:11) “Sit as a widow in your father’s house until my third son is old enough to marry you”. Yet, the Torah tells us that at the same time Yehuda said to himself: “Yeah right! Does she really think I’m going to let her marry my last son so he can die too?!” After much time goes by, it becomes clear to Tamar that Yehuda has no intention of giving his remaining son to this “boy-killer”. This puts Tamar in a very precarious situation. According to Jewish law, she isn’t married because her husband is dead. At the same time, she isn’t really single because as long as there is someone who can perform the Leverite marriage, she is joined to him until he either marries her, or performs “Chalitzah”–a ceremony that lets him off the hook. Caught up in this Halachic “twilight zone”, Tamar’s future is looking bleak until she realizes that there is one other person who can perform Yibum on her–Yehuda! According to the laws of Yibum, if there are no brothers to marry the widow, the father is next in line!
Coincidentally, Yehuda’s wife suddenly dies and he goes up to Timnah to get away from it all and shear some sheep. Tamar seizes the opportunity and dresses up like a prostitute and sits at a crossroads on the road going up to Timnah. Yehuda sees her and (38:15) “Thinks that she is a prostitute because her face is veiled”. Yehuda then approaches Tamar and propositions her. She responds to this as any good girl would (38:16) “What will you give me”? Yehuda answers back as the righteous person he is (38:17) “I’ll have some sheep sent to you”. By now the shock has probably worn off, and Tamar can now answer more appropriately–“Until I get the sheep, I need some kind of deposit”. Yehuda then asks her what she had in mind and Tamar (obviously a novice at this), hesitates for about .3 seconds before saying (38:18) “Your seal, your string and your staff”. The negotiations over, Yehuda and Tamar spend time together and she gets pregnant. She immediately goes home the next day and when Yehuda tries to send her the “promised” sheep, she is nowhere to be found. He and his men ask around but noone seems to know who that “mysterious” woman was. So Yehuda calls off the search saying (38:23) “Let her keep those things, lest we be shamed by searching for her”.
Three months later, Tamar is beginning to show and someone tells Yehuda that his daughter in-law is pregnant. Yehuda seems to view her as a married woman because he says (38:24) “She must be taken out and burned” as would happen to a married woman who committed adultery. On her way out to be killed, Tamar sends Yehuda the 3 security items with a message (38:25) “To whomever these things belong, is the one from whom I am pregnant”. Whereupon Yehuda owns up to the whole affair by admitting out loud “She is more righteous than I”.
One question that may come to mind is: Why does the Torah go into such detail about what Yehuda gave to Tamar? Is knowing exactly what he gave her, crucial to our understanding this story? And on an even more practical note–why does Yehuda call off the search out of fear that he will be shamed? Wouldn’t he face greater shame when people see a prostitute going around with things that are obviously his–like a personalized signet ring or a staff?!
Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz) says that the three things that Yehuda gave Tamar are symbols for three other things which share a common theme. The “seal” that he gave her is not merely a signet ring. Rather, it’s the “seal” that Hashem puts on every Jewish man–i.e. the Brit Milah (circumcision), which represents the Covenant Hashem made with us. As part of this Covenant we expect Hashem to watch over us and in return He expects us to keep His mitzvot. One mitzvah we are expected to keep, specifically symbolized by the Brit Milah, is refraining from immoral behavior (which is why the Brit is done where it is). By transgressing this mitzvah with Tamar, Yehuda gave away his “seal” i.e. his Brit Milah.
The second thing that Yehuda gave Tamar was his string, or “P’til”. The string is a symbol for Tzitzit, which are put on a four-cornered garment and include a “P’til T’chelet-blue string”. In the prayer “Shema Yisroel”, we say that tzitzit act as a reminder of all mitzvot. One way we see this is by adding up the numerical value of the Hebrew letters “Tzitzit” (=600) and adding to that the 8 strings of the Tzitzit and the 5 knots, which = 613. That number corresponds to the total number of miztvot we have. Tzitzit is also supposed to be a deterrent for sexual immorality. As it says in Shema “And you will see the tzitzit and YOU WILL NOT STRAY AFTER YOUR HEART”–which refers to immoral activity. In transgressing this, Yehuda gave Tamar his Tzitzit as well.
The third security that Yehuda gives Tamar is his staff. The staff represents leadership/royalty. Moshe performed miracles with his staff and thus “ruled” over the Jews, like a King rules with a staff or scepter. A King is commanded “Lo Tarbeh Lo Nashim–not to have too many wives”–because it could lead to immoral sexual activity. Since Yehuda involved himself in this kind of activity with Tamar, he gave away his staff as well.
While it’s always nice to try to attribute symbolism to things, when you think about it Yehuda really didn’t give those things up! He didn’t give up his “staff” because we know he was still the forerunner of the Jewish house of royalty. Regarding his Tzitzit–I highly doubt that Tamar, acting as a prostitute, would assign value to Tzitzit and thus risk being found out. And as far as his Brit is concerned, he certainly couldn’t give that up! So why do we say that he gave those things up? And if they are really so significant–how COULD he give them up?
Judaism places alot of importance on symbolism so much so that, according to Judaism you can have the physical representation of something, but without the symbolism it’s like you don’t really have it. For example, when it comes to shabbat you can take a day off from work, but if you don’t have the symbolism of shabbat (including lighting candles, praying in synagogue, spending time with family, learning Torah, etc.) than you don’t really have shabbat–you just have a day off from work. You can have a four-cornered garment with fringes on the end, but if that garment doesn’t remind you of the mitzvot–you don’t have tzitzit, you just have a four-cornered garment with fringes on the end. You can have a Jewish house of royalty with a King who collects taxes and issues edicts, but if that King marries too many wives–you don’t have a JEWISH house of royalty, you just have a house of royalty like England or Siam. If a man’s Brit Milah doesn’t remind him of his covenant with Hashem to keep mitzvot–he doesn’t have a Brit Milah, he merely has a medical procedure. So maybe the reason why Yehuda gave up those things is because the symbolism was lost on him. Once the symbolism was lost, it’s like he didn’t have them anymore. Maybe that’s also why he calls of the search–those things were not significant enough to him to risk losing face.
On a more positive note, we can say that the opposite is true too. Sometimes, even if you don’t have the physical representation of something, if the symbolism is there it’s as if you really have it. In other words, if the symbolism behind any Jewish object is really a matter of recognizing Hashem’s Presence, then as long as a person recognizes Hashem’s Presence, it is as if he has the object. Even if another person tries to take the object away, if the symbolism is there, no one can take the object away. After all, you can take a person out of Hashem’s Presence, but you can never take Hashem’s Presence out of the person.
I realized this from a story my father told me. My father is a Holocaust survivor. While he was in a certain concentration camp, a diagram of the camp was smuggled out to the Allies. The hope was that the Allies would bomb the cremetoria (ovens) using the diagram as a guide. Unfortunately, someone must have read the diagram incorrectly because instead of bombing the crematoria, they blew up the bread factory from which that camp received its bread rations. As a result, the inmates went without bread for a month, until the factory was repaired and a new bread-shipment came in. Ironically, the first shipment of new bread arrived on the night of Pesach, when it is forbidden to eat bread. When my father paused for a moment at this point in the story, I found myself asking him the following, incredibly-stupid question: “So Dad, did you eat it?” (I kick myself until today). My father hesitated a moment and then said “Of course we ate it”. For a man who had kept every shabbat and holiday before and since, looking his daughter in the eye and admitting to have eaten bread on Pesach must have been extremely difficult. But even more than that, I thought about how horrible it was that the Nazis were not only able to take away my father’s whole family, his dignity and some of the most prime-time in his life, but they even got to take away his Pesach that year! But then I realized I’d made another mistake. The fact that my father did not have matzah, bitter herbs, or 4 cups of wine that year didn’t really matter. On the contrary, as my father was marched out to his work-detail that night, whispering the holiday prayers under his breath, reciting whatever passages from the Hagaddah that he remembered by heart and even eating his BREAD (pretending that it was matzah) while he whispered the words of hope “Next year, to be free in Jerusalem”, my father definitely had Pesach that year.
You can take a person out of Hashem’s Presence, but you can never take Hashem’s Presence out of the person.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,