Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Marc Bregman, The Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature: Studies in the Evolution of the Versions (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2003).  Pp. x + 299 (Hebrew), x* + 9*, 2 plates.  Paper, US$65.00.  ISBN 1-59333-095-2.

In the past decade three different translations of all or part of a rabbinic text referred to as “Midrash Tanhuma-Yelamdenu” have appeared.[1] These multiple translations of multiple Hebrew recensions highlight the importance of the volume reviewed here. Marc Bregman tackles the complex issue of the relationship of the preserved editions of Midrash Tanhuma-Yelamdenu and the hundreds of text witnesses. 

The volume, essentially a xerographic reproduction of the author’s 1991 doctoral dissertation written at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, includes an updated bibliography as well as a new transcription and translation of Cairo Geniza Manuscript Fragment, Taylor-Schechter C146. It excludes a number of appendices to the original dissertation, but is otherwise identical.

Describing Midrash Tanhuma, and the challenges that face modern scholars who treat it, is necessary before discussing how successfully Bregman’s volume resolves them. When used today the name Tanhuma-Yelamdenu refers to a volume of homiletical midrashim organized partially on the basis of a triennial Torah reading cycle. The name Tanhuma appears in a number of medieval sources and derives from the attribution of teachings to the amora R. Tanhuma bar Abba. The name Yelamdenu seems to be synonymous when used in other medieval texts and stems from the frequent appearance of the introductory formula yelamdenu rabbenu. The two preserved versions are those of Solomon Buber, based primarily on MS Oxford Neubauer 154, and the so-called “printed edition” which first appeared in Constantinople in 1523 with the title Midrash Tanhuma ha-Nikra Yelamdenu and was frequently reprinted. A number of individual homilies referred to as Yelamdenu in medieval sources are not preserved in either recension. Earlier scholars posited an Urtext, from which the others borrowed, to explain this phenomenon. The two recensions differ quite radically in the portions devoted to Genesis and Exodus but less so in the sections devoted to Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They contain the expected textual variants (e.g., small variations in orthography and wording) but also substantial differences in the content of narratives and organization. Studies of both texts show a formulaic construction of individual homilies: (1) a halakhic proem followed by (2) one or more classical proems, (3) the body of the homily, and (4) a messianic conclusion. Examples of this form also appear in other rabbinic works. This fact has led, at least in part, to an understanding the term Tanhuma-Yelamdenu as referring to the two versions as well as to a genre or body of literature which also includes Deuteronomy Rabbah, Pesiqta Rabbati, parts of Exodus Rabbah and Numbers Rabbah, and hundreds of manuscript fragments.  In The Tanhuma-Yelammedenu Literature, Bregman successfully attempts the complicated process of analyzing and classifying the material and sorting out the web-like relationships among the texts. 

The book / dissertation is divided into four chapters. In the first Bregman provides a literature review describing the references to Tanhuma-Yelamdenu in medieval works as well as providing an overview of the scholarly work carried by Zunz, Buber, Bacher, Ginzberg, and others in editing the work and describing the transmission of this midrash. He concludes with a discussion of the more recent works on the matter, but, as expected in a work completed in 1991, the review ends with the writings of Avigdor Shinan and Yaakov Elbaum, which appeared in the late 1980s. The second chapter, the most extensive portion of the book, is a descriptive catalogue of some 200 witnesses to Tanhuma-Yelamdenu material, including the texts described above along with variant versions of the Rabbah midrashim and the manuscript fragments. Such texts, Bregman believes, belong to this genre. His choice to include these particular texts is based primarily on textual and literary factors (e. g., Hebrew orthography, the use of Greek and Latin loanwords, formulaic language). Bregman does not shy away from discussing codicological and paleographical issues, but his primary interest is in where and when a teaching developed, not where and when a manuscript was copied. His choice to deal with literary matters allows him to circumvent the problems raised by what sometimes appear to be early traditions preserved in late copies--raising the question of whether we can prove that a tradition is older than our oldest copy.

In the third chapter Bregman provides a case study in order to present an applied method for establishing and describing the relationship among a number of text witnesses to a homily on Exodus 7:8ff. This homily appears in a variety of forms in Cairo Geniza manuscript fragment Taylor-Schechter C146, Tanhuma (Buber) Vaera 11-15, Tanhuma (Printed) Vaera 3-4, 11-13, and Exodus Rabbah Ch. 9.  Bregman concludes that the Geniza fragment preserves the earliest version of the midrash on the basis of its use of Greek and Latin loanwords (which are usually corrupted by later scribes but are well preserved here), its use of Galilean Aramaic, and its complex structure. He suggests that the complexity of the homily in this early version troubled later scribes / editors who then reordered it in order to simplify it. The linguistic argument here is somewhat stronger than the issue of the complexity of the narrative. Sometimes what begins in a complicated manner is explained more simply later, and sometimes simple tales expand. Bregman elsewhere acknowledges this problem (see his discussion of the late strata of Tanhuma-Yelamdenu literature in Ch. 4). Here, however, the combination of proofs provides a solid basis for the conclusion drawn. Bregman suggests that, although the two Tanhuma recensions differ somewhat, they shared a hypothetical Tanhuma model from which they both developed. However, in both cases they borrowed features from other midrashic sources (i. e., not Tanhuma-Yelamdenu) which allowed the “editors” to modify and expand their respective versions. He suggests that the Exodus Rabba version is an attempt to reorganize the homily in the form of an exegetical midrash and is thus likely the latest version of the text.  In the fourth chapter, the author draws some broader conclusions based on the results of his case study. He suggests that the midrashic material he catalogued can be grouped into five divisions representing developmental stages.  The earliest material developed in Byzantine Palestine around the 5th century. This conclusion is based on linguistic phenomena as well as the question of the historical and cultural milieu in which a given narrative might have developed.  The middle stage he describes is somewhat difficult to classify, as he himself points out. In his English abstract he notes that this category includes “the vast amount of Tanhuma-Yelammdenu Midrash which shows no particular signs of earliness on the one hand…or relative lateness on the other.” (p. 4*). This material avoids Galilean Aramaic but still makes use of loanwords. It is in this period that the preserved volumes begin to take form. Interestingly, Bregman adds to his evidence the fact that early seventh century liturgical poets made use of material found in similar forms only in the preserved volumes of the Tanhuma. This, he suggests, proves that the Tanhuma-Yelamdenu genre was already well established before the end of the Byzantine period in Palestine. In the third stage, the late stage, the midrashic traditions found in the earlier versions were expanded by the addition of material that is stylistically different from the forms found in earlier Tanhuma-Yelamdenu material and more consistent with the intellectual products of geonic-era Babylonia (e. g., the inclusion of passages seeming to originate in the Sheiltot). These considerations suggest an editing of formal volumes of the material in the geonic or early Islamic period. Bregman posits that both the recension of Tanhuma on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy preserved by Buber and that which became the printed Tanhuma on the whole Pentateuch were edited at the end of this period, while Buber’s Tanhuma to Genesis and Exodus are likely the product of later European, more specifically Italian, editing. He deduces so from geographical references in the text. The latest development occurred in what Bregman calls “satellite” works. These are texts that borrowed material from the already edited Midrash Tanhuma-Yelamdenu and incorporated it in new literary contexts (e.g., the retelling of the homily on Ex. 7:8 in Ex. Rab. 9).

The results of Bregman’s work are quite convincing. He provides a model of careful, serious text study. This volume should be required reading for those whose scholarly pursuits will take them into the chaotic world of the transmission history of rabbinic texts. The number of works which have cited Bregman’s dissertation prove its importance, but also its previous availability.  This “new” edition unfortunately provides little that is new. Other scholars have shared Bregman’s conclusions in their footnotes and literature surveys and he has published a number of earlier articles as well. This volume presents results the scholarly world has already attributed to Bregman for the past decade.[2]

It somehow seems silly to criticize an author for not writing the book the reviewer would prefer had been written, but here it seems necessary to point out that in 1991, this book was cutting edge. Although no study of this sort has appeared since, much scholarly work has been done and it is unfortunate that Bregman did not choose to a add discussion of these recent developments. Allen Kensky produced a critical edition of the printed version of Tanhuma to Exodus.[3] Bregman suggested this was needed in 1991 and it has been done. Critical editions, or synoptic editions, of other midrashim have become available, studies on the interrelationship of various midrashic texts have continued to appear.  Bregman proves in this volume that he is best suited to comment on these recent developments, and this new edition provided him the opportunity to do so, but he declined.  This criticism is not intended to take away from the great value of Bregman’s study. His scholarship is solid and his conclusions are important. This new edition will fortunately make this fine work more easily accessible to those entering the field. Unfortunately, it provides nothing new for those already toiling in it.

Jason Kalman
Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion


[1] John Townsend has produced a multivolume translation of Solomon Buber’s Hebrew edition [J. Townsend, Midrash Tanhuma Translated into English with Introduction, Indices and Brief Notes (Volumes 1-3, Hoboken: Ktav, 1989-2003); S. Buber, Midrash Tanchuma: Ein agadischer Commentar zum Pentateuch von Rabbi Tanchuma ben Rabbi Abba (Vilna: Romm, 1885)]. Samuel Berman has translated Midrash Tanhuma to Genesis and Exodus from the Hebrew “standard printed edition” (see below) [S. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Versions of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (Hoboken: Ktav, 1996) and three volumes (Exodus 1-2, Deuteronomy) of a pious Hebrew-English edition have appeared [Avrohom Davis, The Metsudah Midrash Tanchuma (Lakewood: Israel Book Shop, 2004)]. These lack any clear indication of the source of the Hebrew text but it is quite similar to the “printed” edition.

[2] See, for example, Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) pp. 302-306. 

[3] A. Kensky, Midrash Tanhuma Shmot (Unpublished doctoral dissertation; New York: JTS, 1991).