The genre of Jewish literature known as Midrash has been poetically described as “the hammer that awakens the slumbering sparks on the anvil of the Bible.” The midrashic process utilizes a variety of methods, including expositions, explanations, gematria, plays on words, legends, and parables, to broaden our understanding of the full meaning of the biblical text. The conscientious application of this methodology has made the Midrash Tanhuma, and the other Midrashim, a vital source of influence on Jewish life and thought throughout the centuries. The “hammer” of the Midrash elicited new insights into the historic events depicted in Scripture and produced a fuller understanding and awareness of the spiritual, moral, and ethical truths and values stated laconically in the Pentateuch.
By answering questions the Torah left unanswered, the Midrashim made the terse style of the biblical message more meaningful and relevant in the lives of those who heard them when they were first spoken on the Sabbath and festival days. Their impact was equally strong upon those who studied them and reflected upon them in the years that followed. Their ageless popularity is attested to by the considerable number of midrashic manuscripts in our possession and by the frequency with which midrashic works have been published and republished in more recent times. In fact, it may safely be said, the Midrashim served as the lifeline that made it possible for the Jewish people to survive the unceasing torrent of humiliation, hatred, and violence that flowed around them and over them through the centuries.
Told and retold generation after generation, the Midrashim brought purpose, direction, and hope to the lives of the Jews, helping them to endure whatever trials they experienced. The Midrashim served as a balm for their aching hearts by making the concept of the world-to-come and the blessing it would bring a reality for them. The Sifré summarizes the ultimate goal and purpose of the Midrash when it tells us: “If you desire to know Him who spoke and the world came into being, learn the Aggadah, for from it you will come to know the Holy One, blessed be He, and cling to His ways.”1Sifré on Deuteronomy 11:22.
The Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu is the only complete midrashic text on the Pentateuch that until now has not been translated into English, and that is why I undertook the task of providing an English rendering. The name Tanhuma Yelammedenu was assigned arbitrarily to this homiletical compilation and is found in a number of manuscripts and in several printed editions.2The earliest printed editions: Constantinople 1522, Venice 1545, Mantua 1562. The text I translated was printed in Vienna 1863. The first half of the title, Tanhuma, was adopted from the name of Tanhuma bar Abba, one of the most prolific aggadists in Jewish literature, who lived in the fourth century C.E. Numerous sayings quoted in his name in the text account for the attribution of this work to him. The second half of the title, Yelammedenu, is, in fact, part of a formula, yelammedenu rabbenu, “may our master teach us,” which is repeated frequently in this Midrash. Scholars are in agreement that this formula was the title of a midrashic text that existed long before our Midrash was compiled. Though that work has been lost to us, quotations using the formula are to be found in a number of other Midrashim,3Buber’s Tanhuma text, Pesikta Rabbati, Numbers Rabbah, Deuteronomy Rabbah. as well as in our Tanhuma Yelammedenu.
There is, it seems to me, a possible explanation for the adoption of the word yelammedenu as part of the name of this work that has some merit. One of the manuscripts of our Midrash opens with the words yelammedenu rabbenu; it may very well be that the printer of the first edition utilized this manuscript in printing his text and, as a consequence, incorporated yelammedenu into the name. A facsimile of the title page is included in this volume.
The arbitrariness of the choice of Tanhuma Yelammedenu as the work’s title is evidenced in the Arukh, the dictionary of the Talmud compiled by R. Nathan of Rome in the eleventh century, in which he credits some of the words he defines either to Tanhuma or to Yelammedenu. Similarly, Rashi, in his commentaries, refers to Tanhuma and Yelammedenu separately as the sources for certain of his comments.4See Jewish Encyclopedia 8:796. The author of the Yalkut had two collections before him, one called Tanhuma, the other Yelammedenu. This fact clearly indicates that both Rashi and R. Nathan had two different texts before them, one entitled Tanhuma, and the other, Yelammedenu.
To add to the confusion and uncertainty concerning the compiler of this Midrash and the time and place of its compilation, Solomon Buber, in 1885, published an edition of a Midrash Tanhuma based primarily upon an Oxford University manuscript, Opp. 20.5Buber in his introductory volume lists the manuscripts available to him. Since the publication of his edition, additional material containing midrashim similar to those in his edition or to the one I have translated have been found, and some of them have been translated. In the introductory volume of his edition, he asserted that it was the oldest Midrash extant, preceding even Genesis Rabbah.6Buber Tanhuma, vol. 1, p. 6. That claim has been challenged by many scholars, among them Leopold Zunz, who maintain that Genesis Rabbah was compiled in the sixth century, soon after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud, and that it existed long before the Tanhuma edited by Buber.7See L. Zunz, Vorträge der Juden; M. Waxman, Jewish Literature, vol. 1, p. 139; H. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, p. 218.
The first half of Buber’s edition, Genesis and Exodus, differs to a considerable degree from our text. The second half of Buber’s edition, the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are included in the third volume, is in part similar to our text, except that our Midrash contains additional sections, under a heading adopted from Ecclesiastes 1:10, “It hath been already,” indicating earlier sources not utilized by the compiler of the Buber Tanhuma. We find, as well, passages in our Midrash attributed to the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael, a tannaitic Midrash compiled prior to 200 C.E., that are not contained in Buber’s edition.
The Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu is a homiletical Midrash divided according to the Palestinian practice of reading the Torah in a triennial cycle. This fact, together with the preponderance of sayings quoted in the name of Palestinian sages, has led some midrashic authorities to maintain that it was compiled in Palestine. Other scholars insist that the references to the Babylonian academies, the inclusion of passages from the She’iltot of Rav Ahai Gaon, who lived in Babylon when he wrote the She’iltot, and the quotation of a considerable number of earlier Babylonian teachers, indicate that the Tanhuma was produced in Babylon. Concerning the date of the completion of this text, we may assume from the inclusion of the She’iltot passages and the references to heretics (i.e., the Karaites) that the earliest manuscript of this text was completed in the late eighth or the ninth century.
Three different types of homilies are apparent in Tanhuma Yelammedenu. In the first type, a verse from the weekly Torah reading is presented as the subject of the discourse. This is followed by a proem, or introductory verse, from some other portion of Scripture, either Pentateuch, Prophets, or Writings. At first glance some of the proems appear to have little, if any, relationship to the verse from the Torah reading, but after the homilist expands upon the proem, he arrives at a conclusion that confirms the subject of his homily.
The second type of homily has as its proem a halakhic question, which is introduced with the formula yelammedenu rabbenu, “may our master teach us.” The speaker responds briefly to this query, since it is intended primarily to lead to the aggadic discourse that follows. The homily ultimately arrives at a conclusion that supports the opening verse.
The third type of homily has no proem. In this instance, the speaker finds questions and concerns within the verse from the weekly reading that broaden its meaning. He then concludes with a peroration describing the blessings that await us in the world-to-come.
It should be understood that these homilies are not as well organized or as consistent in structure as the preceding description might suggest. We must bear in mind as we read this Midrash and the others that they are not transcripts of sermons as actually preached. By the time the recension of the first Tanhuma Yelammedenu text took place, much had been lost in the transmission; and much was subsequently added by the scribes who copied the manuscripts. Some of the homilies ultimately became obscure and difficult to follow.
The following illustrations provide an example of each of the homily types described above, and are based upon the same verse taken from the Torah reading: And the Lord called unto Moses (Lev. 1:1).
The proem in the first type of homily is from the Book of Psalms: Ye mighty in strength that fulfill His word, hearkening unto the voice of His word (Ps. 103:20). R. Huna maintained that this verse refers to Israel, who became mighty when they hearkened to His voice and exclaimed: We will do and we will hear (Exod. 19:8). (They responded positively even before they knew God’s commands.) R. Isaac the smith said: Those who observe the Sabbatical year are ye mighty in strength. Why? Because they control their evil inclinations when their fields are open and available to those who would pick their crops from the corner of this field or during the Sabbatical year. Finally, the homilist informs us that Moses was mighty in strength, for he alone heard the voice of His word when God called unto him. Ye mighty in strength, the midrash is teaching us, are those who fulfill His word.
The proem in the second type of homily, as stated above, is a halakhic question introduced by the formula yelammedenu rabbenu, “may our master teach us”: Is the one reciting the prayers (i.e., the Amidah, or “standing prayer”) before the ark permitted to repeat the prayers if he previously failed to recite the one that deals with heretics? Indeed, he must do so, lest the congregation come to the conclusion that he himself is a heretic (and therefore intentionally ignored the prayer about heretics). The repetition is also required if he should omit the prayer relating to the “builder of Jerusalem.” Otherwise, the congregation might think that he is a Samaritan (and therefore descended from those who opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile). However, the reader of the prayers is not required to repeat any other prayer he may have omitted. The homilist then proceeds to discuss the treatment to be accorded to a prospective convert who is thoroughly familiar with the minutiae of both the Written Law (Torah) and the Oral Law (Talmud), but denies the Oneness of God. He must not be accepted into the congregation no matter how well informed in the Torah he may be. However, the stranger who abandons idolatry must be warmly welcomed into the congregation (though he may be uninformed in the Torah). Why? Because I (God) love him, as it is said: And He loveth the stranger in giving him food and raiment (Deut. 10:18). The message of this Midrash is that God’s love extends to all who abandon idolatry and acknowledge the Oneness of God.
The third type of homily, which has no proem, is based directly upon the verse from the Torah reading: He called unto Moses. From where did He call? the homilist asks. He called from the Tent of Meeting, which had been erected in the terrestrial sphere, and in which His Shekhinah resided. Why did He descend to that place? Because of His love for Israel. However, He called only to Moses, for it was Moses who received (on Mount Sinai) the entire Torah. As a consequence of his willingness to accept the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, assures Moses that when the righteous enter their heavenly abode, he will lead them there. In this Midrash we are told that the righteous are promised the blessings of the world-to-come.
In translating the Tanhuma Yelammedenu, I sought to follow the text as closely as possible in order to retain as much of the flavor of the original as I could. However, when the text was incomplete or unclear, I added, in parentheses, whatever additional words or explanations would make the homily more understandable. Frequently, I completed a biblical verse that had been abbreviated by a midrashic speaker who assumed that his congregation was familiar with it.
The biblical passages that are the subjects of the sermons are printed in larger type at the beginning of each sermon. Quotations from Scripture in the body of the homily, whether extended or single words, are printed in italics. By and large, I used as my source the Old Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible (1916), but often it was only a starting point, for I have made a number of changes for the sake of accuracy, clarity, or to highlight the midrashic sermonizer’s understanding of the text.
In the transliteration of Hebrew, I did not distinguish between heh and het, indicating both with the English letter h. With regard to plays on words, a procedure utilized with great frequency in the Midrash, I have transliterated the Hebrew words involved, in order to show the exact nature of the word-play, and have also provided their English translations, so as to make the meaning evident.
The notes for each book of the Bible are included at the end of that book. There are three indices at the conclusion of the translated text, one of biblical verses, one of the names of the rabbis mentioned in the text, and a general index of the entire work.
My desire to undertake this translation of the Tanhuma Yelammedenu was influenced by Dr. Julian Obermann of blessed memory, who was my teacher in Midrash at the Jewish Institute of Religion. He aroused my interest in undertaking this work many years ago, but the heavy burdens of an active ministry at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, New Jersey, delayed its completion until the present.