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Tanhuma bar Abba

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tanhuma bar Abba (Hebrew: תנחומא בר אבא) was a Jewish amora of the 5th generation, one of the foremost aggadists of his time.

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  • ✪ Dr Maurice Mizrahi - Was the prophet Balaam good or bad? (Balak)


Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi B”H D’var Torah on Balak Was the prophet Balaam good or bad? In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we learn that Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the Israelites, who are numerous and physically close. So, three times Balak sends emissaries to enlist Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet, to curse Israel. Balaam refuses the first two times, saying that God has already blessed Israel. But the third time he accepts and follow them. King Balak then shows him Israel from three different "angles". Each time Balaam blesses Israel, against his will, and predicts victory for them. This is what Balaam says, in the Torah: [Balaam said: Even] if [King] Balak gave me his house, full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord, and do either good or evil on my own. Only what the Lord speaks can I speak. [Num. 24:13] How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water. His king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness, shall consume the nations that are his adversaries…Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed. [Num. 24: 5-9] How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?.. [Israel] is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who [can count] the dust of Jacob or the number of the seed of Israel?.. [Num. 23:8-10] There shall shoot forth a star out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph. [Num. 24:17-18] The Talmudic interpretation of "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!" is that Balaam saw that the entrances of the tents were not facing each other [for privacy]. [Bava Batra 60a] The Midrashic interpretation of the line “[Israel] is a nation that will dwell alone” is: When Israel rejoices, no other nation rejoices with them... And when the [other] nations prosper, Israel will prosper with them… [Tanchuma Balak 12, Num. Rabbah 20:19] Maimonides interprets the line “There shall shoot forth a star out of Jacob” to refer to King David, and the line “And a scepter shall rise out of Israel” to the future Messiah, a descendant of King David. [Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11-12] On his way to King Balak, Balaam's ass sees an angel with a sword blocking his way and gets off the road. Balaam never sees it, strikes the ass every time, and brings him back to the road. Finally the ass speaks and asks Balaam why he is hitting him. Keli Yakar, 17th-century commentator from Prague, writes: This was to impress upon Balaam that he should not feel proud that he has been given the gift of prophecy. If it suits God's purposes, even an ass will see angels and make speeches. [Keli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz)] God then comes to Balaam and asks him: Who are these men with you? [Num. 22:9] The Midrash comments: That villain [Balaam] thought: [God] does not know them! There are times, then, when [God] does not know what is going on, and so I shall do with His children all that I please. [God is not omniscient, so I will find a time when I am able to curse, and God will not realize it.] [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 5, Num. Rabbah 20:9] Now, let’s step back and ask the question: Who was Balaam? The Talmud tells us that Balaam was one of “the seven prophets who prophesied to the [non-Jews]”. [The other six were: Balaam's father, Beor; Job; and Job's four friends.] [Bava Batra 15b] The Midrash adds: God raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the peoples of the world. [Num. R. 20:1; Tanhuma Balak 1] and tells us that Balaam was greater than Moses in many respects: [The Torah says:] And there has not arisen since, in Israel, a prophet [like Moses] [Deut. 34:10]. In Israel there had not arisen one like him, but there had arisen one like him among the nations of the world. This was in order that the nations of the world might have no excuse for saying: If we had possessed a prophet like Moses, we would have worshipped the Holy One, blessed be He. What prophet did they have that was like Moses? Balaam the son of Beor. There was a difference, however, between the prophecy of Moses and that of Balaam... -Moses did not know who was speaking with him, while Balaam knew... -Moses did not know when the Holy One, blessed be He, would speak with him, while Balaam knew… -Moses did not know what the Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to him about, while Balaam knew… -Moses could not speak with [God] whenever he pleased, but Balaam could… [Numbers Rabbah 14:20] Also that: -Balaam knew the exact time of God's anger. [Avoda Zar. 4a–b; Sanh. 105b] [Berachot 7a] This is what allowed his curses to be effective. The Talmud makes clear Balaam’s prophecies are included in the Torah: Moses wrote his own book [Deuteronomy], and the parts dealing with Balaam [Num. 23-24] and the Book of Job... [Bava Batra 14b] There is an extra-biblical reference to Balaam. In 1967, a plaster was discovered in Tell Deir ‘Alla, in Jordan, in a language similar to biblical Hebrew, dated about the 8th century BCE, with an inscription bearing the name of blʿm br bʿr: “Balaam, son of Beor”. He is referred to as “a divine seer” [’zh < lhn], who dreamt that the gods told him of an impending disaster that would devastate the land. He then tells the people about it, and is viewed as an heroic figure, who tried to save his people and the land. Now we can turn to our central question: Should the prophet Balaam be considered good or bad? Here is some evidence that he was good: -First, Balaam obeyed God, and made clear he would not depart from what God told him to say. In the Book of Micah, Balaam's role is interpreted as a sign of God's providence over his people. [Micah 6:5] -Second, Balaam may have had bad thoughts, but one is judged by actions, not thoughts. -Third, Balaam’s is the only prayer in the Jewish liturgy written by a non-Jew: Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! [Num. 24: 5] But here is evidence that Balaam was bad: -First, the Talmud says so: Balaam was a rasha, a wicked one [Berachot 7a; Taanit 20a; Numbers Rabbah 20:14]. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul, are the marks of the disciples of "Balaam the Wicked". [Avot, 5:19] -Second, God protected Israel by not allowing Balaam to curse them, and implies that Balaam intended to do just that. The Book of Joshua says: [God said:] Balak… sent Balaam to curse you. But I would not listen to Balaam. Therefore, he blessed you. So I saved you from his hand. [Joshua 24:9-10] -Third, the Midrash says that [Balaam] wished to uproot an entire people for naught and for no reason. [Num. R. 20:1; Tanhuma Balak 1] and advised Balak on how to destroy them. The Talmud concludes that this caused the Holy Spirit to depart from the Gentiles, and since then prophecy existed only in Israel. [Bava Batra 15b] -Fourth, the Talmud says that Balaam was one of Pharaoh’s counselors, along with Jethro and Job. His advice was that the male Israelite children should be cast into the Nile. [Sanhedrin 106a]. [Eventually Balaam was killed; Jethro argued against harming Israel and was rewarded; Job was silent and was punished.] -Fifth, Balaam led Israel to worship Baal Peor. That episode follows the account of Balaam’s blessing in the Torah [Numbers 31:8,16]: Balaam arose, went, and returned home, and Balak went on his way. Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods. Israel became attached to Baal Peor, and the anger of the Lord flared against Israel. [Num. 24:25, 25:1-3] Behold, [the women] caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor… [Num. 31:16, emphasis mine] -Sixth, the Torah implies that because Balaam had been retained by King Balak of Moab, to curse Israel, God prohibited the conversion to Judaism of Ammonite and Moabite men. The Torah says: An Ammonite or Moabite [masculine] shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord…forever; because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Lord your God loved you. [Deuteronomy 23:4–6. See also Neh. 13:2] -Seventh, Balaam was killed fighting the Israelites, together with the kings of Midian, during the war against the Midianites: They also slew with the sword Balaam ben Beor. [Num. 31:8] -Eighth, Balaam was demoted. He is referred to as ha-qôsem (“the diviner”) in the Book of Joshua. [Joshua 13:22] The Talmud comments: [It says in Joshua: The children of Israel also slew with the sword] Balaam ben Beor, the soothsayer. A soothsayer? But he was a prophet! Rabbi Yochanan said: At first he was a prophet, but later he [was demoted to] soothsayer [as punishment for wishing to curse Israel]. [Sanh. 106a] -Ninth, he was mean to that poor ass. -And tenth, what he wanted to say was bad, even though God made him say the opposite: Rabbi Yochanan said: From the blessings of that wicked man [Balaam] you may learn his intentions. [Every blessing is the opposite of the curse he wanted to utter.] Thus he wished to curse them -That they [the Israelites] should not possess any synagogues or school-houses. [This is deduced from] “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” [Num. 24:5]; -That the Shechinah should not rest upon them: [Deduced from] “And your dwelling places, O Israel [mishkenotecha, or tabernacles]” [Num. 24:5]; -That their kingdom should not endure. [Deduced from] “They extend like streams.” [Num. 24:6]; -That they might have no olive trees and vineyards. [Deduced from] “As gardens by the river’s side.” [Num. 24:6]; -That their odor might not be fragrant. [Deduced from] “As the trees of aloes which the Lord has planted.” [Num. 24:6]; -That their kings might not be tall. [Deduced from] “And as cedar trees beside the waters.” [Num. 24:6]; -That they might not have a king the son of a king. [Deduced from] “He shall pour the water out of his buckets.” [Num. 24:7]; -That their kingdom might not rule over other nations. [Deduced from] “And his seed shall be in many waters.” [Num. 24:7]; -That their kingdom might not be strong. [Deduced from] “And his king shall be higher than Agag.” [Num. 24:7]; -That their kingdom might not be awe-inspiring. [Deduced from] “And his kingdom shall be exalted.” [Num. 24:7] [Yet] Rabbi Abba bar Kahana [noted]: All [these blessings eventually] reverted to a curse, [Balaam’s intention was fulfilled with the fall of the house of David, the destruction of the Temple, and the Exile] except the synagogues and schoolhouses, for it is written, But the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. [Deut. 23:6.] The curse, but not the curses. [Only one curse was permanently turned into a blessing: that concerning synagogues and schoolhouses, as these never disappeared from Israel.] [Sanhedrin 105b] There is an implication here that the “feelings” of a prophet matter, even if his words belie them. Ultimately, Balaam had the free will to do as he pleased, except in cursing whom God had blessed, because the words of a prophet are fulfilled. But one may ask: Why did God first tell Balaam that He disapproved of his trip, yet let him go and try to curse Israel, then eventually prevented him from doing so? Why not just stop Balaam right away? The Talmud answers: Free will: One is allowed to follow the road he wishes to follow. [For example], it is written, “God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them,’” [Num. 22:12] [but Balaam clearly wanted to go with them, so] then it is written, “If the men came to call you, rise up and go with them.” [Num. 22:20] [Makkot 10b] Balaam had a complex personality, to be sure, but he was clearly more bad than good. Shabbat shalom.



He was a pupil of Ḥuna bar Abin,[1] from whom he transmits halakhic[2] as well as aggadic sayings.[3] He received instruction also from Judah ben Shalom[4] and R. Pinchas.[5] According to W. Bacher, he resided in Nave, a town in Batanaea.[6]

The Babylonian Talmud relates the following incident, probably based on an actual occurrence. The emperor (a Christian ruler no doubt being meant) said to Tanhuma, "Let us all become one people." To this the latter replied, "Yes; but since we are circumcised we cannot become like you; whereas you, by having yourself circumcised, may become like us." The emperor thereupon said, "You have answered me correctly; but he who worsts the king must be thrown to wild beasts." This was done, but the animals did Tanhuma no harm. An unbeliever who stood by remarked that perhaps they were not hungry, whereupon he himself was thrown after Tanhuma and was instantly torn to pieces.[7]

With regard to Tanhuma's public activity, the only fact known is that he ordered a fast on account of a drought. Two fasts were held, but no rain came, whereupon Tanhuma ordered a third fast, saying in his sermon: "My children, be charitable to each other, and God will be merciful unto you." On this occasion one man gave money to his divorced wife, who was in need; Tanhuma thereupon lifted his face toward the heavens and prayed: "Lord of the Universe, this hard-hearted man took pity on his wife when he saw that she was in need, and helped her, although not obliged to do so; how much more should You, the Gracious and Merciful, be filled with pity when You see Your beloved children, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in need." As soon as he had ceased praying, rain came, and the world was relieved of its distress.[8]


Tanhuma is not often mentioned as a halakhist. A few remarks on and explanations of halakhic teachings are ascribed to him in the Jerusalem Talmud,[9] while the Babylonian Talmud mentions an objection raised by him against a halakhic thesis advanced by the Judean schools.[10]

As an aggadist, on the other hand, he is frequently mentioned, and the numerous aggadic teachings of his which are still preserved touch every province of the aggadah. He often points out the Scriptural bases for the sayings of older authors, always using the characteristic formula of introduction: "I give the reason"; that is, "I cite the Biblical authority".[11] He also explains and annotates older sayings,[12] adjusts differing traditions,[13] and varies the text of old aggadic teachings.[14] His own aggadic teachings differ but little from those of his contemporaries, although some of his interpretations approach the simple exegetic method. An example of this is furnished by his interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:11, where he explains the word "ha-kol" as meaning "the universe".[15]

Tanhuma often made use of symbolism to illustrate his thought. Some of his aggadic utterances may be quoted: "Just as the spice-box contains all kinds of fragrant spices, so must the wise youth be filled with all kinds of Biblical, mishnaic, halakhic, and aggadic knowledge".[16] On Isaiah 45:3 Tanhuma said: "Nebuchadnezzar grudged his son and successor Evil-merodach his treasures, wherefore he filled iron ships with gold and sunk them in the Euphrates. When Cyrus conquered Babylonia and decided to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, he diverted the river into another channel, and 'the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places' were given to him".[17]

Tanhuma often held religious disputations with non-Jewish scholars, especially Christians; and he himself tells of one which took place in Antioch.[18] He was asked concerning Genesis 3:5, where the word "Ke-Elohim [yod'ei tov va-ra']" seems to point to a plurality of gods. Tanhuma replied that such a construction was refuted by the immediately preceding words, "yodea' [singular] Elohim." His frequent intercourse with non-Jews led him to formulate the following rule: "When a non-Jew greets you with a blessing, answer him with an 'Amen'".[19]

The Pesikta Rabbati contains about eighty proems said to have originated with Tanhuma, and beginning with the phrase "Thus said R. Tanhuma." A great number of poems bearing his name are found also in the Midrash Tanhuma. In addition to these proems, several lengthy sections of the Pesikta Rabbati as well as of the Midrash Tanhuma are followed by the note "Thus explained [or "preached"] R. Tanhuma."


  • If you have acquired knowledge, what do you lack? but if you lack knowledge, what have you acquired?[20]


  1. ^ Numbers Rabbah 3; Genesis Rabbah 41
  2. ^ Yerushalmi Hallah 57d; Shabbat 10c
  3. ^ Yerushalmi Pe'ah 15b; Shabbat 11d; Avodah Zarah 43a
  4. ^ Midrash Tehillim to Psalms 119:2
  5. ^ Yerushalmi Shekalim 49d
  6. ^ compare A. Neubauer, G. T. p. 23
  7. ^ Sanhedrin 39a
  8. ^ Genesis Rabbah 33; Leviticus Rabbah 34
  9. ^ Yerushalmi Eruvin 26c; Pesachim 37b,d; Yoma 44d; Shekalim 47c; Ta'anit 67a
  10. ^ Hullin 55b
  11. ^ Yerushalmi Berachot 12c; Genesis Rabbah 4:3; Leviticus Rabbah 21
  12. ^ Genesis Rabbah 24
  13. ^ Leviticus Rabbah 24:5
  14. ^ Genesis Rabbah 43:3
  15. ^ Genesis Rabbah 9:2
  16. ^ Shir haShirim Rabbah 5:13
  17. ^ Esther Rabbah 3:1
  18. ^ Genesis Rabbah 19:4
  19. ^ Yerushalmi Berachot 12c; Sukkah 54a
  20. ^ editors, editors (1987). Leviticus Rabbah 1:6). New York.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach (1901–1906). "Tanchuma bar Abba". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) It has the following bibliography:

This page was last edited on 17 August 2019, at 20:39
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