Midrash Tanhuma

A compilation of aggadic (narrative) and halakhic (legal) midrash

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Midrash Yelamdenu

The yelamdenu midrashim are immediately identifiable by their first words, "Yelamdenu Rabbenu" or, "Teach us, Rabbi." What follows is a legal question, generally one whose answer is well known from the Mishnah or another legal source. For example, a yelamdenu midrash introducing the verse "God spoke to Moses saying, I am Adonai" (Exodus 6:2) asks, "Teach us, Rabbi, what is the punishment for one who pronounces God's ineffable name." The midrash goes on to derive the answer through exegesis of the verse in question.

The punishment for one who pronounces God's name is mentioned by the Mishnah, which predates Tanhuma by several centuries, and is discussed in-depth by the Gemara, which probably also predates the midrash. There would be no reason, then, for the author of the midrash mentioned above to be genuinely in doubt about the appropriate punishment for pronouncing God's name.

Rather, the midrashic discussion of this legal issue appears to act primarily as a mnemonic device, rather than as an attempt to solve a previously unanswered question. A person might be able to find the law in question explained more succinctly elsewhere, but might be more likely to remember this law once it is attached to a familiar verse. As yelamdenu midrashim often appear at the beginning of a Torah reading section, they may be understood as parallel to the petihtaot.

Dating of the Midrash

Discussions of the dating of Tanhuma are complicated by the existence of two separate editions of the text: the standard printed edition, based on a 16th century manuscript from Constantinople; and an edition based on several manuscripts from the Oxford library, published by Solomon Buber in the late 19th century. Some sections of these two versions are virtually identical, while other sections differ greatly. The relationship between these two texts remains a matter of scholarly debate. One text may represent an earlier edition or, alternately, the two may have developed separately out of the same tradition.

Cultural references within the text, combined with linguistic similarities between Midrash Tanhuma and certain early medieval writings suggest that this midrash may have been edited around the ninth century, though elements of the text are probably centuries older. Midrash Tanhuma reflects the influence of other, older collections of midrash. In many cases, the same text in various forms appears both in Tanhuma and in other compilations.

Use of the Midrash by Medieval Exegetes

Perhaps no one has done more for the diffusion of Midrash Tanhuma than Rashi, the 11th century commentator who remains the best-known Jewish exegete. Rashi's commentary displays a decidedly midrashic bent, and Tanhuma appears to have been the primary source for many of his interpretations. Later commentators both incorporate Tanhuma into their own commentaries and challenge Rashi's reliance on this midrashic material to support difficult passages. For instance, the 14th century commentator Ramban (Nahmanides) often rejects Rashi's midrashic explanations saying, in one place, "He derives knowledge from aggadah (stories)." At the same time, Ramban periodically relies on Tanhuma for his own interpretation.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.