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Yehudah recognized (the signet and the staff) and he said she is correct, it is from me (that she has conceived) for I did not give her to Shelah my son (Bereishis 38:26).
The Torah tells us that Yehudah married off his eldest son Er to Tamar. After Er died without children, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of yibum, Tamar was married to Yehudahs second son Onan. After Onan also died without children, Yehudah refrained from giving Tamar to his third son Shelah. Later, Tamar disguised herself as a harlot and became pregnant from Yehudah. The commentators ask why did Yehudah not give Tamar to Shelah as a wife in order to fulfill the now double mitzvah of yibum. Further, the commentators ask, how could Hashem allow the righteous Yehudah to stumble in sin with his daughter-in-law? Such a union is nothing less than incest.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky ztl, explains that in time of the Torah the mitzvah of yibum could have been performed by any relative unlike today where it is only performed by a brother. Indeed some commentators are of the opinion that in the time of Torah the mitzvah of yibum primarily fell upon the father of the deceased and not the brother. It was only when the father was unable to perform the mitzvah that it was passed down to the brother.
Rav Kaminetsky continues to explain after the death of Er, Yehudah himself should have married Tamar to fulfill the mitzvah of yibum. However at this time Yehudah was married to Bas Shuah and it was thus impractical for him to take another wife. Therefore he passed down the mitzvah to his son Onan. Approximately at the same time that Onan died Yehudahs own wife Bas Shuah died. Now it was possible for Yehudah himself to marry Tamar in order to fulfill what had now become a double mitzvah of yibum. However, the Halachah is that one whose wife dies is required to wait the time span of three festivals before remarrying. Yehudah thus prevented Shelah from marring Tamar because he wished to do so himself. However, he was forced to delay marrying her in order to fulfill the halachah that one may not remarry immediately after the passing of ones wife. Tamar was not aware of this plan and assumed that Yehudah was not willing to marry her or allow Shelah to marry her. She therefore disguised herself as a harlot and became pregnant from Yehudah.
Both of the above questions are now answered. Yehudah indeed did wish to fulfill the mitzvah of yibum himself and therefore prevented Shelah from marrying Tamar. Furthermore, there was no incest violation between Yehudah and Tamar in this case. The mitzvah of yibum overrides the incest relationship between father in law and daughter-in-law as it does with regard to a brother-in-law and sister in law.
The commentators ask what prompted Tamar to disguise herself as a harlot? They answer that Tamar was aware that from her union with Yehudah she would produce Peretz the forerunner of moshiach. She felt that it was her duty to bring forth moshiach in any way possible. It is noteworthy that this plan nearly backfired. When it was later discovered that she was pregnant it was decided by the beis din that as a punishment for her harlotry she be put to death. It was only due to the extreme integrity of Yehudah that she and the twins she was carrying were spared. This occurred when Yehudah admitted, she is correct, it is from me (that she conceived).
It is noteworthy that it was also Yehudahs intent to marry Tamar and bring forth moshiach. Had matters run their natural course, Yehudah would have married her in due time and the ancestor of moshiach would have been born without all the fanfare of our parshah. It was only due to a lack of communication between Yehudah and Tamar that caused Tamar to act as she did and bring forth Peretz before his due time.
Chazal teach us that there are two possible times for the coming of moshiach. The first is the preordained time that will occur in the end of the days. In the terminology of chazal this is called biitah i.e., in its time. However, it is also possible for moshiach to arrive before the preordained time. In the terminology of chazal this is called achisenah i.e. I (Hashem) will make it come swiftly.
Many ask, exactly what is required of us to merit the arrival of moshiach before his preordained time? Perhaps we may take a hint from the birth of the ancestor of moshiach, i.e. Peretz. In the case of Peretz there were also two possible times for his birth. The first time was the preordained time. Had Yehudah finished waiting the required time that one must wait before remarrying then Peretz would have been born in the preordained time. The second time was the early time when he actually was born. It was Tamars actions that brought Peretz the forerunner of moshiach into the world before his preordained time. However, in that case there was a great danger that moshiach would indeed survive. It was only due to the extreme integrity of Yehudah that he did survive.
Likewise in our time the prerequisite for the coming of moshiach before his preordained time is integrity. If moshiach were to arrive before his preordained time and find us lacking in integrity the era of moshiach will be delayed. It is only when we achieve the stellar integrity of Yehudah that we too will be worthy of ushering in moshiach speedily in our days.
© Efraim Levine 5761/2001