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Vayeishev: Different Models of Loyalty

We often think of the story of Yehudah and Tamar as being about Yehudah and Tamar, but a closer reading yields that there is a third figure in the story, Hirah the man from Adulam.
Photo: Rembrandt/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Rembrandt/Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Vayeishev: Different Models of Loyalty

We often think of the story of Yehudah and Tamar as being about Yehudah and Tamar, but a closer reading yields that there is a third figure in the story, Hirah the man from Adulam.

The story of Tamar and Yehudah opens with a fairly straightforward introduction, “at that time Yehudah departed from his brothers and inclined towards a man from Adulam, and his name was Hirah” (Bereishit 38:1).  Why are we told about this man?  What is his significance to the story we are about to read?

A close reading of the story teaches us that the man from Adulam represents something significant.  In a story about trickery and trust, he represents a different model of trustworthiness.  Hirah is a foil to the attitudes and behaviors of Yehudah and Tamar. His presence gently and devotedly shows a different perspective and attitude from the attitude shown by the main protagonists of the story.

We’ll read chapter 38 of Bereishit, which focuses on Yehudah, Tamar, along with the man from Adulam, and through this lens, investigating the nature of devotion, loyalty and trust.


Yehudah arrives at a new place, “and inclined towards a man from Adulam, and his name was Hirah” (v. 1).  He creates new bonds in this place, inclining himself to Hirah.  Some explain this bond as a business relationship and others view this simply as a demonstration of physical proximity.  After establishing this first connection, Yehudah proceeds to bind himself again:  “There Yehudah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man whose name was Shua.  And he took her and came to her” (v. 2).  Yehudah’s wife bears him children and in time, Yehudah marries off his oldest son Er to Tamar.  After many years, Yehudah’s oldest son dies and Yehudah finds himself needing to demonstrate his loyalty and devotion, doing right both by his deceased son and his bereaved daughter-in-law, in fulfilling the law of yibbum (levirate marriage). [1]   “Yehudah said to Onan, go to your brother’s wife and do yibbum with her and establish progeny for your brother” (v. 8).  Onan too meets an untimely death.  This leaves it to Yehudah to fulfill the mitzvah, obligation, of yibbum by giving his third son to Tamar which he is reluctant to do, given what happened to his two eldest sons, her first husbands.

Thus, after the death of his second son, Yehudah feels that he needs to choose between two loyalties, to Tamar or to his youngest son, and he chooses to be loyal to his youngest son.  From the language used, it’s clear that Yehudah is completely unable to imagine a path in which he could remain loyal and devoted to both of them:

Yehudah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah is grown.  For he said [to himself], Lest he also dies like his brothers.  And Tamar went to live in her father’s house” (v. 11).

The fact that Yehudah lies to Tamar, that he doesn’t include her in his thought process and concerns, and that he sends her home to her parents are all expressions of the sense that Yehudah has that he needs to choose between Tamar and Shelah.  He can’t be faithful to both of them.


Given this background, it is not at all surprising that we find lies and deceit also coming from Tamar towards Yehudah:

“She removed the clothes of her widowhood and she covered herself entirely with a scarf.  She reclined and sat at the fork in the road on the way to Timnah…and Yehudah saw her and thought she was a prostitute since she covered her face” (vv. 14-5).

Essentially, there is a profound disconnect between Yehudah and Tamar which expresses itself in a few details of miscommunication, lack of communication, and non-recognition in the story.  Yehudah does not himself update Tamar about his whereabouts, instead, “it was told to Tamar, ‘Behold your father in law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep…'” (v. 13).  She covered  her face with a scarf and Yehudah didn’t recognize her.  Additionally, Tamar never asks Yehudah about Shelah or when they are going to be married, and Yehudah never volunteers any updates.  She only expresses the conclusions she reaches internally, “for she saw that Shelah grew up and she was not given to him as a wife” (v. 14).

Let us turn back to the story: Just as Yehudah “inclined himself” to the man from Adulam so too Yehudah “inclines” himself to Tamar, but this time he doesn’t recognize whom he is inclining towards:  “He inclined to her, to the way, and he said, ‘Let me now come to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law” (v. 16).

In contrast to the “inclining” that opens the chapter, where we are supplied with the name of the person who Yehudah is joining, Hirah, here the text emphasizes that Yehudah doesn’t know anything about this woman.  The literary comparison invited by the use of the same unusual verb va-yet (to incline) creates within the reader a disharmony, and stresses the stark difference between the two encounters.  It also might reflect something of what is happening in the heart of Tamar: sitting widowed rather than with Shela. Yehudah, on the other hand, likely thought that he was entering into a momentary and brief episode.

Returning to Tamar. Ostensibly, one could explain her behavior as a total lack of faithfulness to Yehudah.  Instead of waiting for him and trusting him to provide her with her rightful husband, she chooses to seduce him and become pregnant that way. However, the continuation of the chapter illustrates that this is not the case. When Tamar is discovered to be impregnated by an unidentified man, she is ordered to be burned at the stake by Yehudah. Tamar, is presented with two options: betray Yehudah by revealing his identity (and thereby be spared the penalty of burning and maintain her reputation), or show loyalty to Yehudah by continuing to conceal his identity.  Tamar chooses to be faithful to Yehudah.  She chooses not to expose him publicly and instead allows him the option of taking responsibility even though giving him this option puts Tamar herself at risk for burning.

In the Talmudic tradition, this choice that Tamar makes, of loyalty over betrayal, turns her into a paradigm of model behavior:

Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 59a

It is better for a person to cast hims into a fiery furnace and not publicly shame [lit. whiten the face] of his friend.  How do we know this?  From Tamar.  As it says, “she was found and sent to her father-in-law” (v. 25). [2]

The Talmudic reading of Tamar focuses our attention on the choice that she had to make.  Then, at the climax of the story, when her life and reputation are at stake, Tamar makes the right decision, a decision of loyalty and devotion.


Hirah a minor character, who appears only in this one place, presents a totally different picture of loyalty. [3] His loyalty is expressed through duration, companionship, devotion, and togetherness.  As mentioned, he appears at the beginning of the chapter as the person to whom Yehudah inclines, but he also appears twice more.  Again when Yehudah’s wife passes away and a third time when he is chosen to be the messenger to deliver Yehudah’s payment to and receive his collateral from the supposed prostitute on the way to Timnah, the woman who the biblical readers know is Tamar but Yehudah does not.  As the verses describe:

“After many days, Bat Shua the wife of Yehudah died.  He was comforted and he went to shear his sheep in Timnah, he and Hirah his friend from Adulam… Yehudah sent the goat in the hand of his friend, to get the collateral from the hand of the woman” (vv. 12, 20).

The three times at which Hirah is mentioned are momentous junctures of Yehudah’s life: moving away from his brothers, losing his wife, and the challenge of delivering payment to a prostitute who has all of his identifying objects in her hand.

Hirah accompanies Yehudah through many years, from the day he arrived to Adulam as a single man through the marriages of his children.  He sticks by Yehudah during the tough times and volunteers to help in solving Yehudah’s problems.  For example, when Hirah sees that the prostitute that he was looking for isn’t there, he tries to find her and to strategize with Yehudah to find a solution for the confusing situation that he is caught up in:

“He returned to Yehudah and said, I didn’t find her.  And also the local people there said that there was no prostitute here.  Yehudah said, Take it for her, lest we be shamed. Behold, I send this goat and you didn’t find her” (vv. 22-3).

What is so moving about this conversation is what isn’t told in the verses.  Yehudah, as is evident from the verses, includes the man from Adulam in his encounter with the prostitute, and they deliberate together about his situation in an open way, about the potential embarrassment latent in this predicament.  Yehudah is very concerned that other people will find out, he’s concerned about shame and ridicule from everyone – with the exception of Hirah, whom he trusts completely.  This is emphasized by Rashi’s comments there, “Lest we be shamed – If you ask after her further the matter will become public and there will be a disgrace!”  The connection between Yehudah and Hirah, as opposed to the connection between Yehudah and others, is free of drama, free of suspicion or extreme decisions that require ultimate sacrifice.  Between Yehudah and his friend Hirah there is a sense of openness, ease, devotion, and time.

In Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, Hirah is called an “ohev,” a lover, in the sense of an extremely close friend:  “‘He inclined to the man from Adulam and his name was Hirah.’ The Rabbis say… this person was known to be the lover of this tribe [i.e. Yehudah]” (Bereishit Rabbah [Theodor-Albeck] 85:1). [4]

Maybe the midrash is arguing that these are the characteristics that define a loving devoted bond: openness, duration, and tolerance.  Not dramatic demonstrations and tests of loyalty in which one is required to choose between me and you.

Chapter 38 then presents two models of trust and loyalty. Tamar, in her connection to Yehudah, represents one and Hirah, in his relationship with Yehudah, represents the other.  One is characterized by silence, unilateral decisions despite or in the name of loyalty and a call for public dramatic displays of devotion.  The second is characterized by the absence of embarrassment, openness, dialogue, and exposure of vulnerability.

May we not find ourselves in tests of loyalty such as Tamar’s choice but rather merit to have friends like Hirah.

[1] Yibbum happens in this situation:  There are two brothers, one of them was married and dies without any children.  The law of yibbum requires that the living brother marries the wife of the dead brother.  See Devarim 25:5-10. [2] This teaching has many parallels throughout rabbinic literature. [3] Though there are some commentators that connect him with the Hiram appearing many times during the days of Kings David and Shlomo.  See, for example, 1 Melakhim 5:15 and next note. [4] The midrash is based on a comparison between Hiram the king of Tyre who is described as a lover of King David, “This Hirah here is also in the days of David, ‘for Hiram had always been a friend of David'” (1 Melakhim 5:15).

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