Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Parshat VaYeshev

Yoseph and Yehuda

From this week's parsha until the end of Sefer Bereshit, Yoseph is the central character. We witness his attempt and failure to set up himself up as the fourth patriarch. However, one episode in the parsha ignores Yoseph completely. Between Yoseph's sale and his descent to Egypt, the Torah recounts the Yehuda/Tamar episode.

What is the purpose of this episode and why does it interrupt the Yoseph narrative. The obvious answer is that it is in chronological order. "Around that time (i.e. when Yoseph was sold) Yeuhda went down from his brothers…"

However, if we consider the time span, we will see that this cannot be correct. Yoseph was 17 years old when he was sold to Egypt (Bereshit 37:12). He "was 30 years old when he stood before Pharoah" (ibid 41:46). There were then 7 years of plenty and two years of famine before his family went down to Egypt – a total of 22 years.

Yet the following things occur in the Yehuda/Tamar episode:

  • He leaves the family, goes to Timna and marries Batshua.
  • He has three children: Er, Onan and Shela.
  • Er marries Tamar
  • Er dies. Tamar marries Onan.
  • Yehuda tells Tamar to wait for Shela to grow up.
  • "Many days passed and Batshua died" (ibid 38:10).
  • Tamar entraps Yehuda and she becomes pregnant.
  • Tamar gives birth to Peretz and Zerach.
  • Peretz has two sons when they go down to Egypt (ibid 46:12).

It is unlikely that all this could have occurred in only 22 years.

So why does the Yehuda/Tamar episode interrupt the Yoseph narrative.

It is true that many themes in this episode parallel the Yoseph narrative:

  • Certain words appear in both, e.g.ירד (go down), ,הכר(recognize), נחם (comfort), ערב (pledge)
  • Deception - the brothers to Yaakov, Tamar to Yehuda
  • Temptation – Yehuda/Tamar, Yoseph/Potiphar's wife
  • A kid goat - Yoseph's coat was dipped in its blood, payment for Tamar's services

These parallelisms clearly show that there is a thematic link between these episodes. Indeed, both show the rise of leaders and the eclipse of Reuven. The route to Yoseph's leadership was through his position in Egypt. Yehuda's, however, was far more natural. At first Yehuda strays away from his brothers, perhaps signifying the tribe of Yehuda''s secession from the rest of Israel in the pre-monarchial era, i.e. the Judges. However, circumstance brings Yehuda to leadership. His older brothers Reuven, Shimon and Levi have fallen out of favor with Yaakov. Yoseph, Yaakov's favorite son was missing, presumed dead. Yehuda, therefore, found himself taking on the mantle of leadership when the brothers run into trouble in Egypt, he placates Yaakov into releasing Benyamin, he negotiates with Yoseph over Benyamin and he is sent by Yaakov to prepare for heir descent to Egypt.

These two represents two distinct realms of leadership within Israel, and show fulfillment of God's promise to Yaakov that "kings shall come forth from your loins" (ibid 35:11).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled: "Who sold Yoseph?" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYeshev entitled "Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch", appears at:

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