"Yehuda & Tamar - A Chanukah Drama"

Seal, Cord and Staff

by Yosef Y. Jacobson

Based on a passage in Bat Ayin, by Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avrutsh.

A spiritual story

In one of the astonishing tales of the Torah portion, Vayeshev (Gen. 38), we read about the unconventional union that transpired between Judah, the son of Jacob, and his daughter-in-law Tamar, who disguised herself as a harlot.

It is axiomatic among all of the Jewish biblical commentators that the stories in the Torah are not just tales relating ancient Jewish history. They also reflect spiritual timeless experiences that take place continually within the human soul. Nachmanides wrote, "The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the world of the spirit."

What follows, therefore, in this week's essay, is a classical Chassidic interpretation on the episode of Judah and Tamar, treating the story as symbolic of the inner spiritual life of the Jew.

Betrayal and its consequences

In the writings of the kabbala, the name Judah, or Yehuda (in Hebrew), containing within it the four letters of the name of G-d, symbolizes the Creator. Tamar, on the other hand, is the Hebrew name for a palm tree and represents the Jewish people and their bond with G-d (1).

Why? The Talmud explains, "Just as the palm tree has but one 'heart', so too do the Jewish people have only a single heart, devoted completely to their Father in heaven." (The heart of the date palm is its sap. Unlike the saps of other trees, like the olive or almond tree, the sap of the palm is found only in its trunk, but not in its branches or leaves. This is the meaning behind the Talmudic statement that the palm tree possesses only a single "heart" (2)).

The intimate union between Tamar and Judah - the Jew and G-d - occurs during the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those days, G-d, or Judah, exposes Himself to His people, evoking within them a yearning to transcend their ego and self-centered cravings and to become one with G-d. But then, "Some three months passed" (Gen. 38:24), and the spiritual inspiration of the High Holy days wears off. Judah is informed that "Tamar, your kalla (3), has committed harlotry, and moreover, she has become pregnant by harlotry" (Gen. 38:24). The news arrives to G-d that His bride has betrayed Him, substituting him with another partner.

Is this not the story of so many of us? At one point during our lives we are inspired to transcend our selfish identity and connect to the deeper Divine rhythm of life. Yet, the cunning lore of numerous other gods captivates our imaginations and ambitions and dulls our vision. We substituted the G-d of truth and transcendence with the ego-god, the power-god, the money-god, the temptation-god, the addiction-god, the manipulation-god and the god of self-indulgence. What is even sadder for Judah is the news that "Tamar" is so estranged that she became pregnant by harlotry. This symbolizes the stage in life when the Jew rejects the G-d of his forefathers permanently and decides to build his future with superficial sources of gratification.

The purpose of the Jew is to serve as the spiritual compass of human civilization

"Take her out and have her burned," says Judah. The purpose of the Jew is to serve as the spiritual compass of human civilization, to bear witness to the truth of the One G-d, the moral conscious of the world. When the Jew loses sight of the raison d'être of his existence, when he believes that his salvation lies in the fact that he "was invited to the White House," or that he was praised in an editorial of The New York Times, his existence is useless.

The truth emerges

Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote that the judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is completed some three months later, during the days of Chanukah." That's why it is at this period of time - three months after the intimate union between Judah and Tamar - that Judah (the metaphor for G-d) is "informed" regarding the spiritual status of Tamar (the Jewish people) and the verdict is issued that Tamar has no future.

"When Tamar was being taken out, she sent word to Judah, saying, 'I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles. Identify, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord (4) and staff?'" (Gen. 38:25)

During that fateful time, when the "prosecuting angels" have almost been successful in demonstrating to G-d that the Jewish people are a failed experiment, at that very moment, the Jew sends word to G-d, saying, "I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles!" The information you received that I abandoned you, is a blatant lie! If I have gone astray here and there, it is merely a superficial, temporary phase. Gaze into the deeper layers of my identity and you will discover that I belong to You, that my intimacy is shared only with You, G-d. "I am pregnant from Judah and not from anybody else!" the Jew declares.

"Identify, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord and staff?" For during the festival of Chanukah - when the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is finalized - the Jew kindles each night a wick, or a cord, soaked in oil, commemorating the event of the Jews discovering a sealed single cruse of oil after the Greeks had plundered the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jew further points to the staff in his arm. In order to preserve his faith, he was forced time and time again - for 2000 years - to take the wandering staff in his arm, abandon his home, wealth and security, and seek out new territory where he could continue to live as a Jew.

The Hebrew term for "and the staff," "v'hamateh," has the same numerological value as the word "the vessel", "hakeli", symbolic of the menorah in which we kindle the Chanukah flames. Hence, this verse is alluding to the three components of the Chanukah lights: the menorah, the wick and the oil - all of which testify to the eternal allegiance of the Jew to G-d.

"Identify, I beg you, these objects. Who is the owner of this seal, cord and staff?" the Jew asks G-d. "It is to this man that I am pregnant!" Our loyalty and commitment remain eternally to the owner of the "seal" and "cord" of the Chanukah flames; our deepest intimacy is reserved to the owner of the "staff" of Jewish wandering.

Who is the traitor?

"Judah immediately recognized the articles, and he said, "She is right; it is from me that she conceived. She did it because I did not give her to my son Shelah" (Gen. 38:26).

When G-d observes the burning flames of the Chanukah menorah, He immediately recognizes that indeed, His people have never left Him. True, the Jew does fall prey at times to the dominating external forces of a materialistic and immoral world, yet this enslavement is skin deep. Probe the layers of his or her soul and you will discover an infinite wellspring of spirituality and love.

"If the Jew has, in fact, gone astray here and there, it is my fault," G-d says, not his. "Because I did not give Tamar to my son Shelah." Shelah is the Biblical term used to describe Mashiach (5). G-d says that for two millennia I have kept the Jewish nation in a dark and horrific exile where they have been subjected to horrendous pain and savage suffering. Blood, tears and death have been their tragic fate for twenty centuries, as they prayed, each day and every moment for world redemption. But redemption has not come.

How can I expect that a Jew never commit a sin? How can I expect that a Jew never try to cast his luck with the materialistic world about him that seems so appealing, when I held back for so long the light of Mashiach? "It is I, G-d, who is guilty of treason," G-d says. Not the Jew. Tamar is an innocent, beautiful palm-tree, which still has only one heart to its father in heaven.



1) See Hoshanot recited on the third day of Sukkot. Psalms 92:13.
2) Rashi ibid.; cf. Ritva.
3) The conjugated Hebrew word can be translated as "your daughter-in-law," or, literally, as "your bride."
4) "Petila" in Hebrew literally means a string or a wick. Judah gave her the string that he used to bind his sheep (Sechel Tov on Gen. 38:18). Many commentators, including Rashi, translate the word to mean a wrap or cloak.
5) See Gen. 49:12

My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.

Copyright 2001 by Yosef Y. Jacobson.

Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson is an acclaimed teacher, lecturer and writer, based in the New York area. For a copy of his speaking schedule, or to order his audio tapes or subcribe to his weekly essay, contact: YYJacobson@aol.com.

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