Tanḥuma Bar Abba

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TANḤUMA BAR ABBA (second half of the fourth century c.e.), Palestinian amora. Tanḥuma, to whom the *Tanḥuma Midrash has been ascribed, was one of the most prolific aggadists. His principal teacher in halakhah and aggadah was R. *Huna. Nothing is known of his private life. In his public activities he was distinguished for his defense of Jews and Judaism against non-Jews. In one of Tanḥuma's conversations with non-Jews, the emperor suggested that Jews and non-Jews become one nation. To this Tanḥuma replied, "But we who are circumcised cannot possibly become like you." The emperor answered, "You have spoken well. Nevertheless, whoever gets the better of the emperor in debate must be thrown into the vivarium" ("arena of wild beasts"). Tanḥuma was thrown in, but came out safely (the well-known motif of Daniel). A heretic who was present maintained that this was because the animals were not hungry, whereupon he was thrown in and was eaten (Sanh. 39a). Its contents indicate that this conversation was between Tanḥuma and a Christian: thus in Yalkut, Zephaniah 567, the emperor bases his remarks on the verse (Zeph. 3:9): "For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent"; this verse has significance only when quoted by a Christian and not a pagan ruler. (For another conversation between Tanḥuma and non-Jews on matters of faith, see tj, Ber. 9:1, 13b). In Antioch he argued with those who believed in dualism (Gen. R. 19:4). It has been suggested that the title "pleader" (σχολαστικός), given Tanḥuma, refers to this activity (tj, Ber. 4:2, 7d).

Tanḥuma is noted especially for the proems with which he introduced his discourses. The phrase "R. Tanḥuma began his discourse with this biblical text" occurs frequently in the Midrashim (particularly in Pesikta Rabbati). The structure of his discourses was as follows: after a halakhic question, which he did not answer immediately, he quoted a biblical verse, usually from the Hagiographa, which he then connected with the first verse of the current Sabbath's portion of the Pentateuch and only reverted at the end of his discourse to the question that had been raised at the outset. Among the principal ideas that distinguished his many discourses are the signal value of studying the Torah and of charity, and the future redemption of the nation. The following is an example of his teaching: "'Who deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him' (Ps. 35:10). This applies to Israel, who falls into the hands of the nations of the world, and God delivers them. For 'the poor' refers to Israel…. David said, 'A sheep among 70 wolves, what can it do? Israel among 70 powerful nations, what can Israel do, were it not that You stand by them every hour'" (pr 9:2).


Frankel, Mevo, 131a–b; S. Buber (ed.), Midrash Tanḥuma (1885), introd.; Bacher, Pal Amor; Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, 108–16; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo la-Talmudim (1969), 401f.; Hyman, Toledot, 1243.

[Moshe Beer]