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Tamar descended from Shem, son of Noach. By tradition, Shem served as Priest, a Kohen. Being from this illustrious lineage, Tamar was sentenced to a stricter sentence, death by burning. * On Rambam’s Laws of Forbidden Relations.

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Rambam, Maimonides, outlines the typical punishments for forbidden sexual relationships, including soul excision and lashes. In Chapter 3 of Laws of Forbidden Relations, Law 3, Rambam introduces the stringent punishment of burning. That is, in ancient times, when capital punishment was administered in Jewish law, if a married daughter of a priest commits adultery, she is to be executed by burning: “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9).

This law finds relevance in the narrative of Tamar, the daughter in law of Yehuda. In Genesis 38:24, we read how Judah was told, "'Your daughter-in-law, Tamar, has played the harlot; furthermore, she is with child by harlotry.' So Judah said, 'Bring her out and let her be burned.'"

The story leading to Tamar's sentence of death by burning unfolds within the book of Genesis, revolving around Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah. After the deaths of her first two husbands, Tamar finds herself in a precarious situation. Promised marriage to Judah's youngest son, Shelah, she is left in limbo when Judah fails to fulfill his promise. Determined to secure her future, Tamar disguises herself and engages in a transaction with Judah, resulting in her pregnancy. When her condition is discovered, Judah reacts with anger and calls for her to be burned. It is in this dramatic context that Tamar's unique punishment unfolds.

This gripping narrative raises profound questions about morality, justice, and the consequences of one's actions. Rashi connects her sentencing to her lineage from Shem, emphasizing the priestly heritage that may have played a role in the severity of her judgment. However, Ramban offers an alternative view, suggesting that Judah's position of authority and the need to maintain his leadership played a significant role in the unique sentence of burning.

Rashi, the classic commentator, sheds light on this incident. He states, "She was the daughter of Shem who was a priest... on this account they sentenced her to be burned" (Rashi on Genesis 38:24). Rashi connects Tamar to Shem, emphasizing her priestly lineage.

Siftei Chakhamim expands on Rashi's commentary, explaining that Tamar's lineage from Shem, who was a kohen (priest), influenced her sentencing. It states, "Ephraim, a disciple of Rabbi Meir, said, 'Tamar was his daughter, the daughter of Shem, who was a Kohein (priest).'" According to this interpretation, the connection to Shem as a priest led to her punishment by burning. This explanation suggests that Tamar's actions were judged more severely due to her priestly heritage.

However, Ramban, Nachmanides, offers a different perspective, stating, "I am not familiar with this law that the daughter of a kohen is liable for burning... except for specific circumstances." Ramban disagrees with the idea that Tamar's punishment was solely based on her lineage. Instead, he suggests that the punishment may have been related to Judah's authority as a leader or ruler at that time. Ramban proposes that the burning sentence was not a regular legal procedure but rather a disciplinary act reflecting Judah's position and the need to uphold his authority.

Furthermore, Ramban raises an important point, stating, "Was she not unmarried [and not liable for death]?" He explains that Tamar, being unmarried, was not generally subject to the death penalty. The punishment for adultery is typically a negative commandment, and only in specific circumstances, such as being betrothed or married, does it carry the death penalty. Ramban emphasizes that the daughter of a kohen who commits adultery is not subject to the death penalty at all.

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